McGee should be a happy man. And at the very outset of The Green Ripper (1979) he is.
Because, for one of the relatively rare periods in his career, he is in a permanent relationship with an exceptional woman—the stalwart, smart, gorgeous Gretel Howard. You’ll recall her as the woman whose brother played a key role in the dark doings of McGee’s prior adventure, The Empty Copper Sea. Gretel, of course, was innocent of any involvement in that conspiracy.
But Gretel—in addition to being the ideal girl for McGee—is feisty and independent and wants nothing to do with becoming a fixture of the Busted Flush, McGee’s dumpy houseboat. Maybe some day, but not now. She has already been an appendage of her no-good ex and her demented brother. Nix on the appendage bit.
That’s why, at the outset of Green, she’s off working and living at an athletic resort/fat farm in the far burbs of the Miami/Lauderdale metroplex. She manages aspects of the operation and teaches kids tennis. She loves the job but in her last overnight with McGee notes a quirky smell emanating from the place. It seems foreign investors are circling. More ominously, she has had a chance encounter with someone she had seen years before—a member of a radical religious cult, one Brother Titus.
Then the shit starts hitting the fan.
McGee hears from Gretel that one of the resort’s owners—last seen driving Brother Titus around—suffers a fatal bicycle accident. Presumably due to a coronary or stroke.
Then Gretel herself takes ill with some terrible refractory infection that the doctors cannot identify. All that she can suggest as a cause is an insect bite-like lesion. McGee takes up a vigil in the hospital. But Gretel slips into unconsciousness, burning up from the inside. If she even should survive, she would end up a vegetable. Finally, mercifully, her struggle ends.
But the shit is not done flying. Waiting for McGee on the Flush immediately after Gretel’s memorial service are two dour men in suits. They say they are from an obscure federal agency that is investigating the late Gretel’s former employer. Had she told McGee that anything unusual was going on there? Wisely, Trav mentions only that her boss had died in a freak bike accident. The two men thank him and leave.
Meyer, who’s been at Trav’s side throughout this ordeal, goes sleuthing, and finds out about the agency and the two suits. There is no such outfit in the government, nor any federal employees with the names given. Futhermore, a supposed agent of the FAA appeared out at the development, asking after a small blue airplane that landed there—about the time Gretel saw Brother Titus. Another bogus federal suit?
It’s Meyer who makes the leap: Gretel and her boss were murdered because they saw Brother Titus. Had any beans been spilled on the Flush about Gretel recognizing Brother Titus, our knight in rusty armor would very probably have suffered a fatal accident or illness of his own. A strange encounter with real feds confirms Meyer’s epiphany. Gretel’s autopsy had revealed that she was poisoned by means of a sophisticated Soviet assassination technique.
Meyer tries to restrain his friend, telling him it’s unlikely he could ever get his hands on Gretel’s killers. But Trav will have none of that and he goes off the grid—with nothing on his mind but vengeance. He becomes a man called Tom McGraw, an unemployed commercial fisherman, hunting the dusty California back roads for his fictional runaway daughter. The girl took off years earlier, joined some religious outfit out in the woods. “Tom” just wants to see her again.
Then he arrives at the compound of the cult whose operative killed Gretel, where—after a brutal initiation—he is “recruited.” The young people at the camp are undergoing military training for terrorist action. “Tom McGraw” patiently plays the game of building trust, until his hand is forced.
Finally, McGee begins his bloody work—wreaking revenge for Gretel. One by one, the young fanatics go down. Not, of course, without struggle and peril for our hero.
The Green Ripper seems to me an odd duck among Trav’s 21 adventures. Half of the book takes place on home turf and feels more or less familiar. But much of the rest of it unfolds amongst the starry-eyed, fanatic, would-be mass murderers who are members of the Church of the Apocrypha. For McGee and for us, there has been no deeper immersion in the world of the bad guys in the other 20 novels. Green is certainly a compelling read, but it doesn’t really seem like it belongs. It feels to me like JDM got up on the wrong side of his bed one day and started writing. The author, of course, places his boat-bum hero up on soapboxes pretty much constantly. But this one is the biggest soapbox of all; and what is delivered is especially hectoring.
Having said that, I think that Green is the most cautionary and prescient of all the McGee yarns. Here we have an instructive tale from the early days of the age of terrorism. Because JDM—however great his disapprobation—does try to let these terrible people express who they are and why they are planning acts of mass murder and social disruption. The young terrorists who aim to murder innocent hundreds for the good of mankind and at the behest of their religion sound almost reasonable at times. JDM knows how a terrorist cult works.
What I regret most about Green is the road not taken. JDM chose Grand Guignol over the very interesting things that might have transpired with a Gretel Howard who lived. The McGee of Green, while bloody and dramatic, becomes not more interesting, but less interesting. (McGee/JDM almost acknowledges it. See the first quote below.)
Let’s face it, McGee and his serial monogamy and his romping of ladies on leisurely cruises has gotten tired. (The coda of Green is exactly that, and it is not as much fun as it used to be.) A live Gretel might have shaken things up; challenged McGee in ways that he’d never been challenged; forced our favorite boat bum to grow in unaccustomed directions; opened up far more exciting narrative possibilities. Gretel was JDM’s last chance to do such a thing (though of course he couldn’t have known that).
But, as has been mentioned once or twice before in this blog, being close to Travis McGee can be a dangerous thing. Gretel has to die because her murder is the vital narrative device in the book JDM decided to write. No murdered Gretel…no powerful explosion of violence and retribution at the hands of McGee…no Green Ripper. Gretel was a real person in Copper, but here she becomes an object—a lit fuse in a stick of dynamite. It was JDM’s call.
I wish it had been otherwise.
Three passages from The Green Ripper:
“She was destined to be a part of the life that would come after the marina. But she was gone and I was fixed there, embedded in time, embedded in a life I had in some curious way outgrown. I was an artifact, genus boat bum, a pale-eyed, shambling, gangling, knuckly man, without enough unscarred hide left to make a decent lampshade. Watchful appraiser of the sandy-rumped beach ladies. Creaking knight errant, yawning at the thought of the next dragon. They don’t make grails the way they used to. She had deserted me here, left me in this now unbreakable mold, this half-farcial image, trapped me in my solitary, fussy, bachelor hang-ups from now until they turned me off too.”
“…He was draped over a boulder, spread-eagled, hip pockets high. He looked almost normal until I noticed how totally flat his chest was. From front to back he seemed to be about four inches thick. He had huge pale hands. I wanted to see his face, but I didn’t care to roll him off his boulder. I sat on my heels, put a hand under his cold chin, and lifted. He had no visible eyelashes or eyebrows. His fine blond hair was cropped short. One small gray eye was open, the other almost closed. A conspiratorial wink. A little mouth, a delicate little nose, and a face pitted and scarred by the acne of his youth. ¶ ‘And how are you, Brother Titus?’ I asked him.”
“Not much of the fading daylight came in. I sat on a crate purporting to contain electronic equipment. Eleven silent ones. I felt a strange affection for them. They were so docile. This was my own tiny little Jonestown. We had shared together the final climactic emotional experience. Did dark shadows move within the fading electrical charges of the emptied minds? Did the final instant record on continuous replay, over and over, each playing dimmer?”