Sunday 28 June 2020

The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of my favourite writers, and his creation Travis McGee one of my favourite characters. 

McGee is a kind of unofficial private detective who specialises in attempting to recover large sums of money which have been stolen or otherwise taken from the victim by unscrupulous means.

The deal is, if he's successful, he keeps half the loot and the other half goes back to his client. As he points out — half is a lot better than nothing.

This is a late Travis McGee adventure, number 15 in the series, published in 1973, and both MacDonald and his hero are on absolutely top form. 

The book has the fabulous, densely organised readability of Thomas Harris's Cari Mora and it is full of vivid interest on every page.

I often compare MacDonald to Harris. They are both writers who, with these books, are at the absolute peak of their craft.

The Turquoise Lament is gorgeously written, suspenseful as hell and terrifically funny.

It begins with McGee, summoned by a damsel in distress, jetting to Honolulu and glimpsing "a single tilted vista of Los Angeles in morning light" as he takes off in his connecting flight.

The purloined booty in this particular adventure is literally sunken treasure — pirate gold. And the methodical procedure of a modern undersea treasure hunt is masterfully evoked.

McGee and his fellows use electronic probes and high pressure hoses to search the silt on the ocean floor, with barracuda watching them "like old men at a contruction site."

Like his creator, McGee is respectful of wildlife and very prescient in his environmental concerns. He notes that, "The eerie savage predators of the deep have gotten a very bad press." 

Such ecological interests keeps MacDonald entirely modern and indeed at the cutting edge, as in him talking about ancient geological events, "when mankind was only an unborn threat to the distant future."

The story of the treasure hunt is told with bravura economy. Here is the first sentence of  Chapter 3: "Yes, we found the cannon and we found the gold."

But within a few pages the vast fortune it is snatched away from our protagonists by a hurricane.

Don't worry, though, there is more treasure under the ocean. And the huge wealth at stake makes a young woman the target of a charming, manipulative — and utterly murderous — psychopath.

Which is where McGee comes in.

This book is full of priceless descriptions. A bully's countenance "looked more like a fat boiled fist than a face." 

In the frantic run up to Christmas in Florida: "Counter clerks radiate an exhausted patience leavened with icy flashes of total hate."

Up in the sky there is the "thunder-roll of a jet." "A big raw Saturday wind" blows through the streets. The parking meters by the beach look like a "small lonely forest of Martian flowers." Golf carts are "whining contrivances."

Another great virtue of the Travis McGee novels is that McGee is not a solo act. MacDonald had the great good sense to equip him with a comrade in arms, a brilliant semi-retired economist called Meyer (we never find out his other name).

Meyer is much more than a Watson to McGee's Holmes. Their partnership is more like Aubrey and Maturin in the brilliant seafaring novels of Patrick O'Brian.

This friendship is a thing of beauty and adds a huge extra dimension to these books. The McGee stories are never more compelling than when Meyer is in peril, as he is here.

And he's not the only one. I mentioned the young woman targeted by the psychopath. This antagonist is a classic John D. MacDonald monster...

He is memorably referred to at various times as "a very cold and strange entity", "an amiable maniac", a "jolly sociopath" and a "monstrous... non-person."

In the clutches of such a formidable villain, our heroine is up against overwhelming odds and appears certainly doomed.

But that very cold and strange entity and amiable maniac is, in turn, up against one Travis McGee...

So suffice to say this jolly sociopath and monstrous non-person gets what's coming to him.

If you haven't read any John D. MacDonald, or any of his Travis McGee books, I would say this supremely well crafted novel is an ideal place to start

I can scarcly convey to you just what an effortless pleasure it was to read. 

(Image credits: The $1.25 Fawcett paperback and the rather rubbish British Hale hardcover (leg and gun) are scanned by me from my own library. The other covers are from Good Reads, with these exceptions — the Pan cover is from the Cotswold Library on eBay. The German paperback is from Mord Lust. The German three volume compendium — "blaue krimis" is from Book Looker.)

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