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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.