It's 1971 and a little more than halfway through the Travis McGee series when we meet our hero here, brooding about the passage of time and a growing sense of his own mortality. Time for him to stop risking his neck in the "salvage consulting" business, perhaps?
"I think you've been doing it for too long, darling," he is warned early on by a wealthy woman who wants him to settle down as her catamaran companion. "One day some dim little chap will come upon you suddenly and take out a gun and shoot you quite dead."
One of the worst things you can do with a Travis McGee novel is read that little bit of text on the back cover before you read anything else. You know, those two or three sentences that give you some idea what this mystery is about. Especially with "A Tan And Sandy Silence." Here, a big part of the pleasure is discovering as Travis does just what is up, as the story takes its time setting itself up and unfolds rather magnificently.
The first chapter gets us off with a bang, or rather six of them, all fired at Travis by an enraged husband who demands to know where his wife is. Travis for once is innocent, but the episode leaves him shaken. Could he nearly have gotten his ticket punched by an out-of-shape palooka like Harry Broll? And where is his wife, anyway? Since she is one of Travis's old flames, he wonders if he should find out. And keeps wondering for a few chapters. Meanwhile, we wonder what this novel we are a fifth of the way through is going to be about. Unless we read the back-cover blurb, anyway.
For me, the pleasure of MacDonald's story construction was more than a little compromised by a weakish mystery, full of improbable standoffs and left-field coincidences. The positive is that McGee is interesting company throughout, nowhere more so than when he must face some unhappy truths about his situation in the company of one of those nasty female characters MacDonald drew so uncomfortably well. When we meet her, well into the story on the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting Travis to give her the business. He sort of does, but pauses long enough to discover the potential of a better person under her hard shell. Then everything changes all at once, and the story gets harsher and colder.
The action of the story gets more implausible as it goes on, but the core of it remains interesting, especially to McGee fans: Our hero is beginning to doubt his own abilities. Worse, after years of bedding women, he is beginning to lose his taste for employing his masculinity so casually. MacDonald puts us on notice here that McGee is a man of flesh and blood, able to feel not only pain but fear. It sharpens the narrative substantially.
Which is a good thing when the story gets a bit slack here and there. The weakest part is a ship full of happy prostitutes who remind us what an unabashed male fantasist MacDonald could be, even when it hurt his story. The best part is a deepening of McGee's tie with his financially minded companion, the wry Meyer, who makes for a worthy sounding board for the book's longer philosophical stretches. There is a lot of philosophizing here.
"The real guilt is being a human being," MacDonald has McGee observe. "That is the horrible reality which bugs us all. Wolves, as a class, are cleaner, more industrious, far less savage, and kinder to each other and their young."
Better McGee novels tie down such thoughts to firmer narratives, but "A Tan And Sandy Silence" is a gripping read even when it's not holding together that well as a story. As a visit with an old friend who is facing the prospect of getting older with less than his usual suavity, "Tan" has a good deal going for it. If you are following the McGee series, and don't mind a few loose ends, you may feel your interest for Travis deepening after reading this book.