The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald (1975)

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Detective Travis McGee is approached by an old friend, Carrie Milligan, who asks him to keep a suitcase of money safe — McGee can keep $10,000 if he carries out the task. When Carrie is supposedly killed in a car accident two weeks later, McGee investigates the circumstances of her death. John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky closely follows the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction, exploring a troubled cast of characters and flavoring mystery with a love for action.

Travis McGee captures the essence of the typical hard-boiled detective. A man with an army background, he is strong, resolute, and a skilled fighter. He does not work with a force, only solving crime with his one partner Meyer. With his independence and competence, McGee could make the ideal charming protagonist, but despite his skill (as well as possessing a sense of humor) McGee feels more like a watered down hard-boiled detective. It feels as though McGee’s character was the sole source of blueprints for future female hard-boiled detective Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton’s “A” is for Alibi. Both detectives possess a “masculine” sense of resolve, a background of professional training, and a love interest, but they lack individual appeal nonetheless. Instead of getting to know Travis McGee, the reader can expect to be saddled with lengthy descriptions of the world surrounding McGee, with hardly any internal reflections from McGee to reveal his character. As a result, McGee never becomes an interesting protagonist to follow. A narration in limited third-person perspective would produce a near copy of the reading as is.

No other characters offer salvation from the drab nature of McGee’s character, despite their complicated issues. Even Carrie Milligan, who is introduced in the novel’s very beginning eventually feels like nothing more than a tool to drive the rest of the story. I found myself not caring about her death and the solution to the mystery surrounding it. I simply drudged through the novel appreciating the prettily structured sentences — the words are written with a delicate flow but still lack the substance needed to make the story captivating. Oddly enough, the novel makes heavy use of an approach commonly found in hard-boiled detective fiction — telling the story primarily in dialogue — but it does nothing to elevate the novel. Sometimes, a character’s speech could span across an entire page’s length and still reveal an amount of information another author could successfully provide in half the text. The verbose nature of the novel further makes it a tedious read.

Ultimately, while the novel’s end packs more excitement, it still failed to spark intrigue in me (save for a single unexpected yet mildly amusing development one character experiences). I finished my reading of this novel having felt not a single connection to any character nor any desire to seek any more stories following Travis McGee, of which there is a startling amount.

About the Author

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John D. MacDonald has written over 500 short stories and 70 novels; of these, twenty-one are Travis McGee novels. He was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America in 1972 and won a U.S. National Book Award in 1980.  The Pennsylvania-born author had previously served in the second World War, and once it had ended, MacDonald attempted to make a living out of writing. He found a group of like-minded authors, artists, and architects, who would be known collectively as an artists’ colony. Aside from the Travis McGee series, MacDonald’s thriller novel The Executioners became well-known and was adapted into a film twice.


“John D. MacDonald.” GoodReads. GoodReads Inc., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2017

“John D. MacDonald.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2017. Web. 8 Dec. 2017.

Plunket, Bob. “Sarasota Author John D. MacDonald is Back in the Spotlight.” Sarasota. SagaCity Media, 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2017.

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