Summer of McGee Marathon — 7: ‘Pale Gray for Guilt’ is just plain good fun

51YQwQ5su7L._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_

The ninth of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books is solid upper-shelf fun. I would not count it among true top-shelf Trav (Blue, Gold, Orange), but neither is it no-brand happy hour swill McGee either (Pink, Yellow, Amber).

No, Gray (published in 1968) rests among those other deservedly revered titles in the series which I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to anyone even slightly more than casually interested in the character: Purple and Red.

51UYlL-JPgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This is one of the more personal cases McGee’s become involved in (in the best possible way, in that regard it reminded me of Gold).

A friend and former football pal of McGee’s is having business trouble, trouble which seems to get inordinately worse the more adamantly he refuses to sell his mid-sized marina business to a group of shady property developers (oh, how MacDonald hates those shady property developers).

Quickly, things get out of hand and the guy (the wonderfully named Tush Bannon) not only goes bankrupt, but also he gets evicted and soon ends up dead under mysterious circumstances. Of course, McGee leaps into action to prove his friend was murdered and make as much trouble as possible for the guilty.

0215-pale-gray-for-guilt-981

Meyer features heavily in this one, which is always good for bonus points in my scorebook. And although there were times when I didn’t totally understand the whole “stock market fraud” subplot, it comes together well enough to make the exact details irrelevant. 

Also of note regarding this title is the introduction of (the also wonderfully named) Puss Killian, who I am given to understand will be, much like Chookie, a returning woman in McGee’s life — though one with supposedly much greater personal significance. 

Indeed, everybody’s favorite salvage consultant seemed pretty hung up on Puss. A nice touch of genuine pathos from a main character who can come across as a bit too removed and detached at times, in my opinion. 

135674

Yes, overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable installment and one I highly recommend. 

19231907

Now, on to “The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper” as this Summer of McGee Marathon continues…

Advertisements

Summer of McGee Marathon — 6: ‘Amber’ and ‘Yellow’ do not mix (for me)

Two perfectly passable entries in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, neither “Darker than Amber” nor “One Fearful Yellow Eye” (the seventh and eighth installments, respectively) made especially great impressions on me. 

2 5

Perhaps it’s just because they come on the heels of my two so-far favorites (besides the first book, of course, which is perfect), “A Deadly Shade of Gold” and “Bright Orange for the Shroud,” that they seem lesser in comparison, but I found both of these books to be simply fun enough to not put them down.

Though perfectly adequate crime/mystery tales, and swift reads to be sure, already, just days after finishing the second of them, they’re blurring and fading in my mind.

Ironically, “Amber” has a crackajack opening and then devolves into simplicity while “Yellow” drags from page one but then quickly explodes in a hellacious finale. Between those respective enjoyable bookends, though, is a lot of passable plot.

1 6

To be clear: MacDonald is a master. So even when the story isn’t really grabbing me I find his dialogue and the powerful momentum of his plot enjoyable. Like I wrote before, it’s somehow easier to keep reading even if you’re a little lost, or maybe less interested, than it is to put the book down, an achievement which I do not think another author that I’ve encountered has ever managed. Even when he slumps, he soars. 

There are nice moments of insight into the character of McGee in both of these books, something which MacDonald is adroit at dolling out just enough of to keep his main character somehow familiar and mysterious over the course of the series.

Also, he works in supporting characters that have long storied histories with McGee in amazingly effective but incredibly brief ways, telling you everything you need to know about the person (and more about McGee) and how they know each other, but never taking you out of the story for more than a few sentences at most. It’s a remarkable skill on display here, I can’t stress it enough.

3

Also, “Amber” is important because it’s one of just two McGee books ever filmed (the first; the second came in 1983, but more on that later).

poster-780

The 1970 adaptation was directed by Robert Clouse (who also directed “Enter the Dragon”) and stars, for some inexplicable reason, Rod Taylor (pansy mama’s boy Mitch Brenner in “The Birds”) as McGee. According to Wikipedia: “Critical reception was positive, but the film was not a financial success.”

It’s available for free on YouTube, and can be found on DVD fairly easily, for those curious. I watched the first 30-40 minutes, and it, much like the original book, was to me simply OK.

darker-than-amber

MV5BODNjZmIwZmEtZjAzMS00ZjQ0LWJhMWItNWYxYWUxZjU5ZjRjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzYyMDc3MDM@._V1_

In the book, McGee and Meyer are fishing when a woman is thrown, bound and tied to a cement block, off a nearby bridge. McGee dives down deep and saves her, and the two ultimately find she is a participant in an ongoing murder/robbery scheme which sees beautiful babes seduce wealthy-ish (never rich enough to draw suspicion) old men and then get the smitten geriatrics to take them on a  cruise, where one of their male accomplices promptly murders the hapless paramour, takes their traveling cash and dumps them overboard.

