Saturday, May 26, 2018
A Deadly Shade of Gold: Does the Longest Travis McGee Novel Hold Up?
Scott D. Parker
One thing immediately stood out when I went to download the fifth book in the Travis McGee series, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD: it was nearly twelve hours long. That was nearly twice as long as each of the first four books in the series. What could author John D. MacDonald do with more prose and time with McGee? A lot, actually, and it mostly revolved around character.
Unlike the previous four stories where someone came to McGee and basically hired him, A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD finds McGee visited by Sam Taggert, an old friend of McGee’s, who is on the run. He doesn’t initially tell McGee why but asks him to arrange a meeting with Sam’s old flame, Nora. He has something he needs to sell and, with that money, he and Nora will be able to pick up again where they left off…provided Nora doesn’t still hold a grudge against Sam for walking away three years ago. She doesn’t. In fact, she’s still in love with him. But no sooner than McGee picks up Nora and takes her to see Sam, they find Sam murdered and the little Central American golden idol stolen. Needless to say, McGee wants revenge…and so does Nora.
After a quick trip up to New York—where McGee does a little research and finds the time to bed Betty, the antique dearer, with whom he made a deal—McGee make their way down to Mexico. One of the best things about MacDonald’s writing is he seemingly effortless way in creating a scene. With a few pieces of description, you really get the feel, the smell, the sights and sounds of a small, out-of-the way Mexican seaside town. Various characters walk into and out of the scenes, each described in McGee’s now trademark world-weary cynicism. But of the five novels I’ve read to date, the McGee in GOLD is much more…well, I’d almost use the word ‘depressed.’ His friend has been killed, the people he interacts with in order to find the man who gave the order are all almost soulless shells, and it doesn’t help that he has some growing feelings for Nora. And she for him, apparently. She’s ready to exact her revenge, but is seems to be held back by McGee, by physically and emotionally. That they end up together is a spoiler not.
In reading up on the McGee novels, I found somewhere a comparison to James Bond. I don’t really see it in any aspect other than the female co-star. But when using this as the only metric, author MacDonald goes one step further with McGee than Ian Fleming does with Bond. In the Bond books and movies, the book ends or the camera fades to black and the credits roll with Bond and his current leading lady arm in arm. By the next book, the previous lady is long gone. What happened? Well, in the McGee books, John MacDonald shows you. Sometimes they are killed, sometimes they leave, and sometimes, it is something else. I actually enjoy and appreciate MacDonald doing this and, more importantly, McGee reacting to it, often with self-loathing or something worse. There are emotional costs to McGee bedding all these women, and yet he still does it.
Where GOLD suffers for me is its length. Yes, we get a lot more of McGee’s worldview explored and that’s wonderful. And in Nora, you have one of the more compelling female co-stars to date. But the plot rambles and wanders. In the story, McGee stresses to Nora that they must appear to be carefree lovers away on a vacation. Well, MacDonald seems to take that as an excuse to let the plot wander. I don’t know about his writing style, specifically if he wrote from an outline or not, but I’d venture a guess that he and McGee experienced this story together, simultaneously.
Interesting, right around the eight-hour mark, they story kind of ended…and there was still nearly four hours to go. I knew why McGee needed to move forward, and I knew more or less how it was going to end, but the level of caring dwindled. In many stories, the denouement is short, right after the climax. Here, it’s almost a third of the book. Which brings up the question if it even is a denouement or just the last third of a longer work. Not sure. Likely the latter. Still, the story kind of dragged on and on.
All of this is to say that A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD is my least favorite book in this series to date. I’ve only read five—in order—and I’m looking forward to reading the sixth and see if, in my mind, MacDonald righted the ship. These novels were originally published under the Fawcett Gold Medal banner. I’ve read many of them. They tend toward fast, action-packed little thrillers that one might devour in a weekend. Through these books, I’ve learned and appreciated Wade Miller, David Dodge, Donald Hamilton, and Day Keene. MacDonald clearly has the writing chops and the character to elevate this series above the rank-and-file of a typical Gold Medal book—and he did with books one through four—but GOLD missed the mark for me.