Salvage jobs come to Travis McGee in all sorts of ways. Sometimes a client approaches him in the standard fashion, with a hard-luck story about something valuable (a pile of cash, an honorable reputation) that has been lost or stolen, and he or she will hire McGee to recover it. Sometimes a friend will introduce McGee to another friend who happens to need the services of a guy like him—a beach-bum Paladin who works only when his finances are low or when his blood is up. And sometimes the job simply drops onto him. On this occasion, the job plummets from a bridge with a slab of concrete tied to her curvy, long gams and lands near the spot in the Intercoastal Waterway where McGee has parked his fishing boat. McGee rescues the damsel from the deep, whereupon he and his fishing pal, an economist and eminently worldly philosopher who goes by the lone name Meyer, nurse her to a semblance of health. Along the way, they learn that her name is Evangeline (“Vangie”) Bellemer, that she was a top-dollar call girl who had recently widened the scope her criminal activity, and that notwithstanding her evident charms (she has eyes flecked with a yellow that’s “darker than amber”), she’s a vulgar lass whose short, fast life has cast her beyond the reach of even McGee’s powers of redemption. Still, McGee retains a soft spot for Vangie, so when her comrades in crime succeed in their second attempt to eliminate her, he resolves to avenge her death. True to form, he also has an eye on salvaging a lode of ill-gotten cash that Vangie had hidden in her South Florida condo.
There is no mystery here. In this novel, as in other entries in the McGee saga, the identity of the bad guys is plain almost from the get-go. So is the fact of their badness; there are no shades of moral gray here, either. Nonetheless, McGee practices the art of detection to a notable degree. Along with Meyer, who plays a strong supporting role, he assembles the stray pieces of information that Vangie had let slip about her cohorts, and about the deadly scam that they are running against the clueless tourists who hit the Sunshine State as relentlessly as ocean waves. That scheme involves persuading lonely, well-off men to embark on what ends up being a fatal one-way Caribbean cruise. McGee and Meyer not only divine the nature of the scam, but also engineer a counter-scam that unfolds aboard a cruise ship and that enables them to nab Vangie’s killers. These heroes definitely know their way around a boat, just as they know their way around the highly fluid social dynamics that make Florida what it had already become by the mid-1960s—“a sunny place for shady people,” as the saying goes. MacDonald, for his part, knows his way around the written word: He gives McGee, who acts as narrator, a voice that is street-smart yet soulful and a style that is pungent (albeit sometimes overwrought) yet precise.
[ADDENDUM: I’m not generally a fan of this kind of book. But recently I spent a week on the South Florida coast, and I figured that I had to give the Travis McGee series another try while I was there. I’m glad that I did. Years ago, I read the début installment in the series, A Deep Blue Goodbye, and wasn’t at all impressed by it. But maybe I’ve changed since then, or maybe this tale is just a cut above the earlier book, or maybe it helps to read about McGee while taking in the sunny, seedy, sad world that he inhabits. No doubt all three of those points are pertinent. At any rate, I’d now say that I view the McGee series much as I do the Nero Wolfe saga. In each case, you get classically sharp American prose, and you get a winning pair of protagonists (McGee and Meyer, Wolfe and Goodwin) who retreat from the world into an idealized haven (a Manhattan brownstone, a Fort Lauderdale houseboat), where they conduct what amounts to a never-ending symposium on the follies that mark the passing scene. What you don’t get is any real complexity of plot, any real depth of mystery. And every so often, I’m quite happy to make that trade-off.]