Reviewed by Mark D. Nevins:

  JOHN D. MacDONALD – Free Fall in Crimson. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1981. Fawcett Gold Medal, paperback, 1982. Reprinted many times since.

   I’m coming to the end of my run of the McGee series: Freefall in Crimson is the antepenultimate (how often does one get to use that word?), and so I’m somewhat disappointed to say, having just finished it, that it’s probably my second-least-favorite in the series. (My least favorite is Nightmare in Pink: the story seemed contrived and the psychedelic drug references have really not aged well.)

   The set-up in Crimson gave no indication that the book would fail to please: the estranged son of a wealthy businessman suspects his father was murdered, and locates problem-solver McGee through some old mutual connections (including a femme fatale from #4, The Quick Red Fox).

   Sounds like a typical kickoff for Travis, but the book fails to deliver the goods, at least by the standards JDM set for himself. I have a few thoughts on what’s “wrong” with Crimson:

   1. After the emotional intensity of The Green Ripper [reviewed here ], JDM may simply have been set for a let-down. (Green is far from my favorite, but it’s a massive step in a different direction from the series’ trajectory — an exhausting experience for the reader and, I expect, for the author as well.)

   2. JDM is a master of storytelling and pacing, and both seemed a bit left-footed here. The chapters and “story chunks” felt disproportionate, and the “mystery” didn’t really hang together: a quick pivot from tracks discovered in the bushes to deep undercover with motorcycle gangs; some amateur porno stuff that seemed like an afterthought and lazy; and a mob scene that advances the plot in a clunky deus-ex-machina way. Even the “economics” didn’t hang together as credibly as they do in so many of the other mysteries–and that’s an area JDM loves.

   3. The violence was a bit much — and more egregious than thrilling. Part of that was because it was rushed through (the main baddy Grizzel’s rampage was quick, and much of it “off-screen”), and part was that the bad guy didn’t have the deep intensity of some of the other major psychologically broken bad guys Trav has faced before. (My points 2 and 3 actually cross here–the last 30-40 pages of the book felt like they had been written in a single draft, and not polished up and filled out.)

   I also wonder if, and this may be a reach, JDM wasn’t also having a sort of change-of-heart as he wrote this book — hence the strange rough treatment of Meyer at the end. As Travis the protagonist has started to get weary of the world and its changes, has MacDonald the author also grown weary of the mystery/thriller genre? To some extent Green and Crimson seem to criticize the genre itself by the way they yank us out of the comfortable mood we’ve gotten used to getting into, in a comfortable chair with a McGee in our hands. I’ll need to think more about this angle as I make my way through Cinnamon and Silver.

   I can’t believe there are only two McGees left. I have sometimes thought it would be great to have someone else take a crack at a new McGee — but it would have to be a very careful choice, and I don’t like Stephen King (who has apparently offered) as a candidate. I’d choose a more “literary” writer, much as the Fleming estate has been doing with the James Bond series. Just like, as I’ve often thought, I’d love to see Garry Disher write a new Stark/Westlake “Parker” novel.

   One final problem with Crimson: it’s oddly lacking in the sorts of poetic writing I’ve come to love in a McGee book. There were a few pages I dog-eared, but the passages were short and lacked the usual elaborate internal monologue:

    “That is one of the great troubles, I thought, after I hung up. The people you have great empathy with are never conveniently located nearby. Many are, but the rest are scattered far and wide. You see them too seldom. But you can always pick up right where you left off. You know who they are. They know who you are. No reintroductions required.”


    “Once in a great while, like once every fifty miles, I even got a look at a tiny slice of the Gulf of Mexico, way off to the right. And remembered bringing the Flush down this coast with Gretel aboard. And wished I could cry as easily as a child does.”

   (If you’ve read The Green Ripper, that last one should make you choke up a little.)