By Kevin Comer
Following Noreen Walker in Darker than Amber (1966), JDM attempted to depict only one other non-ephemeral African American character in the McGee series. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968), JDM created a motel maid—also named Mrs. Walker—who has several interactions with Travis and proves instrumental in breaking the case. JDM second-guessed himself sufficiently concerning this character to seek feedback from Len and June Moffatt, who published The JDM Bibliophile from their home in Los Angeles.
The Moffatts read the book and Len replied: “We got the impression you wanted to bring the race problem into the novel, and that you were concerned about the way you (and McGee ) handled it … . Would the maid respond to McGee in this way or would she respond some other way? … June suggested we show the pages to some friends of ours who were certain to have some reactions on the subject.”
The friends were an interracial couple, Lil and Kris Neville. Lil was from Watts. Kris Neville wrote in a letter to the Moffatts: “Lil’s … reaction was the impossibility of communicating the situation to Mr. MacDonald in a way that would be meaningful to him, and that any suggestions she would offer would just get him uptight with defense mechanisms and would serve no constructive purposes. I think we all agreed that the portrayal of McGee was of a well-meaning man with an inability to see past the stereotypes he carries.”
In Brown, Travis flies to Fort Courtney, FL at the posthumous request of Helena Pearson Trescott, an older wealthy widow with whom he’d spent a magical healing summer five years before, following the violent death of her first husband, Mick Pearson. Travis received a letter—including a certified check for $25,000—just days after Helena succumbed to cancer, asking him to do what he can to help her eldest daughter, Maureen, who in the wake of a second miscarriage has developed severe psychological issues and attempted suicide several times. Maureen lives in suburban Ft. Courtney with her real estate developer husband, Tom Pike, and younger sister, Bridget, who is helping care for her.
Believing it to be something better left to medical professionals, Travis nonetheless concocts a not entirely implausible story and sets out to find out if there is anything he can do. True to form, he soon finds himself in a hornet’s nest of intrigue and murder.
A pair of amateur sleuths—nurse Penny Woertz and her married lover, attorney Rick Holton—attempt to drug McGee by doctoring his Plymouth in an elaborate ploy to find out if he is involved in the death of Penny’s employer, Dr. Stewart Sherman. The authorities have ruled the death a suicide, but Rick and Penny don’t believe it for a minute. McGee resembles a very tall man seen leaving the doctor’s offices. Is it coincidence that Maureen was Dr. Sherman’s patient?
Hilariously, Travis thwarts the couple, first, by playing opossum, and then inciting a lovers’ quarrel. Not only does McGee subdue pistol-packing Rick, who ends up leaving in a huff, but he beds Penny after opening a fresh bottle of Plymouth. Unfortunately, Penny is found on her kitchen floor with a pair of scissors buried in her throat the next day. The cops brace McGee but he has an iron-clad alibi. He was seen by a motel housekeeper taking a much needed nap at the time of Penny’s death.
Suddenly needing information about the local players, Travis reckons the African-American community that supplies the maids, gardeners, and other menials around town will know who’s who and who’s up to what in Ft. Courtney. And he’s got an idea about who can help him plug into this network.
McGee goes looking for Mrs. Lorette Walker, a maid at the spanking-new, pseudo-Hawaiian Wahini Lodge motel where he’s established his headquarters. He’s already enlisted Lorette’s aid in discreetly dealing with one of her co-workers he discovered unconscious in his room after she’d taken a couple of surreptitious pulls from the doctored bottle of Plymouth. Travis tracks down the initially reluctant and extremely suspicious Lorette in the motel Laundry Room:
It was all too familiar and all too frustrating. It is the black armor, a kind of listless vacuity, stubborn as an acre of mules. They go that route or they become all teeth and giggles and forelock. Okay, so they have had more than their share of grief from men of my outward stamp, big and white and muscular, sun-darkened and visibly battered in small personal wars. My outward type had knotted a lot of black skulls, tupped a plenitude of black ewes, burned crosses and people in season. They see just the outward look and they classify on that basis. Some of them you can’t ever reach in any way, just as you can’t teach most women to handle snakes and cherish spiders. But I knew I could reach her because for a little time with me she had been disarmed, had put her guard down, and I had seen behind it a shrewd and understanding mind, a quick and unschooled intelligence.
I had to find my way past that black armor. Funny how it used to be easier. Suspicion used to be on an individual basis. Now each one of us, black or white, is a symbol. The war is out in the open and the skin color is a uniform. All the deep and basic similarities of the human condition are forgotten so that we can exaggerate the few differences that exist.
Eventually, amiable, wily, convincing Travis breaks through Lorette’s armor. She provides insight into the local law enforcement community and agrees to keep an eye out for information that might help him solve the murder of sweet, klutzy Penny Woertz. A satisfied McGee reflects on their encounter:
Nobody looks far enough down the road we’re going. Someday one man at a big button board can do all the industrial production for the whole country by operating the machines that make the machines that design and make the rest of the machines. Then where is the myth about anybody who wants a job being able to find it?
And if the black man demands that Big Uncle take care of him in the style the hucksters render so desirable, then it’s a sideways return to slavery.
Whitey wants law and order, meaning a head-knocker like Alabama George [Wallace]. No black is going to grieve about some nice sweet dedicated unprejudiced liberal being yanked out of his Buick and beaten to death, because there have been a great many nice humble ingratiating hardworking blacks beaten to death too. In all such cases the unforgivable sin was to be born black or white, just as in some ancient cultures if you were foolish enough to be born female, they took you by your baby heels, whapped your fuzzy skull on a tree, and tossed the newborn to the crocs. And so, Mrs. Lorette Walker, no solutions for me or thee, not from your leaders be they passive or militant, nor from the politicians or the liberals or the head-knockers or the educators. No answer but time. And if the law and the courts can be induced to become color-blind, we’ll have a good answer, after both of us are dead. And a bloody answer otherwise.
JDM still isn’t pulling any punches. It would be out of character. I note his comment regarding employment.
Sometimes folks—even the best of friends—have to agree to disagree. JDM’s opinions on the race problem, as the Moffatts termed it, brought JDM and his good buddy, comedian Dan Rowan, to just such an impasse in 1969.
Stay tuned for Part 3.