Book Review : John D. MacDonald - A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
Investigator/beach bum Travis McGee is the main reason why some people still remember John D. MacDonald today. The recurring protagonist starred in twenty-one novels where did a little bit of everything from investigating on disappearances Philip Marlowe style, to going on Indiana Jones-like adventures abroad. A Deadly Shade of Gold is a savant mix of everything Travis McGee is good at, including falling in love with mysterious woman, and that's why it's perhaps the best novel in the series since the original, The Deep Blue Good-By. It's a 201 class in sophisticated summer reads.
This time, it doesn't start with a woman. It's a phone call from an old friend named Sam Taggart, which prompts Travis McGee out of his alleged sun-soaked laziness *. Taggart is back in town after disappearing for three years and wants McGee's help to reunite with his star-crossed lover Nora Gardino, a strong, kind and passionate woman who always kept faith in him. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, Sam is murdered before he can reunite with Nora and McGee finds a strange little gold statuette among his personal effects, which seem to be the reason why he was killed.
A Deadly Shade of Gold is the first Travis McGee novel John D. MacDonald wrote in 1965 after pumping four of these the previous year and it shows. It's twice as long as its predecessors, has multiple narratives embedded in different parts of the novel and it has McGee doing new things. Our protagonist and Nora eventually go to Mexico in order to investigate Sam's death and I love how MacDonald crossed the border physically and morally, with his character. McGee is nastier, less ethical and doesn't uphold any kind of moral standard in getting justice for Sam. He's visibly disgusted with the people responsible for his friend's demise and I got a huge kick out of that.
Another thing that I loved about A Deadly Shade of Gold - and this is getting somewhat of a recurring theme - is the female character Nora. Travis McGee novels are defined by the women our protagonist meet and Nora Gardino is perhaps the most interesting yet. She's courageous, sefless, fiercely loving. She reminded me of a certain woman I wake up next to every morning. And she challenges McGee's positions even harder than her predecessors. Because of women like Nora in even novel, McGee transforms from a rugged bachelor into a morally nuanced existential vigilante. He's developing to become way, way more than just a detective.
I don't think casual readers can truly appreciate John D. MacDonald's writing, like I don't think casual basketball fans can truly appreciate the game of Tim Duncan. It's a super elitist thing to say, but you have to read a lot of good-to-mediocre mysteries in order to appreciate how original and detail-oriented the Travis McGee novels are. A Deadly Shade of Gold rekindled the flame I think both for John D. MacDonald then and for me, as a reader. It's taut, multilayered, observant and thoroughly creative. It's a mix of everything I already liked about Travis McGee and new grounds of moral nuance. Loved it.
* McGee claims to be lazy, but there's no evidence of it.