16. The Dreadful Lemon Sky

When you’re a pretty young thing who spent some time around Ft. Lauderdale’s Bahia Mar marina in the 1960s or 1970s, and you’re in trouble, and it’s time to bring in the big artillery, whom do you call on? Guess.

McGee’s asleep on the Busted Flush and one of his intruder alerts goes “ding.” He starts awake, prepared for action, only to discover a dainty old squeeze of his huddled in front of his door. It’s Carrie Milligan, who made a poor choice of husband a few years earlier and is now on her own. She’s aged prematurely, showing lots of hard miles. Not drug or alcohol miles, mind you, but simple old tough times. And she’s come to McGee because he’s one of the few people she feels she can trust. What her exact problem is, she refuses to say. She only has one favor to ask of her old lover: Take this hundred grand in cash money, keep it safe, and if I should happen not to come back in the next few weeks, get it to my kid sister. McGee accepts the sizable wad for safekeeping, for a cut of ten grand. He politely declines a nostalgia bonk and offends the lady. But he shelters her for a night. Then she’s gone.

Of course, Carrie doesn’t return.

Meyer spots the report in the back pages of a newspaper: Young woman struck dead by truck on a country road near the coastal town of Bayside, after running out of gas. Carrie Milligan. (If you recall, JDM used a similar device back in Darker than Amber—a hooker smashed to pulp in a terrible auto “accident.”)

Naturally, an occurrence like this fails to fly with our man Trav. Coincidence? Almost certainly bullshit. Besides, the late Carrie paid him ten large and he aims to earn it. He and Meyer fix up the Flush for a “road trip,” and start putt-putting their way toward Bayside.

When the two men dock the Flush at the marina in Bayside, they walk into a festering stew of scandal and mystery and deadly violence.

Soon after their arrival the marina owner’s drunken, pugnacious husband blunders in and assumes that Trav is coming on to his wife. A quick, brief brawl ensues as Trav defends himself and sends drunken hubby to the hospital—where the guy surprisingly dies. (It’s murder, actually.) As Trav and Meyer start digging into Carrie’s situation in Bayside, the nasty circumstances come bubbling up. Her former place of employment is going belly up; one of its owners has apparently vanished with a bundle from the corporate treasury. The theory the survivors have is that Carrie was in on the scam with the owner.

As for the accident, things don’t add up. Meyer discovers that the gas tank of Carrie’s car had been tampered with, to drain out gasoline and strand the young woman out on the road. There are clues inconsistent with an accidental stumble out into the deadly traffic lane. A purse left in the car. (In the 1970s, at least, what woman would go ambling out in the middle of the night, seeking gasoline, without her purse?) There’s also evidence that someone was in the car with her—who may have administered a hearty shove somewhere between Carrie’s shoulder blades.

Carrie Milligan’s trail goes deeper and darker yet, when Trav discovers where her big wad of cash actually came from. Carrie, the disappeared boss, and a few others were pot smugglers. Not pros, but successful enough to make some nice walking-around money. Could an outside operator have come in and applied a Darwinian solution to the small-timers?

Not least, Trav and Meyer consider the “hidden body” theory of astronomy to the situation. Is there some unknown person or organization whose gravity distorts the orbits of everyone else? The best candidate is a local attorney who pops up at almost every turn, “Ready” Freddy Van Harn—an up-and-coming political figure and rapacious, kinky lady’s man.

When one of Carrie’s friends appears on the Flush one rainy evening, bearing a brown package that she’s just received, Trav has little reason to worry as she starts to open it. But then, KA-BOOM

And five days later, McGee wakes up in the hospital.

(Lately, I’ve been thinking about bumps on the head and the neurological fates of old football players—much in the news lately. And quite apart from his brief pro football career, poor Trav suffered concussion after concussion in the execution of his duties as a fictional hero. I wonder if JDM ever pondered the notion of a 60- or 70-year-old McGee toodling around a care center somewhere, forgetful and incontinent. In the real world, that might indeed have been the fate of knights in rusted armor.)

Once he’s recovered somewhat, rather than doing what any sensible person like you or I would do—call it a day and cruise home to Lauderdale—McGee begins anew with the poking of sticks into hornets’ nests. And he’s ultimately rewarded with the unmasking of not one, but two malefactors.

On both occasions, the rangy boat bum feels the cold chill of the grim reaper blow by him very closely indeed. One baddie dies grotesquely, horribly, and (ironically) quite inadvertently. The other, the bomber of the Busted Flush—having ambushed and murdered an admirable local cop right in front of McGee—has his ankles shot out by our hero. McGee almost pops a cap between the hobbled villain’s eyes. But he reconsiders, due to all the trouble and grief that such an action might bring to his discreet lifestyle.

In Lemon JDM has crafted one of the top middle-pack McGees. It has Byzantine dealings in a small, corrupt Florida town. It has drug money and power-structure money and political influence all sloshing around. It has a gorgeous widow woman falling into the sack with McGee. It has Meyer, with his wit and wisdom and super-hot chili recipe. It has drug-running. It has the Busted Flush in a semi-starring role—severely damaged in the bombing, then rising heroically from the ashes, so to speak. It has dark, dark violence and hidden emotion. It has a nifty, convoluted plot. And, of course, above all, it has McGee.

Lemon simply has everything you’d want from a first-class crime/suspense novel.

When I’m reading these books, I often turn to my wife and read a passage out loud. Then I usually observe, re. JDM, “Man, that son of a bitch could write.” Here are a few more examples of his mastery, from The Dreadful Lemon Sky.

“Guilt is the most merciless disease of men. It stains all the other areas of living. It darkens all skies.”

