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The Lonely Silver Rain

April 28, 1985|Don G. Campbell | Campbell is a Times staff writer and author. and

The Lonely Silver Rain

by John D. MacDonald (Knopf: $15.95; 208 pp.)

The suspicion abounds that the real fans of novelist John D. MacDonald would buy and read everything the man writes, even if his entire literary output were confined to the dosage directions on patent medicine bottles. The likes of his following haven't been seen since the days of the great buffalo herds in the American West.

Needless to say, then, the occasion of the publication of MacDonald's 21st Travis McGee adventure, "The Lonely Silver Rain," is nothing to be lightly shrugged off, although those of us who discovered MacDonald back in his pulp magazine days after World War II take the rather snobbish view that the Johnny-Come-Latelys, the P.T., or Post-Travis, fans don't really appreciate the true scope of the man's prodigious storytelling powers.

Admittedly, however, the charismatic host of the Busted Flush, the Fort Lauderdale-docked houseboat that serves as McGee's base of operations, never disappoints. Half buccaneer, half glistening knight, the craggy champion of underdogs and abused ladies is not your usual adventure novel hero. Nary a new Travis McGee adventure comes onto the scene without revealing still more depth and complexity in the man's character.

"The Lonely Silver Rain" opens in a deceptively routine fashion--with a request from an old friend, now in the big bucks, for McGee's help in tracking down his brand-new yacht, stolen from him on its shake-out cruise by a slack-jawed juvenile delinquent and his cuddly girlfriend. Not, the lulled reader says, sniffing disdainfully, the sort of chore that will long thwart the resourceful McGee.

Nor, sure enough, does it, despite the fact that the job is trickier than it looks on the surface. How do you locate a stolen yacht? From the air, of course, but with Florida's hundreds of marinas where one boat looks, from the air, like a thousand others, and where there are thousands of miles of shoreline both on the oceans and the inland waterways, it is still no small task.

Anyone with journeyman status as a MacDonald fan should know, that, so far, the finding of the yacht is a Travis McGee standing-on-his-hands feat. And even the grisly contents of the recovered yacht--the two teen-agers done in most fouly, plus a third, unidentified girl--are fairly standard fare.

But MacDonald has little patience with standard fare and, in short order, "The Lonely Silver Rain" starts taking on new dimensions. The story, based in Florida as it is, not too unexpectedly leads into the Mexico-Latin America drug traffic for which Florida is the logical conduit. But if the loyal reader isn't particularly surprised by this plot turn, he certainly is by the next.

We suddenly have in Travis McGee--the quintessential tracker, the paragon of self-reliance--a man who, for the first time in his long, literary career, is not only the target of some undefined evil--trying skillfully to kill him--but who also finds himself in the grip of a most uncharacteristic emotion: fear. Pure and simple fear.

Whose toes did he step on in his seemingly innocuous search for the yacht; who has so much evil power at his or her command, and who has so much hate for him? The answer is, no one. Who is leaving cat-shaped pipe cleaners at the door of the Busted Flush, and why?

And so begins McGee's near-frantic, and dangerous, exploration into the international drug traffic where, logic tells him, the key to the "why?" of the vendetta against him must lie. And as the ever-present specter of death hangs over him--and as an old friend lies dying of terminal cancer, alone, in a cheerless apartment--another emotion heretofore foreign to McGee surfaces: his own, long-suppressed loneliness and the realization that, perhaps, he has overplayed the loner's role.

What greater testament to MacDonald's craftsmanship than this? That after 20 novels starring the same hero, his protagonist is as fresh as ever, and that the groundwork (no plot giveaways, here) has been laid for even more adventures of the new Travis McGee.

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