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Friday, 13 July 2012

FFB – Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Published in 1981 – some five years before MacDonald’s death, aged 70. This was the 19th Travis McGee adventure. Besides each novel title featuring a colour, they also contained delectable female companions, nasty villains, exotic locals such as Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. McGee’s sidekick, friend and sounding-board is Meyer, an economist and Ph.D. McGee lives on his 52-foot (16 m) houseboat, the Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that started the run of luck in which he won her, and introduced in the first novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye. She is docked at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This time around, McGee is tasked with finding out who murdered the millionaire cancer-riddled Ellis Esterland. His enquiries take him into the macho world of outlaw bikers, the crazy lives of film producers and actresses, and the dangerous pursuit of hot-air ballooning. This time around, his female companion is the luscious Anne Renzetti, ex-secretary of the murdered tycoon. Sometimes, his prose is hard-nosed and at other times, it’s lyrical, viz: ‘… moving in that sweet silence across the scents, the folds, the textures of the soft green April country’ when describing McGee’s first air-balloon journey.

MacDonald’s McGee crime books are hardboiled. Along the way, his first person narrative reveals the flawed American Dream.

Surprisingly, times haven’t changed – some 31 years later. As one character says, ‘But lots of terrible things are happening everywhere, I guess. Why is everybody getting so angry?’

Today, lack of driving standards is bemoaned. Nothing new there, then: ‘growling traffic, the trucks tailgating, the cowboys whipping around from lane to lane, and the Midwest geriatrics chugging slowly down the fast lanes, deaf to all honkings.’

Craftily, MacDonald uses Meyer to write about things that irk him, such as declining literacy. The Meyer speech is too long to reproduce here, but this is a taster: ‘In a nation floundering in functional literacy, sinking into the pre-chewed pulp of television, it heartens me to know that here and there are little groups of younguns who know what an original idea tastes like, who know that the written word is the only possible vehicle for transmitting a complex concept from mind to mind, who constantly flex the muscles of their heds and make them stronger… Nor will these children be victimized by the blurry nonsense of the so-called social sciences. The muscular mind is a cutting tool, and contemporary education seeks to take the edge off it.’

Yes, he breaks the rule about characters spouting long swathes of speech, but he seems to get away with it. Because he’s good, very good. I'd recommend any Travis McGee to anyone who has never tried one. This, like the others, is well crafted, with believable characters.

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