It’s a handy, effective plan that’s been going OK for some time, but now this girl has had a bit of a falling out with the gang and so they tried to off her. She draws McGee and Meyer into a plan to assist her in recovering her stashed share of the loot, but then promptly turns up dead. So the boys decide to do what they can to get the money themselves — and make some trouble for this ghoulish gang of murdering thieves along the way. 

4

I can see why they picked it for the first film adaptation, as much of the action takes place at a single location, onboard a cruise ship. Here the point is driven home again, with full force: McGee is a sucker for ladies in distress, even objectively villainous ones. He has a real wounded-bird complex, that Trav McGee.

It’s an interesting read, and a fun cinematic artifact, but strictly for completists only. 

9

“Yellow” sees McGee trek to snowbound Chicago at Christmastime to assist a friend, the young widow of a recently deceased famous surgeon, in locating the dead guy’s missing money.

Before he shuffled off, the good doctor apparently liquidated almost all of his assets and they’re gone without a trace. Now, everybody thinks the hot young wife has made off with the goods, but McGee, who once upon a time saved her life down in Florida, knows her well enough to know better.

The subsequent investigation sees him question the doctor’s terrible grownup children, including the daughter’s horrible ex-husband, a colleague or two, and the fiercely loyal housekeeper, all while grumpily donning more layers of clothing than he likes and steeling his bronze bod against the c-c-c-cold.

It’s a bit of a slog, both for McGee and the reader, but one that pays off with a great final showdown (back in a warmer climate, it should be noted) that somehow involves escaped old fogey Nazis! Who doesn’t love that? 

7

There’s just something about McGee that doesn’t work as well in colder climes. He does OK when he goes to Mexico or California, or even the mountainous West, but be it New York (in “Pink”) or Chicago (here), everybody’s favorite philosopher/salvage consultant does not travel North well. This one, also, is for completists only. 

8

Summer of McGee Marathon — 5: Wrap yourself up in ‘Bright Orange for the Shroud’

1

And a new high-water mark was set.

“Bright Orange for the Shroud,” the sixth book in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, has officially replaced the first as my own personal favorite. 

Published in 1965, this one has all the essential elements of a good McGee story – seedy tropical locales, a semi-complicated criminal conspiracy, colorful supporting characters, a vile but realistic villain, clear and exciting action scenes – and they are flawlessly executed. 

3

It easily replaces the previous entry, “A Deadly Shade of Gold” (though still one of the strongest in the series), as my first choice for a film adaptation, too. It would perfectly introduce McGee as a character, his typical escapades, and provide ample juicy side roles for many great performers (barely any trace of Meyer, though, which I don’t care for).

I especially love the aging con man in charge of the central scam, a career criminal grown excessively cautious as he has gotten older and wealthier.

4

Plot-wise, it’s fairly straightforward: An acquaintance returns to the Busted Flush busted and asks McGee for help. 

Arthur ran in McGee’s social crowd of semi-permanent beach people for a time about two years ago, but left when he married a saucy blond, who also hung around with the same crowd for a bit (something about her never sat right with McGee, though). She ultimately lured the amiable sap into a phony land development scheme and he has lost all of his considerable inheritance. He is practically on death’s doorstep health-wise when he stumbles back into McGee’s life seeking help. 

Assisting Arthur reclaim what he can of his moolah will take McGee into the shadowy underbelly of Florida, from posh cityscapes to dirt-floor Everglades poverty. 

5

The dancer Chookie makes a reappearance here, which is awesome. She was one of my favorite characters and also one of the most developed females of the series, so it’s great to see her again. 

Also, in the course of the investigation McGee meets my favorite villain of the series yet: Boone “Boo” Waxwell, a backwoods psychopath who proves McGee’s shadowy double in many ways – and his equal in a brawl. 

Waxwell has much in common with Junior Allen, the bad guy in the first McGee book, and Max Cady from “The Executioners.” MacDonald obviously had a real distaste for a certain type of hillbilly macho man, the type who are intelligent enough to rise above their circumstances and contribute something to the world, but instead choose to wallow, who seem to enjoy making beasts of themselves. Waxwell is greedy, sadistic and cunning, and makes a great adversary.

