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.

53 thoughts on “19. Free Fall in Crimson (Spoilers)

  1. First of all, I agree with most of what you say but have wanted to express a thought about the last half dozen McGee’s that are in a similar vein.
    I found MacDonald’s need to mature Travis, to make him more “world weary”, even more introspective than his norm to be a subtraction to the works, not an addition.
    Two remarks, one made by MacDonald, and one by his son, Maynard: MacDonald once said that he would never have published a final McGee because it wouldn’t be fair to his readers. He felt that future readers would feel cheated in some way to know the character rides into some form of “mortal sunset”.
    Then, just this past year JDM’s son Maynard cited why he would not allow the McGee series to be continued with another writer, even turning down JDM’s old friend, Stephen King’s offer to do so. Maynard said that even a great writer like King would write a fine book but would never be able to capture the human “essence” of the original.
    So, it is ironic that much of the Travis “essence”, the joy de vivre that was so prevalent in the earlier McGee’s was diminished by the older McGee, the increasingly skeptical, world weary McGee.
    I missed the old one and sometimes tired of the bemoaning regrets of the older McGee.
    No doubt the maturing McGee was the natural evolution of the maturing, aging JDM, and perhaps the sadness and world weariness could not be avoided if JDM must write “the truth” as he sees it in the here and now.
    Still, I missed the randy, rowdy, slap happy, yet reflective knight errant of the McGee in his thirties (and JDM in his 40’s and 50’s.

  2. I’m pleased to hear you say that. As a fledgling writer (as yet unpublished – and not even close!) I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on JDM’s writing. He is my undisputed favorite writer of all time (have been reading him since ’86. I’m in agreement about Crimson, I’ve now read it only 3 times, where as other McGee books I’ve read many more times. When it comes around as my next McGee I always hesitate. Maybe I now understand why. Green somehow doesn’t have the same bite of darkness, perhaps because it’s personal for McGee – maybe I too sound deranged but I find some small defense in this point for his actions. I have just finished The Neon Jungle and Where is Janice Gantry both I think written much much earlier. The first is about as dark as I want JDM to go, for me it was just not an enjoyable read, so many characters and to be honest none I really cared about. Interestingly from the cover are two praiseworthy reviews from England, home of many a gritty and gruesome tale – which always in my view seem just too gruesome. ‘Janice’ on the other hand shows inklings of McGee in the character and the story is again an investigative one. The character though lacks McGee’s unique observation and dwells a little too much in his own ‘business’. Ah the many layers of JDM.

  3. Of all the series, I believe this is my least favorite, this one and Nightmare in Pink. Because it was a later one, Travis getting older, not sure.

    I believe all authors who write a series over more than say, 15 years, face the same dilemma and all handle it in different ways. I, too, miss the older, earlier Travis and recalled him quickly, Dearel Friend, in your last paragraph. Thanks for that. I enjoyed hearing what you had to say. Great job.

    You, too, DR, keep up the good work! It’s much appreciated and refer to this site at every opportunity because it’s great.

  4. gee whiz. i don’t know. i think Crimson represents MacDonald at the height of his powers. i think it’s a terrific story.

    the only two books in the series i never liked were Blue and Indigo. Blue was clumsy; MacD hadn’t yet really figured out who McGee was, and it shows. and Indigo was tedious.

    sorry, but i think Crimson was one hell of a thrill-ride. one of my favorites.

    • Clem: No need to apologize, I don’t think, for your opinion. No problem here. I’m well aware that what I may like or dislike, others might feel the same or not. Who cares?

      I have some friends, not close mind you, who read romance. I don’t have one near my book shelves and don’t want one either.

      And Gregory, I’ve noticed on more than one occasion that a period in an author’s life is sometimes reflected in his writing a book; maybe not the storyline but a sub-plot or specific references. While I’m not a writer, it seems to me that it would be difficult to totally separate a writer’s life experiences from his (or her) writing. Of course, that’s my opinion.

      D. R. might weigh in on that.

      Enjoying the thoughts and the conversation.

      • i’m reading William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. he talks a lot about how important it was to him to get the audience to take a liking to the protagonist as early as possible, and stated that this was the purpose of the opening scene of “Harper”. one characteristic of the books we’re discussing is how much one immediately grows to like Travis McGee. it’s the one factor that never changes, throughout all 21 books: McGee is my friend.

