The character of Travis McGee was the most successful creation of Florida crime fiction icon John D. MacDonald. The McGee series lasted for 21 installments from 1964 to 1984. Like most long-running series titles of that era, the earlier entries are known to be better than the later ones. MacDonald was smart cookie and wrote the books so they can be read in any order. Today, we’ll tackle the ninth McGee paperback, “Pale Gray for Guilt” from 1968.
McGee is a self-described beach bum living on a Florida houseboat called The Busted Flush named after the poker hand that won him the boat. To the extent that he works at all, he’s a “salvage consultant” who helps people find things they’ve lost - usually money or people - in exchange for a piece of the recovery. In practice, he functions as an unlicensed private eye (or “knight errant”) for friends and their referrals. In many of the books, McGee has a sidekick named Meyer, an underemployed economist and fellow armchair philosopher who often joins McGee on his escapades. That’s pretty much all you need to know to jump into the series at any point.
“Pale Gray for Guilt” opens with McGee going to visit a friend of his nicknamed Tush who owns a low-end motel and river marina with his wife Janine not far from the Bahia Mar marina where McGee resides on his own boat. Tush is having financial difficulties, and there’s a major land developer who wants Tush and Janine’s leveraged property. The evil corporation up the road is polluting the river and wants to dredge the waterway to make room for barges. However, these plans are contingent on Tush and Janine getting out of the way.
It’s important to understand that the environment and corporate development of Florida’s coastal waterways were major bugaboos for MacDonald. Many McGee books have the character pontificating about this issue, and it’s clear that McGee is speaking with MacDonald’s voice. Some of MacDonald’s stand-alone novels address this issue head-on, and “Pale Gray for Guilt” is the McGee paperback that makes corporate greed and land development the enemy of the righteous and the apparent motivation for murder.
As the foreclosure documents are being served upon Tush, his body is found at his marina dead from an apparent suicide. Upon learning this, McGee refuses to believe his friend would kill himself and sets out to find the killer and save the property for the distressed widow Janice. The legal and business machinations McGee employs to stymie the foreclosure are plenty clever. The author had an MBA and enjoyed strutting his business acumen for many storylines through this career as a fiction writer.
The problem with white collar crime stories involving land deals and stock price manipulation is that it can make for some dry and technical reading. The middle section of the novel has a lot of that, and if such things are uninteresting to you, there are 20 other McGee novels that aren’t as mired in business machinations.
Once he gets back to the actual murder investigation, the plot is materially more satisfying. The boots on the ground investigation into the causes and perpetrators of Tush’s death make for a fun mystery novel. McGee’s sidekick for this adventure is a plucky love interest named Puss (I know, I know) who adds some value to McGee’s fieldwork. His normal sidekick Meyer also gets a piece of the action in the paperback’s second half.
Under no circumstances should “Pale Gray for Guilt” be your introduction to the Travis McGee series. It’s just too slow to hook a new reader. However, if you are acclimated into McGee’s world and open to a financial crime murder adventure, you’ll probably enjoy this one just fine.
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