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.
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.
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).
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).
Now then, on to “A Deadly Shade of Gold.”
And thanks, as always, for reading, everyone. Take care.