      • As I said in my reply to Clem’s earlier comment, taste is a funny old thing. How come the other person don’t love what I loves? How come everyone else ain’t sensible about what’s good and what ain’t, like me?

        Re. authors and how they feel. I was under the weather for a few weeks earlier this cruddy winter, and it definitely affected the level of engagement I felt while working on a new novel. My wife noted how my depressed, worried mood came through in the writing. (I will have to fix that in the rewriting.) That though, has more to do with momentary gloom and ennui than the things that JDM might have been facing–his own mortality and the degradation of the Florida he loved.

    • Clem, thanks for your comment… I would only note that personal taste is a funny old thing. You love Crimson, I don’t. You don’t like Blue, but I think it’s a terrific, lean-and-mean intro to McGee’s world. It’s one of my four top faves in the canon. We’re looking at exactly the same objects and reaching opposite conclusions. It’s baffling sometimes, but it sure does make life interesting.

  5. “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.”
    There are hints of this in the non-Travis novels. In CONDOMINIUM the evil condo builders get their comeuppance but there’s a lot of death and destruction to get there. I suspect JDM’s declining health paralleled Florida’s loss of natural habitat and these led to some dark scenes in the later Travis novels.
    I say this because I’ve noted my own visions getting darker as I try to peer forward into the future in novels and stories. I’m 2 years older now than JDM ever was, though in fine health, and to me our future looms darker–though I try to show better worlds to come. After 26 novels this gets harder.

    • There seem to be so many avenues for doom out there these days for humanity, that it must be pretty hard for a science fiction author to keep a stiff upper lip. Let’s see… Bird flu pandemic. Yellowstone supervolcano. Big space rock. Crazy North Korean dictator. Melting the permafrost (not that unlikely, alas). And the list goes on.

  6. i never liked Green Ripper, but if we’re going to talk about the darkness of the later McGee opuses, including Crimson, might they not be viewed as a setup to the wonderful punchline which closes The Lonely Silver Rain, and the whole series? Silver’s really the darkest book of them all, but it’s also the sweetest and most hopeful.

    McGee had to grow up. it would have been ludicrous, and boring, for him to have had the same sort of adventures and the same sort of personality at the close of the series.

    McGee lived in a dangerous world. it makes sense that that world began to weary him as he hit his fifties.

  7. Green ripper was my first McGee book close to 30 years ago and I’ve been addicted ever since I obtained the flick darker than amber about a month ago and it has been a pure pleasure to watch

    Sent from my iPhone

  8. What a great conversation with all of us agreeing that JDM and Travis are great.

    I have told people and said it on Goodreads, that he’s my guy…my first love and Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, sorry, have to step aside for Travis.

  9. To me McGee’s aging was part of the charm of the series. It made it all seem more real (as far as his character goes). How many of us retain the same ideas and points of view as we did when we were young? I’m 46 and began reading these with Tan and Sandy Silence in 1989 (I found a copy in the trash). I have read them all through about three times and am reading them again this year. Every time I do, different ones become my new favorites it seems.

    • I started reading McGee in ’89, as well–only my first was Gray. Trav’s aging is integral to the series, of course; and makes the ending of it all that more bittersweet. What is the fate of an old boat bum and rusty knight errant?

      • Well, we last see him in “Reading For Survival” which was the last thing JDM wrote featuring McGee and Meyer. He seemed to be going along the way he always had at that point.

      • “Reading for Survival”? never heard of it. where can i find it?

        there was a rumor for years that MacDonald wrote a final McGee book, to be published after his death, with black in the title. it was to be narrated by Meyer, and would describe our hero’s death. this was to prevent anybody else taking over the franchise after MacDonald was no longer around to stop it. but i’ve never gotten any confirmation of the story, and, obviously, it has never been published.

      • “Reading” was a little thing JDM did for the Library of Congress, I believe. McGee and Meyer’s final bow. It’s not in print any more, but check your local library. I found a copy at mine, so I could at least read it.

      • Yeah, “Reading For Survival” was one I tracked down years ago. It is really good, but not really an adventure. It has the distinction of being that last McGee/Meyer story ever written by JDM. Now, if only I could get a copy of the Travis McGee Quiz Book, I’d be a happy man!

