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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.