True, there are some of-it’s-time gender stuff going on here, especially in the Chookie/Arthur relationship, but a bit of that has pervaded every McGee book so far and I don’t think any of it goes so far as to be “problematic” when considered in context.

6

Something I’m liking about this series very much is the reassuring theme that the world is generally a bad place but specifically a wonderful place. 

McGee has a clear pragmatic view of life and takes joy in simple pleasures. He understands he can’t win every time and he also knows that even if he did the world as a whole would still be going (to his mind) in a decidedly bad direction. But still he tries, and he often tries hardest for those who need a champion most. He takes his share of the spoils, mostly, but he’s not greedy or overly mercenary about it. Mostly, he works to make enough money so that he can be left alone. Who can’t relate to that?

I like the idea that one good person doing their best can make a world of difference for one other person at least, and that maybe if we all do that then the big problems will sort themselves out. 

Or maybe not. 

In the end, maybe it doesn’t even mater. Because our time here is short and because, as McGee teaches us, there is always a beautiful sunset to enjoy, honest love to make, fish to catch, booze to drink and countless other pleasures to be found in simply being alive if you are wise enough to enjoy them.

7

This is a great crime/mystery tale and I highly recommend it, even if you are not interested in reading any other titles in the series. 

A summer of series reading: My picks for literary sagas worth slipping into

*Originally published in The Bainbridge Island Review. 

Summer is traditionally the time of the “beach read” — breezy, dynamic books that entertain, ask little of us, and provide the one intrinsic reward of any good vacation endeavor: pleasure.

So, as you set about deciding what books deserve a bit of your precious suitcase space, which ones will be the best distractions during your travels, or what to read while you enjoy some seasonal relaxation at home, consider diving into a series.

There is a reason nearly all of the most popular books of the last few decades (or at least those that have most impacted the broader culture) have grown into series: “A Song of Ice and Fire” (that’s “Game of Thrones” to you non-readers out there), the Harry Potter books, “Twilight,” the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, the “Dexter” series, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series … I could go on.

The joys of the novel series, following the exploits of a continuous cast of characters through the trials and tribulations of several books, getting to know them and their world, and really inhabiting the author’s mindset for a time, is a rare delight. And one the comparative down time of summer annually allows us.

Here then are my five picks for series summer reading for those looking for some serious escapist lit.

Read the rest here. 

Summer of McGee Marathon — 4: ‘A Deadly Shade of Gold’ is hard to resist

1

Yes, there it is again at last: The feeling I had upon reading the first McGee book is once more solidly delivered here in the fifth installment. As much as I enjoyed the previous book, this is primo McGee action right here, folks. 

2

My (so far) second favorite of the series (after “The Deep Blue Good-by, which is second to none) “A Deadly Shade of Gold” sees some rather personal trouble dropped right in the lap of good ol’ McGee — and this time he’s not alone on the road to answers. 

Interestingly, this was the first book to be published in 1965 (all the others came out in ’64) and is also the first to feature the character of Meyer, McGee’s friend and neighbor. 

3

The enigmatic economist, who also lives on a boat, one moored near McGee’s Busted Flush, cuts an immediately fascinating character: “He looks like the diarama of Early Man in the Museum of Natural History. He has almost as much pelt as an Adirondack black bear. But he can stroll grinning down a beach and acquire a tagalong flock of lovelies the way an ice cream cart ropes children. He called them al Junior. It saves confusion.” 

We are told Meyer “predicts trends.”

“He acquired a little money the hard way, and he keeps moving it around from this to that, and it keeps growing nicely, and he does learned articles for incomprehensible journals.” 

4

McGee and Meyer and playing cards amid a bevy of bathing beauties when — Don’t you just know it? — the phone rings. Seems a former friend of McGee’s, one Sam Taggert, is back in town after having fled several years before. He’s in some kind of trouble and wants to ask McGee for help, but he’s even more interested in what’s been up with Nora, the woman he very nearly married before he got cold feet, cheated on her, and fled in shame. 

Taggart has been “working in Mexico,” he says, and he doesn’t look good. He shows McGee a strange golden statue, one of apparently a much larger collection, which he has somehow (illegally, it’s heavily implied) come into possession of.

He only has the one now, though, as the others have been taken from him. He plans to sell it to the mysterious party who has the rest of the cache, cut his losses and return to Nora and beg her forgiveness (McGee, still close friends with the woman, told him she still most definitely has feelings for him). 

