18. The Green Ripper

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?”

11 thoughts on “18. The Green Ripper

  1. It was the first book of the series i read. A friend of mine in the army in Columbus Ga told me to read it . He didn’t get Far 1 Star General and then became undersecretary of the united nations and the book hooked me for life.its easy to be a monday morning quarterback

  2. “Green is the most cautionary and prescient of all the McGee yarns.”
    Yes, eerie. Agree that the latest female had to provide fuel for the next novel, but as a novelist, I know you have to do what’s necessary for the narrative. Still, I missed Gregory Markham from my novel TIMESCAPE enough that I gave him an afterlife in a novella years later… it helped that he was plainly also me, right down to being a physics professor at UC Irvine.
    So it goes.

  3. Picked up two Green Rippers by mistake…making new collection to read next year. Want to give one to friend who’s has (gasp) never read him. Anyone have any thoughts on whether it’s ok for a first time reader to start with this one? Would it be a disaster or no?

    • Not a disaster at all. It’s a taut, powerful story of retribution. But as I pointed out in my “review” of the book, I think it’s a bit of an outlier in the McGee canon; not typical of the series. It’s not one of my favorites. DADDY56, however, started his McGee reading with this book and clearly loves it. Maybe he can weigh in here and advocate for GREEN as the place to start.

  4. Thanks, DR.

    I found your site on GR some time ago, and bookmarked it but found (no problem) that I had to sign in again. May be in the system twice, not sure.

    I’m going to send book off but might find another earlier one. Me? I like to read all series in order and will do so on my third go around with my boyfriend, Travis.

    Have his picture above my monitor. Found it on cover of collection of five books, and it’s the only one I’ve ever seen.

    Was talking with woman at library yesterday about how real characters become to readers and of course, Travis’ name came up from my mouth! He’s always been real to me and call recall small details without looking them up. (Know I can’t compete with you though. Obvious with this site.)

    Love this site, it’s my ‘go to’ site for all things Travis.

    Thanks so much. Cathy

    • Cathy, I’m glad you enjoy TRAVIS MCGEE & ME. It’s been a labor of love for me for four and a half years now. I plan to wrap up the McGee reviews next summer, then start picking away at some of the non-McGee books by JDM (over 40 of those to choose from); and maybe the best of the McGee clones. I’ll also be turning the McGee reviews into a little e-book. Stay tuned. And please keep checking back in here for the great comments from other readers.

      • DR: Enjoy all things Travis (and JDM) and really appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into the site.

        Been reading Randy Wayne White, although have really enjoyed too much, his last three/four. But have seen him about five times and heard him tell a personal story about JDM. White’s Doc Ford is in Sanibel, with White now living in Cape Coral I believe.

        Have you ever heard it? Quite funny.

        Again, thanks for site. Great job and will be looking forward to ebook. Cathy D.

      • Cathy, I’ve read most of the Doc Ford books and saw White at a local bookshop a few years ago. I remember him telling a story about dropping in on JDM at his home in Sarasota. Is that the story you’re referring to? I don’t recall the details. Maybe you could retell it here. D. R.

  5. I’ll do that and yes, that’s the story. Thanks for reminding me though, it was Sarasota where JDM lived. Couldn’t recall where.

  6. Yes it was Sarasota, on Siesta Key, a perfect spot to watch Old Florida being bush-hogged into New Jersey With Canals by every Northern two bit, quick buck developer who blew into town.
    Sarasota was a much smaller, more tightly knit community in JDM’s day. Some of my older friends here knew him well and have great stories.
    Meyer’s observation about why Florida’s ever expanding population can’t get a political consensus for preservation is the truest summation I’ve ever seen.
    And I maintain killing Gretel off was not necessary as a plot device. Any number of dear old lovable best of friends could have been introduced for a chapter or two, then cruelly murdered to provide the hook. Not Gretel. She needed to live for the series to grow, and I wonder if JDM ever regretted killing her off.

    • Andrew, thanks for your comments and kind words, and welcome. I couldn’t agree more about JDM killing off Gretel. I believe Trav going forward with Gretel for several books, exploring extended monogamy for a change, would have been far more interesting than where JDM went in the last three books. JDM himself is quoted as saying that Green was a mistake, even though it won a major book award. He was right. He denied McGee the chance to truly grow and become a better man, though he hinted at it at the very end of Silver. (We all know why, but I won’t have that spoiler in the blog.)

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