It’s a bittersweet thing, starting to read The Lonely Silver Rain (1985).
Because we readers know something that JDM didn’t realize in creating the 21st novel in this peerless series: That this would be the last adventure for our knight in rusty armor.
After Silver, no more Grendels for McGee to hunt and defeat. No more wounded ladies to heal. No more rhapsodies and Jeremiads on the slow death of Florida’s natural world. No more hair’s-breadth escapes. No more parties aboard the Busted Flush. No more Boodles (or Plymouth) on the rocks at the end of long tropical days. All that comes after Silver is a wordy chat between Trav and Meyer about books and reading—an eccentric epilog that hardly counts. Then, silence.
I can’t say I much like the idea of a world without Trav out there somewhere. Getting on in years, but still hunkered down on the Flush. Perhaps at some obscure little marina in the Keys or up the west coast. Retired from the salvage business—reluctantly collecting Social Security and Medicare—but still available to consult on strategy and tactics. Walking slowly, with two bum knees. Finally settled down with one lady who manages to not get herself murdered, or die of some terrible disease, or wander off out of apathy. We don’t know her name, but we would like her. With frequent visits from a now-white-haired Meyer and others who love him. I guess that we can dream he’s still with us, like Elvis.
As for Silver, I wouldn’t argue the point if you said it was the best of the twenty-one—and an unintentionally apt conclusion to the McGee epic. (I wouldn’t argue if you said the numero uno was Blue or Gray, either.)
The yarn gets under way in typical McGee style, with an old chum coming to our guy for help with a salvage project. It seems that Billy Ingraham’s new, custom, 54-foot cruiser was stolen right out from under his nose—as he and his wife lounged on an isolated Florida beach. It’s been gone for months and no one has been able to find it. Would McGee give it a shot?
Trav’s a little reluctant at first. Locating a boat like this in Florida is like hunting for a particular grain of sand in the Sahara. But an aerial photo of the cruiser gives him an angle. Seen from above, Ingraham’s vessel looks vaguely like an elongated smiley face; a unique configuration. Trav puts an aviator pal on the job, shooting pictures of marinas hither and yon. After peering at thousands of pleasure boats, McGee and Meyer spot the Sundowner. It’s at a tiny marina on Big Pine Key.
Of course, by the time McGee gets to where the boat was when it had its picture taken, it’s gone. He puts his flyer back in the air, cruising the nearby islands and inlets—in case the Sundowner hasn’t gone very far. And they hit pay dirt again. She’s tucked away in some mangroves just a dozen miles northwest.
When Trav arrives on the scene, it’s a horror show. Carrion flies are zooming in and out of the Sundowner, and the stench of death is blooming in the hot, muggy air. Inside are the teenaged boy and girl who stole the boat, and another unknown girl. Clearly, they were involved in some kind of drug deal gone horrifically bad. Our hero vamooses out of there and anonymously notifies the Coast Guard. The Sundowner is ultimately returned to Billy Ingraham, who claws back some of his costs and pays Trav. But this yarn is far from over.
Someone out there figures out the identity of the anonymous tipster. And sends Trav a little letter bomb—that propitiously explodes elsewhere, to the detriment of some young thieves. Then, soon after, Billy Ingraham dies while on holiday in France. Someone slipped a piano wire in through the corner of his eye. The whodunit is solved, more or less, by his widow—a former paramour of top-level Miami drug dealers. She calls an old lover who knows the coke trade. The key to everything is the second dead girl, who turns out to have been the beloved niece of a Peruvian drug lord. Anyone who had anything to do with the Sundowner is now a target for revenge. Trav tries, unsuccessfully, to get a message to the bad guys: “I didn’t do anything! I’m innocent.” But it doesn’t get through. Another attempt is made, and three would-be assassins learn that ol’ Trav’s not to be trifled with.
In the midst of all this, someone’s messing with McGee’s head—leaving strange little gifts for him on the Flush. Pipe cleaners twisted into cat shapes. He can’t make any sense of them, and he sure doesn’t like it.
It takes a trip to the Yucatan with a DEA agent (long story) for Trav to learn who’s behind the hit campaign. Here follows a spoiler of sorts…
The story of the murdered kids is this: The boat thieves carried two loads of coke back from Mexico. The second time, the boy paid the supplier with bogus bills and kept the seventy-five grand that his American boss had given him—thinking himself very clever. His American boss is the son of a major Miami Mafioso and responds by killing the boy and his two companions. Ruffino Marino, Jr., had no idea the second girl has Peruvian drug connections. When he finds out, he tags McGee and Billy Ingraham: Trav and Billy killed the kids as revenge for the boat theft. Then the young Mafia guy sets hit men on them to placate the Peruvians.
McGee manages to get the truth to the people who count, removing himself from the line of fire. And a bloody war breaks out between the old mobsters and the South Americans. In the midst of this chaos, the young mafia guy goes to ground—the one the Peruvians really want. With the help of a mafia hit man who’s on the run because of the mob war, Trav tracks down Marino and delivers him to a friendly lawman tied in a bow. Actually, Trav glues Marino’s hands, thighs, and lips together with super glue. And he makes sure word gets out to the proper people: Here’s where you will find the killer/rapist of the drug lord’s niece.
But the McGee epic is not quite done. There’s one more mystery to solve: Who’s leaving those pipe-cleaner cats? And why?
For the answer to that, you’ll have to read Silver yourself. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling your fun.
By the very end, Trav’s equanimity and optimism have been restored. The Flush is “north up the Waterway to a place where it opens into a broad bay. I have dropped the hooks at a calm anchorage well away from the channel and far enough from the mangrove coast to let the south breeze keep the spring bugs away.” The old barge is packed with friends—partying and drinking and talking. Some of them familiar names from past adventures. Meyer, of course, is present—with cauldrons of his wicked hot chili. Trav’s most recent lady is asleep in the sun.
“I study the amount of tan on her smooth broad back and I peer at the angle of the sun and decide she’s in no danger of burning,” Trav reflects. “In a momentary flash of panic I believe the gaudy boat, the noisy people, everything is dead and gone, imagined long ago and forgotten. It passes.”
What JDM gave us was indeed imagined long ago.
But dead? Gone? Forgotten?
Travis McGee lives forever!
Now where did I put my copy of The Deep Blue Good-By?
Despite its upbeat ending, most of McGee’s swan song is in a glum, dark mood. Here is a typical rumination, which happily proves premature:
“Too many had gone away and too many had died. Without my realizing it, it had happened so slowly, I had moved a generation away from the beach people. To them I had become a sun-brown rough-looking fellow of an indeterminate age who did not quite understand their dialect, did not share their habits—either sexual or pharmacological—who thought their music unmusical, their lyrics banal and repetitive, a square fellow who read books and wore yesterday’s clothes. But the worst realization was that they bored me. The laughing, clean-limbed lovely young girls were as bright, functional and vapid as cereal boxes. And their young men—all hair and lethargy—were so laid back as to have become immobile. Meyer was increasingly grumpy, and sometimes almost hostile. I couldn’t remember the last time I had tried to stop laughing and couldn’t. I could hang around while the rest of the old friends slid away. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had twenty people aboard the Flush at the same time. When the green ripper dropped around and took the Alabama Tiger off for permanent and much needed rest, the heirs had sold the ’Bama Gal to a fellow who moved her around to Mobile. For a time ladies of an overwhelmingly female persuasion had stopped by to ask me where the hell the Tiger had gone. I told them he had died smiling, and they had toted him off to the family plot, and the longest floating house party in the world had at last ended. Always, they wept. The party was over.”