6

However, before the happy reunion can be managed, somebody brutally kills Taggart and makes off with the gold figure, so now it’s McGee and Nora on the case, looking to recapture whatever they can on the road to vengeance. 

That road takes McGee from Florida to New York to Mexico to California, from dirty hovel towns to the seedier side of the art world to private yacht clubs to swanky soirees and brings him into contact with a  cast of colorful characters — some allies, some decidedly not. 

It’s a rocking good read and I don’t want to give more than that away, because if you’re even a little curious you should seek this one out pronto. 

Honestly, this might be my first pick so far for a film adaptation, if one was to be helmed today. Even before the first book, I think this story better establishes McGee as a character, the world he moves in and the types of shenanigans he gets up to.

7

Also, there are enough locales and supporting characters to keep this moving along nicely and interesting throughout.

Now, reading-wise obviously I’ve already recommended several others in the series, but for those rushed for time I suggest going straight from the first book to this one as kind of a “greatest hits” abridged reading list. It’s that good. 

The first five McGee books ranked in order of my favoritism: 

1. The Deep Blue Good-by

2. A Deadly Shade of Gold

3. The Quick Red Fox

4. A Purple Place for Dying

5. Nightmare in Pink (swing and miss, MacDonald; but after all nobody’s perfect)

8

Off-the-page perspective: Talking comic books with T. Andrew Wahl

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with noted comic book expert/historian T. Andrew Wahl for a feature story for the Bainbridge Island Review, in preparation for his upcoming public presentation at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.

It was a really fun interview and a most timely topic, as Wahl’s talk will primarily focus on the cultural implications and origins of superheroes.


* Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review

The X-Men are actually just a symbolic representation of civil rights when you really think about it.

That is, if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that kind of thing.

T. Andrew Wahl is the kind of person who thinks about that kind of thing a lot — and lately he has had a lot to think about.

These are strange times we’re living in. “The Seduction of the Innocent” has become fun for the whole family; characters once passionately obsessed over by only the most awkward social outcasts and reality-ducking adolescents are cultural icons in this, the latest dramatic development in the ongoing saga that is the story of comic books and their effect on culture in America, the history of which Wahl, a reporter and journalism professor by trade, is a dedicated keeper.

Since the modern origin of the form way back in 1933 — and especially the debut of Superman in Action Comics in 1938 — the U.S. has had a storied and mercurial relationship with comic books. They’ve been beloved, despised, ignored, censored, and are now big blockbuster business in Tinseltown. Barely a season goes by in which we don’t see a new offering from Marvel or DC (or, technically, from the Walt Disney Company or Warner Brothers) and at the same time creators are putting more heterogeneous visions on the page (or e-Reader screen) than ever before.

“You’ve definitely seen a growing sense of diversity,” Wahl said. “When I was a kid, if you went to a comic book convention … it was probably 95 percent white men in the room. If a woman walked in the room it was actually like a unicorn coming in, we’d all kind of stop and stare. And now if you go to Emerald City [Comic Con] in Seattle it’s about 50-50 in terms of the gender mix; people from all walks of life, all different kinds of sexual identity backgrounds, race and ethnicity backgrounds. It’s just a much more encompassing community now and all of that has been reflected in the stories themselves.”

Wahl is a journalist, editor and comic book historian. He’s a lifelong aficionado of the medium, and actually studied comic books as a part of his master of arts degree in the humanities at Fort Hays State University. He currently teaches journalism at Everett Community College, when he’s not traveling as a Humanities Washington speaker to talk about his true love.

Read the rest here. 

Summer of McGee Marathon — 3: ‘The Quick Red Fox’ is real fast fun

1

It’s about to get a little smutty up in here, folks.

In the fourth installment of the series, Travis McGee comes to the aid (albeit reluctantly at first) of silver screen beauty queen Lysa Dean, who is being blackmailed. Seems some rather unflattering pictures were taken of Ms. Tinseltown during a vacation retreat with her latest beau (and a bunch of very, very friendly strangers) and somebody wants big bucks to keep them out of the public eye. She already paid up once, but now the crook is writing again, this time a quick hateful note full of insane-sounding religious-type messages promising the deviants of the world will feel His wrathful sword and yada yada yada; dirt floor church fire and brimstone nonsense.

The movie star is scared, and she is asking McGee to identify the blackmailer, get the pictures back and save her career.

Actually, all the pearl clutching over these orgy photos is a little hilarious as, looking at the situation circa 2019, I can’t think of a single “celebrity” whose career has not been helped by a “leaked” sex tape — surely the modern equivalent of what we’re talking about here.