“The world looked strange. There were little halos around the edges of every tree and building. I did very deep breathing. It is strange to sleep for five days and five nights and have the world go rolling along without you. Just like it will keep on after you’re dead. The wide busy world of tire balancing, diaper changing, window washing, barn dancing, bike racing, nose picking, and bug swatting will go merrily merrily along. If they were never aware of your presence, they won’t be overwhelmed by your absence.”

“The bed was by big windows. The draperies were open. The storm moved closer. The lightning flashes were vivid. Each one made a still picture of her in black and white. Black eyes and lips and hair and nipples and groin. White, white, white all the rest of her. The lightning arrested movement. It caught her in a fluid turning, mouth agape with harsh breath and effort. It froze a leg lifting. It stopped her, astride, arms braced, halting the elliptical swing of hips, turning her into a pen and ink drawing of greatest clarity.”

“A mockingbird flew over, singing on the wing, a melody so painfully sweet it pinched the heart. I do not want to leave the world of mockingbirds, boats, beaches, ladies, love and peanut butter from Deaf Smith County.”


12 thoughts on “16. The Dreadful Lemon Sky

  1. every time i go to the beach panama city Travis is there with me. My son in afhghanistan an officer in the 101st airborne on the pakistani border i sent him the first 4 he has started reading the 1st 3 . the first one i read was the green ripper. since then ive collected em all hard and soft back no one could write like him. when i win the lottery see me at bahia mar for the cold tuborg beer. thankyou ive read everone at least 4 times. movie coming soon hope they find a real man no sum pc correct wimp. Thanks for sending post

    • Hope you and your son are both doing well. The Tuborg in Lauderdale sounds great. Keep me informed. Re. the movie, I hope to heck that Leo di Caprio does not turn out to be Trav in the movies, as was discussed a couple years ago. A good actor, but totally wrong for Trav. I see Liam Neeson (though a bit old now) or maybe Chris Hemsworth (maybe a bit too young). It’s gotta be a big guy.

    • That’s way easier than McGee, Gregory. Saul Rubinek. (He’s currently on Warehouse 13.) Meyer is made for him, and he for Meyer. One of my favorite character actors. Do you have any other ideas?

  2. Interesting about Stephen King writing McGee. One of the great storytellers of our time and one of the few who might have done MacDonald justice. I find your image of an injured and old Travis interesting as well. I have a theory that, had JMD more time, he would have written Black,with an ending from Meyer’s perspective (or perhaps the whole book). MacDonald had a dark soul about McGee and I believe that a valiant and worthwhile death might have been in his near future. The lightening of the storyline and the closing of the loop with Silver made me feel he was headed that way. I enjoy your essays.

    • Jason, thanks for your kind comments. It’s been fun doing this blog; and I hope to keep it going in some form. Re. JDM killing off McGee, that certainly would have been a worthy conclusion. But I believe at some point he said he didn’t know if he had the heart to pull the plug on his hero. Of course, we’ll never know. In any event, Silver was a very worthy final act–even if not intentional.

  3. One of the major points in the characterization of Meyer, as he really indulges his fantasy of being a sleuth like McGee. I think that aspect of Meyer’s character grows greater and greater as the next few volumes roll out.

  4. I recently finished “The Dreadful Lemon Sky” and realized that it was the first Travis McGee, perhaps the first John D. MacDonald novel I ever read. My Mother gave it to me in hardback. She was voracious reader and I think she got it from one of her book clubs.

    I did not inherit her ability to bust through a novel in a day or two, but I did get her love of books. In my early years in the Navy, I always had a paperback in my back pocket. Today, much of my library is in the Kindle app of my phone.

    After being introduced to the series in the mid-70s, I started collecting the previous books and eagerly anticipated the new ones. By the early 80s, I had collected and read all up to “Free Fall in Crimson.” I collected other MacDonald titles while waiting for further installments of McGee.

    I was in Japan when I learned that John D. MacDonald had died. I felt like I had lost a close friend or family member.

    Back to “The Dreadful Lemon Sky,” this is my fifth or sixth time through the series (the 2nd in e-form). I like to start at “The Deep Blue Goodbye” and read them chronologically as published. But I think “Lemon” is an excellent installment to introduce someone to Travis McGee. It has it all: mysterious request from a friend and subsequent death, investigation, characters, side trips into action and commentary on the state (small ‘s’) of Florida, love interest, climax, twists and epilogue. The Busted Flush, McGee’s 52′ houseboat home plays a prominent role and suffers a serious injury. Newcomers will have to wait to meet Miss Agnes, McGee’s electric-blue Rolls Royce pick-up.

    We do have our knight errant in tarnished and dented armor examining himself and motives. He does admit, “When did I claim to be any kind of consistent? Or even reasonable?” I love MacDonald’s writing and the voice he gives to McGee.

    Reading today’s reviews make me giggle to think that Mom introduced me to Travis McGee. Today’s political correctness would certainly lead some reviewers criticize the books and to discourage people from reading them. The reviewers don’t and may never understand the times. I wonder if they apply the same PC thinking to Jane Austen or Downton Abbey.

    • John, thanks for your memories of McGee readings past and the place that Trav and JDM have in your life. These books sure do cast a spell, don’t they? But the PC angle definitely is something that has to be mentioned to new readers. My wife and I have a very well-read friend who had never heard of McGee. I loaned her some of the books. She said she couldn’t stand the one she did read. Trav, she said, reminded her of some men she knew when she was young. Not a happy memory for her.

  5. Dreadful Lemon Sky is one of my favorites. For years I’ve thought that it would be the best entry point to the series for new readers since it had generous portions of Meyer, The Busted Flush, a decent mystery, and great observations about society and culture. I hope this blog is still active, I just discovered it last night and can’t wait to connect with other McGee fans!

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