Professional “salvage consultant” Travis McGee doesn’t much care for the idea of taking on a case of missing postage stamps, no matter how valuable they apparently are. But lately Trav has been taking one of his long “installments” on his retirement and he needs to replenish his accounts. So he sits down with Hirsh Fedderman, a friend of his friend Meyer, and hears all about how over $400,000 worth of a mobster’s stamp collection have been switched out of a safety deposit box and replaced with junk. Luckily, the mobster hasn’t noticed yet, but when he does there’ll be hell to pay.
McGee gets to work learning about the stamp business and the store’s operations. Luckily for him Fedderman’s only employees are two attractive women. The first is a war widow with a hippie daughter already well-known to local law enforcement. The other is separated from a cruel husband who’s threatened to kill her if she touches another man. Did one of them switch out the stamps, hoping to use the pint-sized fortune to escape to a better life? Or did the mobster steal his own property to collect the insurance while retaining the collateral?
The Scarlet Ruse is the fourteenth novel in the Travis McGee series. Though McGee isn’t a traditional detective in any of them, there are some where there is a more complicated mystery going on. This one is more action-oriented, as McGee and his female companion find themselves on the run in his boat, hiding out near an unoccupied island, dodging mosquitoes and trying to set a trap for an angry, vengeful mobster. Macdonald is big on process, laboring over the elaborate measures McGee takes to prepare his boat for conflict and set the trap. As part of a larger narrative this can be a fun addition, but when the rest of the story is so slight it starts to drag.
The other aspect of the McGee series that is unfortunately prominent in The Scarlet Ruse is McGee’s retrograde chauvinism and views on society. Macdonald is a good enough writer (and in on the joke enough) to make McGee’s “hot takes” merely a piece of his character and not the main thing about him, but in this novel they stick out a little more and rub the reader the wrong way.
Though The Scarlet Ruse is a weak entrant, overall I’ve enjoyed the McGee novels enough to give Macdonald a pass.