True, the woman didn’t know she was being photographed and is absolutely the victim of a crime (as are all the other participants, more on that later), but her abiding fear that these pics will ruin her career seems to me misguided, even in 1964. Besides, we quickly learn she’s really upset for purely pragmatic reasons.

2
McGee himself says exactly the same thing when he first meets his client-to-be, and it’s then she spills that it’s actually more than just her career on the line: She’s got an obscenely rich man about to propose to her, one who is apparently as religious as he is wealthy.

I suppose we are to believe that Dean’s not that great an actress, because she says something about her current marketability being enough to weather her through the PR nightmare of the orgy photos getting out only if she never has a picture flop, something she obviously sees as inevitable sooner rather than later. Mostly, it’s the rich guy on the hook she’s worried about. Thus we (and McGee) have all the character insight we need to pass on the gig. He doesn’t need the money that badly right now.

Ultimately though, McGee’s immediate chemistry and connection with Dean’s assistant Dana Holtzer — a confident professional woman with a troubled past and people depending on her, who herself depends on the considerable salary she earns being indispensable to the starlet — gets him to take the case.

3
Most of the subsequent plot follows McGee as he visits the other people in the pictures (those still living at least) while trying to see who might have set up the surveillance shoot. The gathering was apparently arranged rather quickly, without notice, while Dean and her paramour were staying at an isolated beach house. But, strangely enough, almost every other person involved has suffered separate, unrelated misfortunes — almost as if the whole thing was a cursed affair (the sting of His wrathful sword, perhaps?).

Sadly, the truth is less dramatic. Still, the real draw of this book is the evolution of McGee’s relationship with Holtzer. MacDonald has been called by a loud minority of readers a misogynist, and while it’s true some of his other stories sometimes droop into the now-wince-worthy gender depictions of their day (looking at you, “Slam the Big Door”) on the whole the McGee series (so far at least, in my finding) has proven quite the opposite.

I find his female characters as complex and realized as any men. And McGee becomes infatuated with Holtzer for all the best possible reasons: she’s confident, capable, fun, holds her own intellectually and contributes greatly to the investigation. Also, she’s apparently quite fetching. In my head she was played by Amy Adams (though the character is technically not a redhead, Dean is the titular Red Fox, she seemed up to the task).

4
Also, Dana is not an anomaly. Both Cathy and Chookie in “The Deep Blue Good-by” are likewise vital, fully realized creations with complex relationships with McGee that go far beyond the James Bond-type of “greet, titillate, then conquer” routine.

True, McGee goes to bed with a lot of ladies (and it’s only the fourth book), some might say an unreasonable amount, but it is (so far) never cheap or gratuitous. I found myself really liking Dana, too, and even though you know they don’t stay together — there are 17 more books and obviously a whole lot of new romances to come — I was genuinely bummed out by how things end between them.

Side note: An excellent summary of McGee’s romantic tendencies is outlined in Beth Quinn Barnard’s essay “Travis McGee: The First 90s Guy,” in 1997 for The Armchair Detective (which actually folded before publication). In part, she writes: “Although the frequency of McGee’s sexual encounters was one of the larger-than-life qualities that appealed to many men’s fantasies, the relationships were marked by candor and equality.”

Overall, I really liked “The Quick Red Fox.” There is decidedly less action than in “Blue” or even the final act of “Nightmare in Pink,” for that matter, but it’s a methodical intriguing mystery thriller that, taken within the larger context of the series, offers significant insight into the character and worldview of McGee (and, I suppose, by extension MacDonald).

5
Now then, on to “A Deadly Shade of Gold.”

And thanks, as always, for reading, everyone. Take care.

Summer of McGee Marathon — 2: The First Three Books

DSC05030

I’m three books into the Travis McGee series now, and overall I’m enjoying them as much as I’d hoped.

They’re quick reads, and the dialogue and action scenes are especially engaging. “Compulsively readable” is a phrase that gets used quite a bit in book reviews, but I honestly found these books to be exactly that. I can see why Travis McGee is an iconic fictional character.

Also, MacDonald is a master of narrative and pacing, so even when “nothing” is happening in the slower moments of the weaker installments, it’s hard to put them down. Amazingly, it’s actually easier to keep reading, to stay in the flow of the story, than it is to nitpick petty trivialities as you’re moving along. It’s an incredible achievement.

