“Darker Than Amber,” by John D. MacDonald
(Fawcett Publications, 1966)
I have one summer reading ritual that remains unvaried, yet never leaves me bored: Each year, I read or re-read installments in John D. MacDonald’s “Travis McGee” series.
Those 21 crime thrillers, published between 1964 and 1985, follow a Fort Lauderdale “salvage consultant” regularly summoned from his beloved houseboat to retrieve something stolen or rescue someone missing. Without fail, vivid mayhem ensues. And while McGee is quicker and cagier than generally everyone he encounters, he’s also often hobbled by overconfidence or self-loathing, depending on the day; imagine Don Draper if “Mad Men” had been a detective series with beaches and boats and you’re getting the vibe.
Despite the format, MacDonald’s meticulous plotting and vivid characters make his work fully re-readable, but it’s his shrewd and frequent digressions on American life, culture and human character that really bear revisiting — most are way ahead of their time, but the ones that haven’t aged as well are still an intriguing snapshot of an era.
For a stand-alone sampling of the series, the seventh entry, 1966’s “Darker Than Amber,” finds both MacDonald and McGee at the peak of their prime.
— Neil Harvey