Book Review: A Tan and Sandy Silence

Middle of the pack, lesser Travis, but good enuf
by John D. MacDonald
Review by Brian Wright

Frankly I don’t remember the plot too well on this one. Travis does reflect quite a bit on life and love, but these philosophical passages did not seem central as in so many others in the series. The plot involves a search for a missing person, a woman with whom Travis has had a relationship long ago… which ended amiably.

I would have to say this novel, which I believe is number 13 out of 21, reveals the beginnings of Travis’s anxiety over slowing down with age. As a salvage expert, McGee has made a career from helping people in distress. But in so doing—and not being a man of conventional methods—he runs into considerable danger and damage. Indeed it’s somewhat of a conventional ending to witness McGee suffering broken bones, cuts, gunshot wounds, knife stabbings, and even beatings. His adversaries are practically as physical as he is and sleazy cunning.

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But what’s always kept him alive and given him the edge is some basic knowledge in how to fight—Trav is not given to using guns much—and his ability to move his 6′ 3″ muscular frame very quickly for such a big man. Plus he’s truly a philosopher in understanding the motivations of key players in the field. He also has a sensitive quality, particularly toward the defenseless and those who have been dealt bad cards in life. [Which tells you something about his motivation for working independently as a ‘salvage expert’ to recover property for such would be victims… for a cool 50% of what is recovered.]

In this novel, Travis, looking for a missing person, poses as an agent offering to pay a considerable sum of insurance money upon proof of death. The story starts off with the former husband of the missing person coming aboard Travis’s houseboat, the Busted Flush, and behaving erratically. The man waves a gun, indeed, attempts to shoot McGee; McGee is lucky the man’s aim is lousy. The fact that he narrowly escapes such a freak situation with his life causes his reverie into when he might choose another line of work.

After many twists and turns stateside, the plot takes Travis to Grenada, where he believes he has located the woman. The rest—until the climax—is rather unremarkable for a John D. MacDonald book, except the man standing in the way of Travis “getting paid” is an extremely athletic and vicious psychopath. Well, the showdown between the two is the climax; what I’m saying is most of the tweener (in between) material lacks the snap, crackle, and insight of your typical TM episode.

Here are a smattering of comments from Amazon reviews:

“The action is often illogical, and too often Travis – err – Gavin stumbles into old friends at the most unlikely places, bailing him out of trouble. Sorry, this one just didn’t click for me.”

“A Tan and Sandy Silence is certainly not the best book John D. MacDonald ever authored. In fact, some may find it way too dark and unsettlingly disturbing. Others may object to it for a host of very legitimate reasons.”

“This was about my 13th McGee novel and it was a disappointment. I’m hip to the Trav legacy, and aware that the author’s condescension toward women, rock music and men with long hair was part of the McDonald DNA (sign of the times, probably). But this book just has too much of that.”

“I do not wish to write a review that says too much, spoiling it for a future reader. I just wanted to say that this one was a disappointment for me. This one was predictable, had Travis doing things that unpleasantly surprised me…”

“In sum, if you’re in the mood for sappy, incoherent, misogynistic, and, well, all-around cruddy fiction, you can’t go wrong with the peerless Travis McGee!”

“The attraction of McGee, at least in these later books, are MacDonald’s comments within them on the human condition, both specifically with regard to the Quixotic nature of McGee, as well as a general feeling of malaise which centers around money and violence.”

“This was my fourth or fifth Travis McGee novel, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, MacDonald is still MacDonald and the book is well written and engaging, but I thought overall “Tan and Sandy Silence” was lacking somehow.”

So the consensus is thumbs down.

But, even though this isn’t MacDonald’s best, and even though there are indeed strong—I would say uncharacteristic—elements of misogynism in some of what Travis does to a particular woman for detective purposes, and even though the antagonist is so psychotically evil as to be unlikely to have survived past his teen years (much less prospered as a super-rich international corporate executive), and even though some of the McGee cultural observations seem pedestrian and heavy handed, it’s still John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee.

As one of the reviewers remarks, it may not be one of MacDonald’s best—perhaps his teenage kids were acting up or protesting the war in Vietnam and his wife was verbally abusing him in that timeframe (1971)—but it is certainly memorable.

We’re missing the vintage McGee ruminations on life and death, or they’re just not as compelling in Silence. Still no one crafts a series of phrases like MacDonald. I like to pull them out and quote them in the review. This time I don’t find much; the following shows more than the ordinary self-absorption.

“I own some Sears electric clippers with plastic gadgets of various shapes which fit on the clippers to keep you from accidentally peeling your hair off down to the skull. I find that long hair is a damned nuisance on boats, on the beach, and in the water. So when it gets long enough to start to make me aware of it, I clipper it off, doing the sides in the mirror and the back by feel. The sun bleaches my hair and burns it and dries it out. And the salt water makes it feel stiff and look like some kind of Dynel. Were I going to keep it long, I would have to take care of it. That would mean tonics and lotions and special shampoos. That would mean brushing it and combing it a lot more than I do and somehow fastening it out of the way in a stiff breeze.” [pp. 123-124]

Contrast the above to the following soliloquy on death, from Pale Gray for Guilt:

I looked out of the jet at December gray, at cloud towers reaching up toward us. Tush was gone, and too many others were gone, and I sought chill comfort in an analogy of death that has been with me for years. It doesn’t explain or justify. It just seems to remind me of how things are.

Picture a very swift torrent, a river rushing down between rocky walls. There is a long, shallow bar of sand and gravel that runs right down the middle of the river. It is under water. You are born and you have to stand on that narrow, submerged bar, where everyone stands. The ones born before you, the ones older than you, are up upriver from you. The younger ones stand braced on the bar downriver. And the whole long bar is moving down the river of time, washing away at the upstream end and building up downstream….

So a good read, but many better.

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