The first three novels in the series — “The Deep Blue Good-by,” “Nightmare in Pink,” and “A Purple Place For Dying”—- were all published in 1964, when MacDonald was 48-years-old. He was already a prestigious writer at that point, but the introduction of what would become his most renowned character, Travis “Originally supposedly called Dallas” McGee, cemented his place in the annals of American literature.

JohnDMacDonaldInTrenchcoat

From Wikipedia: “The first three books in the Travis McGee series were published in quick succession, at the rate of one a month, a highly unusual publishing strategy. According to MacDonald, he had earlier written an introductory novel about McGee that he burned as being unsatisfactory. A longtime resident of Sarasota’s Siesta Key, MacDonald said he placed McGee on the opposite side of the state to protect his privacy in case the series became popular.”

Spoiler alert: It did. 

M23xrHNn_400x400

McGee is a freelance “salvage consultant.” Basically, the main idea of the series is this: People come to him, usually referred by a friend or past client, when something has been stolen from them and they cannot go to the police. He gets it back, but he gets to keep half of what it’s worth. As he often tells people: Half of something is better than all of nothing. You don’t end up comig to McGee unless you’re desperate.

Intrigue, romance, hijinks and danger ensue. McGee is cool, smart, tough, handsome — and cynical in a worldly jaded way that makes his ongoing internal monologue (all the books are written in the first person) read like some of the best potential film noir voice over ever.

572c4d46969ffb5c9a6cbe626c76e7ac

Famously, McGee lives on a 52-foot housebound, the Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game), which is usually docked at slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I say famously, because that spot is actually a revered literary landmark now.

From Wikipedia: “When the U.S. organization Friends of Libraries U.S.A. decided to institute a series of literary landmark plaques analogous to historic landmark markers, the first to be installed was around what would be Slip F-18 in Bahia Mar, the anchorage of the Busted Flush. This was done in February 1987, less than a year after MacDonald’s death.”

800px-Bahia_Mar_Slip_F-18_plaque

Later, after the remodeling of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center in 2003, to replace fixed docks with floating docks since Slip F-18 was technically no more the plaque was reportedly remounted on a movable wooden base which is presently located inside the marina Dockmaster’s Office and Gift Shop.

I actually see a lot of similarities between McGee and Han Solo: his love of his unique ship, which he won in a card game; his true “good guy” nature, which is usually hidden beneath quips and cynicism, but coupled with a realistic professional “What’s in it for me?” mindset; and even his vaguely hinted at military background.

However, what I especially love about the series is that McGee’s never too cool or too tough to be believable. He messes up, he gets hurt. He’s not always the smartest guy in the room. Also, the villains are all realistic as well. We’re not talking about cartoonish James Bond bad guys here. McGee’s enemies are dangerous and smart, but they’re not Hannibal Lecter, you know? The real world is full of people just as evil as these characters. It grounds the action and intrigue in reality, which I really appreciate.

———

“The Deep Blue Good-by” is a masterpiece. I understand it doesn’t technically matter which order you read the McGee books in, but I recommend starting with this, the first one. It’s very nearly a flawless mystery/crime story and the perfect introduction to the character of McGee and the atmosphere of the series.

In it, McGee is introduced to a woman in trouble by a friend of his. The actual plot is somewhat similar to the film “Night of the Hunter,” one of my favorites. The client asks McGee’s help in retrieving something valuable (she actually doesn’t even know what it is that’s been taken) that her deceased father smuggled home during his military service overseas, something evidently very valuable. Well, Pop promptly messed up big and was sent to prison before he could cash in. Later, the woman’s husband, a smiling sociopath named Junior Allen, learned of the hidden loot while in military prison with her father and, upon his release, promptly beat feet to woo and marry his gullible cellmate’s daughter. He then finds the goods and makes off with them. The old man has since died in prison, so there’s no way to get him to spill. McGee thus begins hunting down Allen, who proves much more dangerous than expected.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

“Nightmare in Pink” is not my favorite. I think it’s the weakest of the first three novels, in fact, a sentiment I’ve read expressed other places as well. MacDonald, I think, was still feeling out his character and deciding what this series would be all about. Thankfully, what it ended up being about was not this.

McGee is asked by an old military buddy to look into the murder of his little sister’s husband in New York City. And wouldn’t you know it, but there’s something rotten in the big apple? In the end, McGee uncovers a case of major corporate theft and some seriously dirty dealings at a mental asylum, where the baddies actually lock him up at one point. Long stretches of not much going on in his one, though the last third is fantastic. Ultimately, if you ask me, this one’s for completists only.

“A Purple Place For Dying” is fun and genuinely intriguing.

