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Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald

By SBrown | Books | February 11, 2010 |

By SBrown | Books | February 11, 2010 |

I am a self-loathing fiction snob. Cliched characters, bad dialog, unbelievable plots … these things make me crazy and chip away at the limited resolve I have to venture away from non-fiction. I want to love novels. I really, really do. But it doesn’t often work. As a result, most of my reading is heavy — non-fiction or classic, proven novels, such as cheery Ethan Frome or Jane Eyre.

But sometimes a girl needs a break! A book for the beach! For this, I am so glad to have found John D. MacDonald and the Travis McGee series. Light, but not too light. Sex, guns and murder written for people with brains. I. Love. It.

Travis McGee describes himself as a “salvage consultant.” He works to get back stuff that was taken from people. Typically his clients were fleeced legally and Trav works outside the law to earn retribution. He gets to keep half of whatever he reclaims.

But the plot of these 22 books is the least of the reasons to love them. Though they were written from the ’60s to the ’80s, the books feel very contemporary (with only the occasional reference to state-of-the-art tape decks). Trav and his best bud Meyer are intelligent, thoughtful, stand-up guys who also happen to live on house boats and be beach bums. Their observations of the world and people are timeless and refreshing. This, from Dress Her in Indigo, sums it up nicely:

Old friend, there are people — young and old — that I like, and people that I do not like. The former are always in short supply. I am turned off by humorless fanaticism, whether it’s revolutionary mumbo-jumbo by a young one, or loud lessons from the scripture by an old one. We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can’t see it all that way bore hell out of me.

There is a plot, however, to Free Fall in Crimson, and I imagine you’d like me to stop humping MacDonald’s corpse and get on with it …

There is this dude, Ron, you see, and his very wealthy dad was killed, presumably by a mugger, at a rest stop. The police investigate and determine it was random. Ron isn’t so sure and asks Travis to investigate. There were technicalities with the dad’s sizable estate that cast suspicion on a few swarthy folks. The trail entangles Travis with biker gangs, the movie industry and a bunch of hot air ballonists. There is a porn ring and a small town mob. The story keeps the book moving quickly and many interesting characters get to play, including Lysa Dean, the sexy, shallow movie star Travis worked for in A Quick Red Fox.

Free Fall in Crimson is a late McGee — written in ‘81 — and there are only two stories left in the series. It is obvious Trav (and MacDonald) are getting older. The last few books have hinted at Trav’s retirement or demise and he is obtaining an unattractive arrogance and detachment to the mayhem he consistently invites.

Throughout the series, however, Travis and Meyer have been consistently lovable and the books have been reliably good. A great, semi-mindless read. I’m nervous that I am coming to their end with 49 books remaining in Cannonball … If you haven’t read these books, I’d recommend giving them a go. Lovers of Carl Hiaasen and USA’s “Burn Notice” will find many similarities.

There are always a handful of observations worth dog-earing the pages for in every McGee. I leave you now with my favorite bit from the book — Meyer relating an encounter on the beach:

There was a gaggle of lanky young pubescent lassies on the beach, one of the early invasions of summer, all of them from Dayton, Ohio, all of them earnest, sunburnt and inquisitive. They were huddled around a beached sea slug, decrying its exceptional ugliness, and I took a hand in the discussion, told them its life pattern, defensive equipment, normal habitat, natural enemies, and so on. And I discovered to my great pleasure that this batch was literate! They had read books. Actual books. They had all read Lives of a Cell and are willing to read for the rest of their lives. They had all been exposed to the same teacher in the public school system there, and he must be a fellow of great conviction. In a nation floundering in functional illiteracy, sinking into the pre-chewed pulp of television, it heartens me to know that here and there are little groups of young-uns 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 in their heads and make them stronger.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of SBrown’s reviews, please check out the blog, Clever Blog Title with a Literary Reference.