20. Cinnamon Skin

The penultimate McGee adventure begins with Meyer still in a deep funk, after his emasculation by Desmin Grizzel, many months earlier.

So, to boost his Sancho Panza’s spirit, McGee and some friends finagle him a little secret morale boost: An invitation to speak at a conference in Canada. While the hairy economist is away, his niece Norma and her groom Evan Lawrence take over the John Maynard Keynes for a few days of fishing and sight-seeing. On their final cruise, they are blown up by a powerful bomb. A radical group supposedly from Chile announces that it had targeted Meyer because of his collusion with the Pinochet regime.

Of course, that’s not what was really behind the triple murder. Nor was the murder really what it seemed. McGee manages to track down photos of the Keynes from moments before the explosion. Yes, Meyer’s niece is in the shots, in her tiny bikini. Yes, the hired captain is there on the bridge. But where the new husband should be there’s a fellow who does odd jobs around Bahia Mar. No sign of the husband. Might he have been below decks? Maybe. But why, then, was a second hand needed? Hubbie could have handled the tasks.

The plot thickens when Trav joins Meyer in Houston, where the economist is settling his niece’s estate. Her attorney reveals that her not insubstantial nest egg had been mostly cashed out before her death. Husband Evan is looking to be a murderous con man. As McGee and Meyer follow the sparse trail that Evan left, they discover that he may indeed be a “black widower.” When the owner of the real estate company that employed him turns gray and retches at seeing his photo, because the guy murdered his sister… Well, our two heroes know what has to be done.

In the midst of all this, McGee’s current paramour, hotel manager Annie Renzetti, dumps him. She’s about to be given a big promotion and transfered to a much larger resort in Hawaii, and Trav isn’t about to transfer with her. Here, once again, JDM depicts the cost of Trav’s fantasy life when it encounters someone who lives in the real world. He’s understandably wounded (see quote below), but it seems too late for him to change.

Trav and Meyer put on their detective caps and begin to trace Evan’s history, based on scraps of conversation that he made back at Bahia Mar. Meyer finds likely candidates for the young Evan in photos in old Texas college yearbooks. (Evan spoke of living in Texas as a young man.) Then they go looking for someone who sold cement garden lanterns in Texas a generation ago—which Evan described shilling. And they find one of Evan’s early hits; or at least they find one of his aliases. Seems that a beloved kid sister vanished with him, never to be seen again.

Finally, the two sleuths hit pay dirt. Evan turns out to have been a kid named Cody Tom Pittler, who grew up in a Texas border town. He has been on the lam ever since he witnessed his father murder his stepmother, with whom Cody was in flagrente delicto at the time. He, in turn, apparently shot his father. This revelation leads to a trip to New York to talk with Cody’s sister, who receives occasional care packages of cash from her brother. She leads our guys back to a go-between in Texas. And that woman, albeit very reluctantly, points them to a name and address in Cancun.

Cody/Evan turns out to be living in a compound down there, where he stays for months at a time. Except for his fishing jaunts and his long absences out of town—presumably when he’s on the hunt for the gold of his next wife. He remains extremely dangerous, having just murdered an old business partner who apparently knew too much. Trav and Meyer are working with the partner’s devastated fiancée—a woman of Mayan extraction who helps them set up the endgame. She is Barbara Castillo, she of the cinnamon skin.

Now it begins—the hunter becomes the hunted. But as is often the case in McGee adventures, things don’t play out as planned. The situation goes to hell and the good guys have to scramble to survive.

After the uber-violent outliers of Green and Crimson, Cinnamon definitely takes us back into the mainstream of the McGee saga. It’s a tale of revenge and detection—fairly straightforward by the standard of most McGee tales. It’s such a workmanlike yarn, that it gives no clue that McGee’s last hurrah is rapidly approaching. And why should there be premonitions of the end? JDM at this point (1982) probably thought that he would be writing McGees for another decade or two.

(A big sigh from the blogger. Think! Another eight or ten adventures. Emerald and Fuschia. Jade and Maroon. Black and Ochre. Coral and Beige. Plum and Salmon. How great would that have been, even if Trav would have had to slow down and acknowledge the weakening of the muscles and reflexes? His wits would have been more than enough.)

I wouldn’t put Cinnamon in the very top rank of McGee novels. (My faves remain Blue, Gray, Lavender, Copper, and Silver.) But it’s an impeccable, super-solid, page-turning piece of crime fiction that JDM could be proud of; and that any first-time reader can use to launch his/her exploration of the McGee canon.

A few quotes from Cinnamon:

“Then came the hard part. I had suffered loss. I had been rejected. I was the lover cast out. I was alone. And when I tried to plumb the depths of my grief and my loss, I came finally upon a small ugly morsel way down in the bottom of my soul. It was a little round object, like a head with a grinning face. It said ugly things to me. It kept telling me I was relieved. I strained for the crocodile tears, but the little face grinned and grinned. It shamed me. ¶ And as I unlocked my houseboat and got ready to go back to bed, I realized that Annie had perhaps suspected that the little ugly feeling of relief and release would be there. We are all, says Meyer, in one way or another, large or small, hidden or revealed, rotten at the core.”

Meyer speaking about his murdered niece: “I never really got to know her. I should have made the effort. But she had a very busy life. We all think of the inconvenience of making an effort. We’re all going to do the right things a little later on. Soon. But soon slides by so easily. Then we vow we’ll try to do better. We all carry that little oppressive weight around in the back of our mind—that we should be living better, trying harder, but we’re not. We’re all living just about as well as we can at any given moment. But that doesn’t stop the wishing.”

“Soon the bosses of the microcomputer revolution will sell us preprogrammed units for each household which will provide entertainment, print out news, purvey mail-order goods, pay bills, balance accounts, keep track of expenses, and compute taxes. But by then the future managers will be over on the far side of the thickets, dealing with bubble memories, machines that design machines, projects so esoteric our pedestrian minds cannot comprehend them. It will be the biggest revolution of all, bigger than the wheel, bigger than Franklin’s kite, bigger than paper towels.”