A letter from a deceased lover sends Travis McGee to a small town to investigate the seemingly unexplainable psychosis that is gripping the dead woman’s daughter, a strange condition that is driving her to attempt suicide and leaves her memory full of more holes than a slice of swiss cheese at a buffet for mice in this, the tenth novel in John D. MacDonald’s thriller/mystery series.
Published in 1968, I found “Brown” to be another solid upper-shelf outing, much like the previous installment.
Even as the grown daughter of McGee’s deceased paramour seems determined to die (but unable to remember why, or even attempting to shuffle herself off the coil), intrigue and murder surrounds the situation. In the words of Kirkus, “There are others who precede her (a doctor, a nurse) and while the story seems overly complicated and diffused this time, ho [sic] one can knock its flushed allure since McGee’s powers to persuade or seduce seem more puissant than ever.”
I’ll agree with the overly complicated criticism. Much like in “Gray” the plot sometimes ties itself in knots this reader found un-undoable. But once more we see how a master of pace and dialogue like MacDonald can whisk you away on a tidal wave of momentum so powerful you barely care if everything is making total sense and simply trust things will shake out and that McGee will explain all in time (to another confused character, if not you directly). Trust in Trav, says I.
This novel is especially noteworthy as it shows McGee, whose aloof cynicism can at times come close to actual psychopathology, capable of quick and sincere relationships, too. Though it’s the request of a dead love that brings him to the sinister little Florida burb in question, and he does harbor a genuine humane-type of investment in what happens to the deceased woman’s obviously sick daughter, it is the sudden, violent death of a nurse who he’s only just met but has become taken with that primarily drives our favorite salvage consultant to get the bottom of things in this one.
Mild spoiler alert: Once again the villain at the heart of the horrors is … (drum roll, please) … a shady land developer! Oh, how MacDonald hates him some shady land developers.
Actually, easy as it is to knock the author’s go-to bad guy, it’s important to remember he was talking about these things even years before this, in the early ‘60s. The man was so far out in front he was blazing a road nobody even yet knew we’d have to take it someday.
From Wikipedia: “MacDonald is credited with being one of the earliest to write on the effect of real estate booms on the environment, and his novel ‘A Flash Of Green’ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) is a good example of this. Many later Florida crime, detective and mystery writers, such as Paul Levine, Randy Wayne White, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.”
I haven’t read “A Flash of Green,” but I have read 10 McGee books and the bad guys are more often than not shady real estate goons. And, reading the McGee books one after another, without a break between, it can become a bit much, the anti-development harping. But when you consider the time and the place, and how few other authors — let alone authors talking about Florida; it’s not like he was on some save-the-ancient-Redwoods or pro-Amazon kick here — were addressing the issue, it’s hard to hate.
Looking at the big picture, this book is the second published in 1968, the last time more than one McGee novel would be put out in a single year, and it’s the penultimate book of the ‘60s, the decade in which the series began just four short years (and 10 books!) ago. MacDonald’s skill is only surpassed by his productivity, it seems.
He was 52-years-old at the time, just four years away from winning the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor — the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement and consistent quality — and less than 20 years away from the grave (he died at 70, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin).
Ironically, he neither died nor was born in Florida (he was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania), that state which so captivated and inspired him and was the home of (and, for my money, most effective setting for) Travis McGee, his greatest literary creation.
At the time, the most recent non-McGee novel he’d released was ’77’s “Condominium,” which many consider to be one of his greatest even to this day. And though he had only a few more standalone novels in him by now, we McGee fans are fortunate enough to have 11 more (and one more film) still ahead of us.