        I too have heard of the “Black Border for McGee” rumor (totally denied by JDM’s estate). Who knows? JDM wrote a totally different first/introductory McGee novel that he claims to have burned because it was unacceptable. I would love to read that one too. But wouldn’t we all…

      • Dan: I am completely blown away hearing about “Reading for Survival” and the first intro. This is news to me and although I can’t say I’ve read everything about Travis read a lot.

        Just picked up Tan, Lavender and Orange and looked but don’t think I have any of them.

        With the 3rd time around, I decided to keep the books rather than move them on. Tired of buying them again.

        Any more info on “…Survival” and the first info, please let me know. I look for JDM every time go on one of my book buying afternoons with my friend Sandy. Always great day when I buy used books, especially Travis books!

        D.R., were you aware of this?

      • I read “Reading for Survival” a few years ago, Cathy, and I’m planning on it being the brief epilog to my McGee blog posts. I’m not sure how much there is to say about it. But it represents McGee and Meyer’s last words on earth. So, it’s pretty special.

      • i wish i could surgically remove all of these books from my memory, so i could read them again for the first time. i’ve probably read them all a half dozen times. probably too many times. pace yourself, cathy. you don’t want to lose the magic.

      • Read with so much pleasure, “Reading for Survival.” Was so good to read something new and to me fresh from JDM.

        Thanks again for letting me know of this excellent essay. I feel like a dunce not knowing about it.

      • Cathy, RFS, is not widely known, so don’t feel too bad. Like I said, I’m still trying to locate a copy of “The Travis McGee Quiz Book,” that has been long out of print. As a teacher, I love RFS. and I’ve used those arguments a great deal over the years with others. (It also made me read “A Distant Mirror.”

      • Thanks, Dan, for your kind words trying to make me feel better about never seeing/hearing about the essay.

        I’m going to read The Distant Mirror, too, marked it as a ‘to-read’ on Goodreads, which is where I know D.R.

        I heard of the quiz but have never seen it. If I do, I will definitely let you know.

        Great topic for your classroom, just great. Very glad and impressed that you told me that. Good for you!

      • No problem Cathy. I am just thrilled to find like-minded Trav fans! It can be very lonely knowing about this great treasure of literature and having no one to share it with that gets it.

      • Dan: I agree about the sharing…and the greatness of the series. No one can take his place in my heart.

      • Thanks, DR. I’ll look for “Reading…” but don’t expect much from my local library. Downloaded link provided by Dan and will read a little later when I want to “chill.”

        Believe I said it before but will say again; it amazes me that we’re having this conversation on mysteries (genre?) written more than 50 years ago and I’ve read twice now…others reading many more times than I have.

        Never gave it a thought that others felt as passionate about Travis McGee as I have been and still am all these years.


      • DR, you made me laugh. Not sure how anyone could feel more passion about Travis than I do. I have a picture of him from cover of omnibus on my wall above my computer, blown up. I’m in love with the him.

        If I dated a guy, I think I would be unfaithful to Travis! Now that’s pretty passionate, huh?

      • Dan: Glad you don’t but I certainly have enough for both of us when it comes to Travis.

      • Cathy, repeat after me… Trav is a fictional character. Trav is a fictional character.

      • D.R.—I’ve tried, I’ve tried and it doesn’t work! Maybe it’s time for the couch. Not a psych couch, the one on the Busted Flush.

      • Dan:

        This is my year to read Travis the third time and I’m excited. Need to step up my pace though. Moving my next one to my “next to read” bookshelf.

        Agree with you about the aging of Travis. Lord knows we’re all doing it and at the same time. Travis has loved and learned or learned and loved. He’s more thoughtful, I think, l with his aging so gracefully.

        Said it so many times, how much I love Travis.

  10. Dan: Don’t recall “Reading for Survival” so that just makes me believe I should really read the series faster, if only to catch up with you!

    Cheers! Cathy

      • the essay-disguised-as-a-short-story is quite well written, although i take issue with the clichés Meyer spouts about the Bible. it is one of the only instances i can think of where Meyer (i.e., JDM) simply does not know what he’s talking about. but hell, he’s in good company. a lot of intelligent people pontificate regarding Scripture without knowing what they’re talking about. in fact, some people have even dared to level this criticism at me.

        but JDM’s insight regarding the significance of books is profound, and very much worth reading.

        the essay contains no information that would spoil anything, to those who have not yet read the entire McGee canon. i would not put off reading it. particularly if you have children. it will help you to teach them why reading is so important.