I spent most of the book being utterly unable to guess where things were headed. McGee treks to Nevada at the request of a woman who believes her much older husband, a longtime friend of her millionaire father, has stolen from her supposedly massive trust fund. She’s in love with a young professor and wants enough cash to run away with him. But her husband insists there isn’t any money left, and that she was in fact left much less than she thought by her father.

Then, before McGee is even sure he wants the job at all, during their initial meeting the woman is killed by a sniper right in front of him. But when he brings the cops out to the spot, the body is gone.

So is the young professor, in fact.

Somebody has gone to great lengths to make it look like the lovers have split together — but McGee knows better.

I enjoyed this one immensely.

More to follow, everyone. Thanks very much for reading.

 

A Hollywood holiday: My picks for some choice vacation movies

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review.

bf1ec184c1b8f58d7ae960d7775ef755

Tis the season to take a break. A Spring Break, that is. And with summer at last in sight (sort of) — it seems an opportune time to start thinking about possible vacation plans.

To drum up a little inspiration, I have singled out a few flicks to get you in the mood. Noticeably absent from this list is, of course, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). By way of explanation I’ll just say that I didn’t think anybody needed me to tell them to seek out that classic, and also if you’re going to watch one vacation-themed comedy featuring an iconic turn by John Candy this summer I recommend making it my number two pick instead. More Candy for your money is never a bad thing.

1 ‘What About Bob?’ (1991)

Don’t hassle me I’m local.

The Evanston-born shaman himself, Bill “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’” Murray plays needy neurotic Bob Wiley, a nice enough guy but hopelessly plagued by about a million phobias and irrationalities (he claims to be divorced from his ex-wife, not because he is nearly incapable of leaving the house but because she likes Neil Diamond and he does not).

He is reassigned by his desperate psychiatrist to hot shot headpeeper Dr. Leo Marvin (a hilarious turn by Richard Dreyfuss). Their first session goes very well, but when Bob learns the Doc is leaving on vacation he (unsurprisingly) freaks out. Leo tells him to take a vacation of his own (“from your problems, Bob”), which Bob does — going so far as to track down the good doctor and his family at their lake house, befriending the man’s wife and kids (and just about everyone else in town) and ultimately making the shrink question his own sanity.

The film is ranked number 43 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies” and certainly counts as one of Murray’s greatest comedic performances, which is obviously saying a lot.

2 ‘The Great Outdoors’ (1988)

The late great Candy man is taking his family to the remote lakeside cabin resort he himself loved as a child, when his vacation plans are shattered by the arrival of his annoying yuppie brother-in-law (Dan Aykroyd), who has his own freakish family in tow.

Boating accidents, young love, steak-eating contests and a bald-headed bear all play a role in this classic, borne from the pen of the one and only John Hughes.

Though it got a lukewarm review by critics upon release, this is a beloved flick by many, including myself. The duo of Candy and Aykroyd are fantastic — and I’m not the only one who thought that, see also the spectacularly underrated “Nothing But Trouble” (1991) — and the movie clips along almost as fast as summer itself.

3 ‘Spring Breakers’ (2012)

From Harmony Korine, the distinctive director behind “Gummo,” “Julien Donkey-Boy” and “Trash Humpers” (and the imminent “The Beach Bum,” which features a gonzo Matthew McConaughey leading a crazily diverse cast of characters), this bizarre crime story sees James Franco play Alien (“My real name is Al, but truth be told, I’m not from this planet”), a St. Petersburg, Florida DJ (and drug and weapons dealer) charm a trio of young coeds (including Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez) in town to party during Spring Break.

SpringBreakers_Stewart_WEB_1024x1024

Their strange group affair eventually turns to crime as Alien arms the ski mask- and bikini-clad vixens and they commit a series of violent robberies.

Criticized by some as misogynistic, but hailed by others as a kind of female empowerment film, the movie received generally favorable reactions from critics and was described by The Huffington Post as “’Scarface’ meets Britney Spears.” It has since appeared on several retrospective “best of” lists, and the British film magazine Little White Lies placed it at number 40 on their list of the “50 best films of the decade (so far).”

Spring Break fo’ever.

4 ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ (2008)

The most Judd Apatow-esque movie technically not made by Judd Apatow (he was the producer, though, and the cast/crew is a roundup of mostly typical Apatow faves), this flick is fun as a much-needed getaway.

