Book Review : John D. MacDonald - Darker Than Amber (1966)
The twentieth century is full of once ubiquitous characters who are now forgotten: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason or Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, to name a few. They were the Walter Whites and June Osbornes of their era, but few people remember who they are today. John D. MacDonald’s beach bum turned self-interested investigator Travis McGee is one of these characters and a novel like Darker Than Amber (7th in the Mcgee series) is one of the reasons why he deserves to be remembered by any means necessary.
Darker Than Amber begins with Travis McGee and his friend Meyer fishing and generally minding their own business. Their blissful evening is interrupted by two men dropping a weighted body from a nearby bridge. McGee immediately dives in the cold, dark waters and saves a young woman from a certain death. She turns out to be Evangeline Bellemere or Vangie, a working girl in over her head with dangerous people. McGee feels like he shouldn’t prod her situation with a ten foot pole although she offered him money. That is until she turns up dead.
The first eighty pages of Darker Than Amber consist in Travis McGee slowly developing an obsession with Evangeline, which is some of the best John D. MacDonald writing I’ve ever read. Despite knowing better, McGee gets enraptured by the world weariness and the street savvy she projects. He sees right through her stories, but becomes fascinated by the gaps between who she is and who she pretends to be. Having McGee not in completely in control of his feelings makes him come off as more human than ever and also cranks up the danger factor.
Taking unlikely risks for intangible reasons like love or revenge is also new for the character. That’s why it’s so great to have his friend Meyer along to subtly bust his balls about it. It shields the novel from its own romanticism.
One of the quirks of John D. MacDonald’s writing is that he likes to begin chapters without explaining what the fuck is going on or establishing any link to what just happened. He cranks it up to the extreme in Darker Than Amber and it can get a little much at times. Travis McGee can talk to a character for two or three pages before you realize she’s an employee of the man he’s looking for and he’s trying to understand how their grift works. Following the plot in John D. MacDonald’s novel has never been easy and Darker Than Amber is no exception.
MacDonald is kind of a writers writer in that regard. If you don’t enjoy his topsy-turvy cleverness, you’re not going to appreciate Travis McGee novels because he’s always testing your level of attention like that. He’s the furthest thing from Michael Connelly or Elmore Leonard, as far as detective novels go.
Darker Than Amber is brooding, melancholic and the first Travis McGee novel where he loses control over his emotions. That makes it considerably more interesting than its predecessors, except maybe for The Deep Blue Good-By, because McGee is self-aware. He’s not wrapped up in ideas of righteous vengeance. Or should I say not completely wrapped up.I would go as far as calling it the second mandatory stop in the series. Travis McGee takes a psychological step forward in Darker Than Amber, which is exciting and makes the follow-ups all that more intriguing.