Take a married couple you know pretty well. Two people whom you have no reason to distrust or disbelieve.
Yet the young wife is convinced that her new husband intends to kill her. Indeed, he allegedly has made one attempt already, but failed to carry it through. The other woman he secreted away on the wife’s boat, whom the wife thought she photographed, wasn’t in the prints she got back. The young wife exhibits signs of paranoia and mental instability—which she readily acknowledges. But she still holds to her assertion that murder is in her future.
The young husband is utterly at a loss to explain his bride’s increasingly disturbed behavior. Now alone on her boat, he’s devastated, close to tears. He loves her, would never knowingly harm her. The bimbo she claimed was hidden away on the sailboat/cruiser? Paranoid fantasy. The murder attempt? A simple accident, a potentially tragic tumble overboard into the waves. His wife needs professional help.
Now imagine that you’re Travis McGee—knight errant in rusty armor, righter of miscellaneous wrongs—flying into Honolulu to confront just such a baffling situation. That’s how JDM opens The Turquoise Lament (1973).
The bride, Pidge, is the daughter of an old friend. She’s the one who sent out the SOS. Back when McGee knew her late dad, the pretty teenager had a huge crush on Trav. Indeed, one time she stowed away on the Busted Flush, planning for a romantic cruise with the strapping salvage consultant. Trav returned her untouched, spitting and fuming, to her old man. But dad—with whom Trav worked a treasure salvage operation—died in a gruesome traffic accident, and Pidge ends up with the not insignificant estate and the sailboat/cruiser. She meets her future husband, good-natured Howie Brindle, and the fairytale proceeds. That is, until it turns into a melodrama.
Amateur shrink McGee debriefs Pidge and manages to wrangle her to the epiphany that her semi-breakdown was not due to a subtle plot against her life, but to her deep dissatisfaction with her groom. The marriage had been a rebound kind of thing for Pidge. Howie, a decent guy, was just not the man for her. The isolated months aboard the boat merely concentrated and distilled her unhappiness into a bitter liquor of near-insanity. Time to tell poor hubbie the bad news. The big D’s comin’ your way, Howie.
Before departing Honolulu, McGee—not to his credit—relents to Pidge’s long-held desire to bed him. Then it’s back to Lauderdale and an odd, disjointed Christmas season that is not at all jolly. People are dying in accidents and even McGee’s sidekick Meyer keels over after a swim in the ocean. A serious viral infection, many days in the hospital—where McGee keeps an eagle eye on him. The hairy economist has a close call, but survives. Into this uneasy time comes the beginning of a suspicion that McGee made a mistake back in Honolulu.
One of the treasure-hunting crew that McGee was a part of with Pidge’s pop turns up on the Busted Flush. That old comrade is now the proprietor of one of the top treasure-hunting outfits and a project has come his way. What makes it a matter of moment is that it seems to have come from the treasure-site research of Pidge’s dad, a retired professor. That material—potentially worth many millions—was nowhere to be found after the professor’s death. Could one of the financial/legal professionals who had helped handle the professor’s estate have purloined the research? Then waited a decent interval before attempting to utilize it? Someone who couldn’t have known McGee’s old comrade had worked with the author of the vanished research?
Things take an even more ominous turn, when McGee learns that good ol’ Howie Brindle knew one of those lawyers who had helped Pidge. And that another young woman who had had a relationship with good ol’ Howie had disappeared. And that bimbo whom Pidge had “imagined” and photographed? She was a real girl who apparently was nowhere to be found. Lots of circumstantial evidence, you say. But what nails it are those pictures, which Pidge gave to Trav. The prints had been tampered with—the three showing no girl on the empty deck had come from another roll of film.
McGee follows the trail of theft and fraud that put the professor’s research in evil hands—even to the tune of torturing the key malefactor. Trav’s detective work furthermore discovers that unexplained accidental deaths had a way of cropping up in the vicinity of good ol’ Howie when he was a teenager. Good ol’ Howie is sure looking like a “bug,” a slippery homicidal psychopath with an engaging smile and manner.
At this very moment Pidge and good ol’ Howie are ferrying her boat across the Pacific to a potential buyer in American Samoa. It didn’t take much paranoia to imagine how good ol’ Howie might finalize his divorce out on the open sea. At last, it’s time to decamp to the South Pacific—to see if the new Grendel can be conquered and the princess saved.
While The Turquoise Lament has most of the perquisites of a good McGee yarn, it seems to me that its proportions and pacing are off. The second act—as Trav goes sleuthing, uncovering both the bloody history of good ol’ Howie, as well as the theft of the treasure plans—is overblown and bulky. As if JDM was just having too much fun here turning over the rocks to see what crawls out. It’s a masterful case study of an unorthodox investigation. But it insistently begs the question: What about the girl?
Why isn’t McGee booking a ticket to American Samoa sooner rather than later? If this very valuable life is still available for saving, save it! You could reasonably argue that the time it takes for Pidge’s boat to get there from Hawaii gives Trav plenty of elbow room for his complex investigations. But that’s real-world time, and Turquoise ought to exist more in emotional time, in which the girl’s fate is of preeminent dramatic importance.
After all the gyrations of the second act, I almost feel that poor Pidge is not a real person who is loved, but a MacGuffin that drives McGee’s increasingly frenetic machinations. The ending of the book almost supports this theory.
Of course, that’s just IMO. You, the reader, will have to decide whether or not JDM has miscalculated here—both in terms of dramatic structure and pacing. I’d be curious to know what his editor was saying.
Still, caveats and all, there’s much to enjoy. Good ol’ Howie’s a fine, creepy psychopath, almost up there with Junior Allen and Boo Waxwell. Trav’s tender care of Meyer through his illness provides an excellent portrait of true friendship. His sleuthing is clever and produces results. And the final set piece—in which good ol’ Howie gets his comeuppance (a “come-down-ance,” actually)—is deliciously nerve-wracking.
Some McGee-isms from The Turquoise Lament:
“Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will. Integrity is not a search for the rewards of integrity. Maybe all you ever get for it is the largest kick in the ass the world can provide. It is not supposed to be a productive asset. Crime pays a lot better. I can bend my own rules way, way over, but there is a place where I finally stop bending them. I can recognize the feeling. I’ve been there a lot of times.”
“The house takes a cut of every wager. So you can play a close tight game, work out little conservative systems, calculate the odds to several decimal places, and no matter what you do, sooner or later They will bust you, because the house busts everybody. The house percentage does it, sooner or later.”
“The [trailer] park had been there a long time. Shade trees and tropical plantings had grown up around them. The Sunday birds sang. So many ‘Florida’ additions had been affixed to these old aluminum boxes that it was hard to visualize any of them as having once rolled along the open road. The dewheeled village seemed to be trying to nestle itself further into the turf, forgetting old bad dreams of tires, traffic and tolls.”