Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Dreadful Lemon Sky - John D. MacDonald

“McGee, we’re talking about image here. We’re building an image people are going to trust. You ought to hear that boy give a speech. Make you tingle all over. What I wouldn’t want to happen, I wouldn’t want anybody to come here, some stranger, and try to make a big fuss based entirely on the word of some dead thieving slut.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Especially when it would be bad timing for Frederick in his career. A man shouldn’t lose his whole future on account of one foolish act. It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

Fawcett Gold Medal Books 1974

From a novel published in 1974 the above exchange sounds very modern, particularly in a country of wealth and political expedience. I thought The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald was the last novel in the Travis McGee series that I had not read, but I was mistaken. I probably read it more than 30 years ago, because some of the scenes came back to me again. As for the plot itself, I had mostly forgotten it. So coming back to this novel was almost like reading it for the first time, with just snatches of déjà vu along the way.

It begins like many Travis McGee novels do; a woman, in this case Carrie Milligan, comes back into McGee’s life after several years bringing trouble with her. Carrie is carrying a bag full of money, over $90,000, and she wants McGee to keep it safe for her, no questions. If she doesn’t come back for it in a month’s time, he’s to make sure her sister Suzie Dobrovsky gets it, minus $10k for his fee. McGee agrees to the deal, somewhat reluctantly. Carrie was a friend of his, and his natural instinct is to “rescue” her from whatever it is she’s running from. But Carrie keeps her silence and leaves in the night, leaving the money with McGee.

Well you don’t have to read many books like this to know that Carrie is not going to be coming back for the money. Instead she’s going to wind up dead in a suspicious accident, leaving McGee 90 thousand reasons to find just who was behind Carrie’s fatal “accident” and just where the money came from.

So McGee and his pal Meyer (that’s the entire name you get for his pal in these novels) take the houseboat to Bayside Florida, where Carrie had resided before being killed. They’re not docked at the marina half an hour when they get pulled into the family drama between Cal and Cindy Birdsong, the owners of the marina. Cal is a raging drunk who accuses Cindy of “peddling her ass” to McGee as he checks in to the marina. A fight ensues and Cal is taken away by the police while Cindy recovers from more bruises. A worker, Jason Breen, tells McGee that Cal Birdsong wasn’t always a drunken bully, but that something in recent months changed him. McGee and Meyer go to Carrie’s last employer and meet Joanne, a friend of Carrie’s. They learn that Consolidated Construction Company, where  she did the bookkeeping, is going belly-up.  Owners Harry Hascomb and Jack Omaha had a falling out and Jack Omaha has disappeared. Further backtracking into Jack Omaha’s background leads McGee to local attorney Fred Van Harn. Fred Van Harn is one of those sleazy types who affects long sideburns and fancy watches and a sleazy talent for banging young girls and wives of prominent businessmen. McGee also learns from Joanna that he’s got a kinky twist and likes to hurt women. As McGee pulls the varied characters together he discovers they’re all linked to an amateur get-rich-quick scheme dealing smuggled marijuana to a local singles apartment complex where Carrie lived. A place McGee and Meyer refer to as “Swinglesville.” Unfortunately, as with most schemes, this one runs off the rails, and someone is eliminating the party-goers.

I mentioned that this novel was published in 1974 and it shows its decade in all its sleazy glory. Jesus beards, sideburns, grass, swingers, rock music, it’s all here. You can almost smell incense and pot when you open its pages. In fact, a couple of mood rings fell out of my book. It reeks of 70s fashion, manners and lingo. The McGee books are snapshots of the times they were written. Unfortunately, that eye for detail and ear for dialogue can seem hopelessly dated for a lot of modern readers. But, this book is a terrific look at what MacDonald saw taking place around him in Florida in 1974. He uses McGee and Meyer to dissect the scene for the rest of us squares. McGee is an anachronism, a guy out of place in these modern times. I understand the gripes against these novels, but I forgive them of all that. McGee sometimes comes across more than a bit judgmental and square.  And I don’t care, because the stories, man…the stories!

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