19. Free Fall in Crimson (Spoilers)

After the orgy of blood and vengeance that is The Green Ripper, Travis McGee’s next adventure begins in a fairly conventional, comfortable manner.

Our knight in rusted armor is at home on the Busted Flush, with his Sancho Panza (Meyer) at his side. They’re consulting with the heir of a wealthy chemist. The potential client hadn’t gotten along with his difficult father, Ellis Esterland.  Now he wants to know about the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. Dad was robbed and murdered at an isolated Florida rest stop, even as he was dying of cancer. A tragic case, of course, but simple and straightforward. Or was it? Something, the son believes, didn’t smell right with the official story. And who better to flush out the truth than ol’ Trav?

After rattling around the Florida hinterlands, checking up on the dead chemist’s last days and personal connections—including the lady who had been his companion/caretaker toward the end—McGee comes up with a couple of useful clues. Clue 1: Tracks at the site of the murder and a witness account suggest that the killer may have traveled on a heavy motorcycle. Clue 2: The dead man’s third and last wife, an actress, was extremely friendly with a film director/auteur who made his name with two low-budget, cinema verité biker movies that utilized real motorcycle gangs.

Naturally, Trav begins to nose around the edges of the biker movement in Florida—to see if anyone in that world knows about the murder of an old man at a remote rest stop. And with a whiff of Hollywood in the air, he goes through channels to track down Lysa Dean. (As you’ll recall, the now-over-the-hill movie siren was Trav’s client way back in Adventure Number Four—The Quick Red Fox. They parted company in a less than amicable manner.) Lysa provides some inside poop on film director Peter Kesner, whose more recent cinematic efforts have not, shall we say, garnered either critical accolades or decent box-office revenue. It seems he’s financing his latest film—and possibly his last chance to reboot his career—with the money Esterland’s wife inherited.

The money trail that JDM lays down here is a bit convoluted. Esterland had set up his estate to go to his wife, in the event that he pre-deceased his daughter. And that indeed was the situation. (The young woman was in a vegetative coma from a bicycle accident.) That spells a motive for murder for a film director boyfriend who needs to finance a flick. At least as far as McGee can see.

Sailing under false Hollywood colors (courtesy of Lysa Dean), Trav makes his way to Peter Kesner’s location in Iowa. The director’s shooting a kind of existential hot-air ballooning movie with Esterland’s actress widow. Here McGee finally meets the biker who appeared in Kesner’s early films—the hulking Desmin Grizzel, aka “Dirty Bob.” I’ll let Trav describe him:

“Unmistakable bland moon face, the fringe of beard now flecked with gray, the small Mongolian eyes, slitted and slanted… Desmin Grizzel stared out at me through those little blueberry eyes set back behind the squinty lids… There was something going on behind those eyes. He was perhaps adding something up, something he had heard, measuring me in all the ways I didn’t fit the present role. Or maybe it was some primitive awareness of a special danger.”

I consider Desmin/Dirty Bob to be a member of a kind of trifecta of evil, an all-star team of malevolence. He’s one of Trav’s three nastiest nemeses, along with Junior Allen (Blue) and Boo Waxwell (Orange). Desmin is like some malign force of nature. And taken by himself, he’s a superb creation of villain-hood.

From here on, a few spoilers will be cropping up. If you’ve never read Crimson, and want to experience the jolts and shocks, stop reading now.

Needless to say, with Trav on location in Iowa, the cat’s among the pigeons. He insinuates himself among the filmmakers, goes for a scenic balloon ride (he really likes it), helps a bit with the shoot, and finally reveals his inside knowledge of the plot to kill the old man. Kesner doesn’t exactly deny that such a thing might have happened, but refuses any personal guilt. Kesner may well have wished out loud that Esterland would drop dead. And Grizzel and his buddy may have simply done the deed as a (wink wink) unrequested favor.

Trav is left in the position of having no proof that would stand up in court, and prepares to report back to Esterland’s son. But on the last day of the shoot, the Iowa locals (well known for their mob violence!?), stage a mass attack on the movie location. It seems that Grizzel and others have been making porno videos with underage farmers’ daughters. Trav escapes the mayhem with Kesner in one of the balloons, and plummets 45 feet to the ground just before the balloon crashes into high-tension wires. Kesner doesn’t make it.

Even Trav, of course, is not going to plummet that far without some injuries. And he takes time to mend. However, now a very loose cannon is out there.

Having lost his mentor and pal Peter Kesner—and on the run from the law—Desmin Grizzel goes on a rampage of revenge against those he blames. People are killed in Iowa. Lysa Dean is brutally raped and murdered. Then the biker comes for McGee.

When Grizzel boards the Busted Flush, he gains entry by means of Meyer—whom he has broken in some terrible way that is not explicated. The very foundation of Meyer is shattered. The cost of being McGee’s best friend has never been higher for the hairy, old economist. But McGee is ready for the onslaught, with the help of some professional muscle. Even then, putting down his latest Grendel is a close, close thing.

Okay, enough with the book report. Now, IMO.

When I started re-reading Crimson a few weeks ago, I was prepared to say that I don’t like the book. I have not ever liked it. In fact, it is the one McGee adventure that I will not read again.

So what is it about Crimson that gets under my skin?

Like its soul mate and predecessor, The Green Ripper, Crimson is a brutal, depressing book. And the turning of that brutality onto Meyer and, to a lesser degree, Lysa Dean, simply turns me off. For me, it’s a deal-killer. I think the story could have been told effectively without these occurrences. What is the point of murdering a nymphomaniac, over-the-hill movie siren in the nastiest way possible? I fail to see what’s gained by gutting Meyer. Keep in mind, at the beginning of the next book a year later, he is still a shattered man, still hollowed out.

Why not let Lysa Dean enjoy a narrow escape? Why not have Grizzel, in his very good disguise, come aboard the Flush without Meyer?

In addition, the whole rabid Iowa mob attack thing seems way over the top; a big miscalculation on JDM’s part.

I can only speculate, but I wonder if at this point in his life JDM was—as Meyer was in the hands of Grizzel—beginning to look death, to look utter darkness in the eye. Though I have not yet personally experienced the revocation of my “immortality” in the face of some close call or terrible diagnosis, I can well imagine what it might feel like. And JDM apparently wanted to bring this into McGee’s world, just five or six years before his own death.

That, of course, is the author’s prerogative. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to like that JDM, in a manner, went off the McGee reservation with both Crimson and Green. I expect some readers of this blog will disagree, and that’s fine. I’d love to read comments about Crimson both pro and con.

An interesting sort of postscript is that JDM—even as Green garnered an Edgar award and won the National Book Award for best mystery—was not happy with Green. He’s quoted in Hugh Merrill’s biography, The Red Hot Typewriter: “Green Ripper was, in retrospect, a mistake.”

I think that Crimson was, too.