It stars Jason Segel (also the writer) as Peter Bretter, a music composer for a TV show that happens to feature his girlfriend, the titular Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), in the lead role. Suddenly, after a five-year relationship, she abruptly breaks up with him. Devastated, Peter unwisely chooses to go to Hawaii hoping to shake the breakup blues, but finds Sarah also happens to be vacationing with her new rock star boyfriend Aldous Snow (the best thing Russell Brand has ever done) at the same resort.

Depressed, he begins spending time with a vivacious hotel concierge (Mila Kunis) and an unlikely romance begins to blossom.

Segel is great in the role and the script is smart. Both Bell and Kunis are fun and much more dimensional than women in this kind of movie usually get to be. Also, Brand’s performance is fantastic and one of the best parts of the whole thing.

Richard Roeper highly praised the film and went as far as to say he would put it on his list of “50 favorite comedies of all time.” Though, I guess you might blame this movie’s success for ushering in the era of lame-comedies-set-in-tropical-resorts-so-the-stars-can-vacation-there-for-free subgenre (looking at you “Grown Ups,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Couples Retreat,” etc.).

rAXlZmQ3gg4mScySg1kvs0ZLdCb

5 ‘The Ruins’ (2008)

Watch closely, M. Night Shyamalan. This is how you do a killer planet movie.

Maybe more of a vacation warning than encouragement-type movie, this underrated horror abroad flick got a bad rep when it first came out but has slowly gathered a bit of a cult fanbase, of which I am proud to count myself a member.

Based on the novel of the same name by Scott Smith, the movie sees two young American couples on vacation in Mexico where they meet a German tourist who is looking for his brother, whom he last saw departing the beach to visit an archaeological dig at a storied Mayan ruin in the jungle.

The curious gringos head off with him to find his brother and check out the ruins, only to find that once they’ve set foot on the grounds the local villagers, heavily armed with guns and bows, won’t let them leave.

All too soon, they find out why.

The locals are afraid of the vines that cover the ruins, predatory carnivorous plants capable of mimicking sound, and won’t let them go now that they have touched them.

As noted by Trace Thurman for a 10-year retrospective piece about the film for http://www.bloody-disgusting.com, “’The Ruins’ has a lot going for it and deserves to be better loved.”

He wrote, “[It] is notable for nearly all of its scenes taking place in the daylight, something that can be very difficult to make scary and is thus not often seen in horror films,” and also, “The use of practical effects help tremendously with the believability of the film. There is very little actual CGI present, and it when it is used it is reserved for the shots of the moving plants.”

Also, for fans of bloody gore-based horror, it’s a must-see, as those particular moments are incredibly wince-worthy.

It’s the kind of bleak motion picture that will make you need a vacation.

Just remember to watch where you step.

Honorable mentions:
“Youth in Revolt” (2009)
“Weekend at Bernie’s” (1989)
“The Sandlot” (1993)
“Now and Then” (1995)

 

A novel view: Chatting with the author of the Bainbridge-set satire ‘Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe’

Recently, I got to talk with Evan James, author of the new satirical novel “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe,” for a feature story for the Bainbridge Island Review. The book is set on Bainbridge, and the author is an island boy, so it’s a highly anticipated book round these parts.

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review. 


71sfs3GFJuL

It begins, as so many Bainbridge stories do, on a tennis court.

From there the Widdicombe family’s summer spirals, ultimately involving some drastic decorating, a whiff of romance, a healthy dose of heartbreak, a bit of chemical dependency and a veritable maelstrom of uncovered secrets, preposterous misunderstandings and irrepressible passions set against the seemingly idyllic backdrop of their new home, Willowbrook Manor, on Bainbridge Island.

Named one of the year’s most anticipated reads by LitHub and Entertainment Weekly, Evan James’ “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe: A Novel” has been called a hilarious and sophisticated comedy of manners from a bright new voice in contemporary fiction.

He has taught at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and currently teaches creative writing and English at Pierrepont School in Westport, Connecticut.

It’s a far cry from where he began, though, and the source of his novel’s inspiration.

Write what you know, the old would-be author adage goes. And James boasts an island pedigree beyond reproach. Though he now resides in New York, in setting his satire on the beautiful shores of Bainbridge he knew very well of what he wrote.

Born in Seattle, the island boy attended Ordway Elementary School, Commodore Options School, Woodward Middle School and graduated from Bainbridge High. He played on the school tennis team, worked at the Streamliner Diner and the Winslow Way Cafe, and was a frequent shopper at Eagle Harbor Book Company, a personally beloved locale to which he will return to celebrate the release of this, his first novel, at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 4.

Read the rest here.