Saturday, 16 March 2013

Cinnamon Skin

John D. MacDonald

There are no hundred-percent heroes.


The last time I read a Travis McGee book was about a decade ago, so picking up Cinnamon Skin was like catching up on an old friend from college. The main reason for the gap between reading the last one (Freefall in Crimson, if memory serves) was nothing to do with the quality of the product and everything to do with availability. I can't remember the last time I saw a Travis McGee paperback in a bookshop, library or even a charity shop.

I don't know if these books are out of print worldwide, or just in the UK, but either way it's a mystery: firstly because it's a great example of a mainstream thriller series, secondly because MacDonald has influenced a lot of today's bestsellers, notably one Lee Child.

Reading this book in 2013 it becomes clear that Travis McGee is the missing link between Philip Marlowe and Jack Reacher: a tough, world-weary detective who operates outside the system and is given to bouts of philosophising between fist fights.

With some honourable exceptions, I've always preferred my thriller protagonists to be PIs and amateurs rather than cops: there's something about the lone individual operating outside of the system that's somehow fundamental to the form. I've read and enjoyed straight-up procedurals too, but for me you lose something when the hero has too much official help and too many resources. The cops I do like tend to be the mavericks like Harry Bosch and John Rebus: men who are often at odds with their superiors and who tend to solve the case despite their respective law enforcement organisations rather than because of them.

McGee is positioned even more outside of the system than most: he's not even a licenced private detective, rather a 'salvage expert' who takes on hopeless causes, taking fifty percent of the value of the item recovered in lieu of expenses. He's light on roots and possessions, living on a boat moored in Fort Lauderdale - not quite the zen minimalism of Jack Reacher's existence, but absolutely along the same lines. It's a great setup for a protagonist as it doesn't tie him down to one job or one city or one type of case.

Cinnamon Skin is different from the earlier books in that the case is personal. When McGee's best friend Meyer's niece is killed in a boat explosion, the evidence suggests her new husband is responsible, and the pair embark on a quest to track this killer down. The plot is fairly linear and straightforward, leading to a satisfying showdown, but as always, plot is almost incidental. It takes a back seat to MacDonald's rich characterisation and scene-setting, with plenty of the aforementioned philosophising from Travis McGee as narrator. One passage in particular is prescient as McGee muses in the early 80s about a brave new world faciliated by computers, where people can read books and by products without leaving the comfort of their own bedroom.

What I learned: you have more freedom with a lone wolf protagonist; unique characters are more important than a unique plot

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