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Books: Tasty No-Qual

4 minute read
Robert Hughes

THE SCARLET RUSE 318 pages. Fawcett. $1.25.

THE TURQUOISE LAMENT 286 pages. Lippincott. $6.95. by JOHN D. MacDONALD

An absolutely worthless novel refreshes the spirit as little else can. Reading one is the literary equivalent of retreating to the cellar with a jug. Naturally it is not easy to find a good worthless novel, but this month the reader with a November in his soul is in luck. John D. MacDonald, the nation’s best writer of no-qual crime fantasies, has turned out two splendid and utterly unmeritorious volumes.

The Scarlet Ruse and The Turquoise Lament are the 14th and 15th installments of MacDonald’s serially published dream manual about the beachboy Hamlet, Travis McGee. This paladin is a roughneck who lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., despoiling stewardesses and brooding about the decline of the West. He quests forth, when funds are low, to do battle for the dread forces of reality—a Robin Hood among chattel rustlers who steals loot back from thugs and swindlers and returns it, minus a 50% commission, to the widows and orphans from whom it was taken. Oftener than not a girl enters the picture. Part of the game is to guess whether she is a thug, swindler, widow or orphan.

The McGee mixture is an agreeable blend of boat lore, suspense, machismo, sex and lighthearted sadism. The Scarlet Ruse turns on the theft of $500,000 worth of rare postage stamps. In The Turquoise Lament, McGee learns that a thieving Florida lawyer blocks the forward progress of justice—and of the plot. He invades the miscreant’s country estate, eases him from the middle of a disgraceful orgy, binds him and drops him live into a freshly dug backwoods grave—a marvel of vengeful fantasy. Lawyers are the schoolyard bullies of modern society, against whom no ordinary child dares battle, and here is one of them with fear in his heart and swamp water in his ears, lying at the bottom of a mucky hole and spilling out his guilt to McGee.

Such gratification is worth a lot to anyone fumbling among paperback sleazies in bus-station bookracks. Yet, until now, it has not cost much. MacDonald was an old penny-a-liner, with 50 or 60 paperback thunderations behind him, before he began the Travis McGee series more than a decade ago.

The experiment of issuing MacDonald in hardback (The Turquoise Lament) is not progress. Few artifacts are as needless as hardback crime stories. Still, those who lose a day from their lives whenever a new McGee mystery appears will no doubt continue to do so. (The McGee series has sold more than 14 million paperback volumes, and MacDonald’s income has been estimated at $100,000 a year.) To understand why, consider the portrait on the covers of the new novels. Each cover shows a view of the formidable McGee, leathery, curly-haired and, say, a rugged 37.

Much of Travis McGee’s appeal is due to his point of view, which is one of slightly disaffected middle age. He may be 6 ft. 4 in., a weapons expert and a former N.F.L. tight end (as who is not, in fantasy?). But he gripes constantly, with some style, about the sex habits of kids, the rapaciousness of land developers, and the gaudy promises of the consumer society. He remembers a time when Florida’s coastal waters were almost clean. He has known a few good women, true-blue but now long gone.

What better barge on which to ride out male climacteric than McGee’s houseboat Busted Flush (won in a poker game), with its pasha’s bed, four-nozzle shower, 1,100-mile range and capacious tanks full of nostalgia and contempt? This time MacDonald gives McGee and his brainy friend Meyer (a retired financier who lives aboard the good ship John Maynard Keynes) some fine autumnal soliloquies.

Let no man say that this is escapist claptrap. MacDonald offers something far more profound, the claptrap of no way out.

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