      • Clem, I agree, it’s well worth the reading. JDM was fairly conventional in his views of religion and the Bible for the time. He held the typical modern (read modern for the 1960’s) view and was railing against the typical Fundamentalist Bible-thumper view of things, so his arguments were somewhat simplistic in that regard. I don’t think he ever read C.S. Lewis or Thomas Aquinas for instance.

  11. Hi DR, Dan and Clem:

    Pace myself. “Say it three times slowly, Cathy, then maybe you’ll get it.” Well, when I get on that ship again, I’ll try but not sure I can do that, pace myself. Believe I’m going on #3 in the series. Omnibus, that’s what it’s called, the book I bought today and they were three I didn’t have.

    Downloaded the “Reading for Survival” and want to read it now! I feel like ‘everything old is new again’ with this little jewel you’ve clued me in on. Hooray!

    With most gracious thanks to all, Cathy

  12. Clem…just finished A Purple Place for Dying and was looking around the site and came across your comment in April saying there are probably people more passionate about Travis than I am. No, I’m convinced, that I’m the most passionate in the world! I’m fully convinced. You think I live in a fantasy world by saying that?

    • naw, Cathy, you’re not in a fantasy world. i believe you’re the most passionate. i just feel sorry for the guys who try to go out with you. they must come off as awfully ordinary. i hope you treat them kindly when you rebuff them.

      • Clem, I try to guide them gently out the door. Like I said before, my house is not large enough for more than me and Travis. And passionate, I am that about Travis McGee.

        Pretty funny there, friend. Thanks for the laugh today.

  13. DRM, I am in agreement with your comments on CRIMSON–and having just finished it, I’d say it’s my second-least-favorite (My least favorite is PINK: the story seemed contrived and the psychedelic drug references have really not aged well.)

    I have a few thoughts on what’s “wrong” with CRIMSON:

    1- After the intensity of GREEN, JDM may simply have been set for a let-down. (GREEN is far from my favorite, but it’s a massive step in a different direction from the series’s trajectory–an exhausting experience for the reader and, I expect, for the author as well.)

    2- The plot was clunky. JDM is a master of storytelling and pace, and both seemed a bit left-footed here. The chapters and “story chunks” seemed disproportionate, and the “mystery” didn’t really hang together: to pivot from tracks discovered in the bushes to deep undercover with EASY RIDER; the porno stuff seemed like an afterthought and lazy; and the “economics” didn’t hang together as credibly as they do in so many of the other mysteries.

    3- The violence was, as you say, a bit much–and more egregious than thrilling. Part of that was because it was rushed through (Grizzel’s rampage was quick, and much of it “off-screen”), and part was that it didn’t have the deep intensity of some of the other major psychologically broken bad guys Trav has faced before. (My 2 and 3 meet here–the last 30-40 pages of the book felt like they had been written in a single draft, and not polished up and filled out.)

    I also wonder if, and this may be a reach, JDM isn’t also having a sort of change-of-heart as he wrote this book–hence the strange rough treatment of Meyer. As Trav has started to get weary of the world and its changes, is MacDonald getting weary of the mystery/thriller genre? To some extent GREEN and CRIMSON seem to criticize the genre itself by the way they yank us out of the comfortable mood we’ve tended to get into, in a comfortable chair with a McGee in our hands. I’ll need to think more about this line as a make my way through CINNAMON and SILVER. Can’t believe there are only two left. (I have sometimes thought it would be great to have someone else take a crack at a new McGee–but it would have to be a very careful choice, and I don’t like Stephen King as a candidate. I’d choose a more “literary” writer, much as the Fleming estate has been doing with the James Bon series. Or, as I’ve often thought, I’d love to see Garry Disher write a new Stark/Westlake “Parker” novel.)


    • Mark, thanks for your excellent comment. Green and Crimson remain for me the two unfortunate outliers of the series; not a fan of either. I still think killing Gretel was a big mistake on JDM’s part. McGee’s last few adventures would have been much more interesting with her alive. Re. Pink, that was my least fave until I read Green and Crimson. Now I can tolerate it, but rank it low in the series.

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