First, an introduction to Travis McGee, for if you've never read the series before. If you know Travis, skip the next paragraph!
Travis is a combat veteran (of the Korean War), who lives on a houseboat & solves problems (usually violent ones) for people. Travis isn't a social animal, and dislikes crowds. To some reviewers, he's "the coolest guy in the world", but to others, he's a macho misogynist. Neither view is correct. Perhaps because of Travis's military background, & his dangerous occupation, he's in 'survival mode' all the time. Travis is chronically suspicious(hypervigilant, perhaps),when not with close friends (of whom he has very few), and never drops his guard (See chapters 1 & 2 of 'The Dreadful Lemon Sky'). As regards Travis's paranoia, Meyer said (in Cinnamon Skin?)that he could pinpoint, in Travis's childhood, exactly where it started. Travis's girlfriend, in 'Pale Gray For Guilt', describes it by saying the whole world is 'enemy country' to Travis McGee. To McGee, however, this isn't machismo - it's survival. Travis counterbalances this, by acting like he's really relaxed and easy going. In the early books, John McDonald presents Travis as being a 'cool' (horrible word) character. Later in the series, McDonald explores the psychological damage that being in 'survival mode' is doing to Travis's state of mind. He suffers frequent nightmares; wants to shed his identity; and after his girlfriend's death, in the Green Ripper, Travis's self-image finally starts to unravel, leaving him close to a breakdown.
Right, 'Pale Gray For Guilt'.
I read this because one reviewer said it's the best Travis McGee novel. It's certainly a good one. We're still near the start of the series, & Travis is happy with himself. The novel has a very mellow beginning, with Travis relaxing on a boat - McDonald's prose is Hemingway-esque, matching the lapping of the waves (for fans of McDonald, there are references to 'The Last One Left'). Like in Jaws, you know a relaxed start means the writer's going to surprise you with a sudden shock! Still, McDonald makes you wait a bit longer, whilst Travis visits an old friend, where McDonald is even more sure-footed, treating us to some of Travis's famously sharp observations on human nature - then the bombshells start coming. Anyway, I won't spoil the plot.
'Pale Gray For Guilt' is different from other Travis McGee novels, as it's gentler & has more humour. Travis's exploits are tawdry & unsavoury, in his other adventures, as he struggles to retain his self-respect. This one has much less violence & trashiness. Nor are there examinations of deep literary themes that you get later in the series (I'm sure McDonald was a fan of Joseph Conrad - "No one can live up to their own expectations" is his favourite theme).
I've wondered whether Travis was an inspiration for some aspects of Jim Rockford, with Jim's trailer standing in for Travis's houseboat. 'Pale Gray For Guilt' confirms my suspicions, as we get 'a variation on the old pigeon drop scam', a phrase Jim Rockford uses, word for word, in 'The Farnsworth Stratagem'.
If you are new to Travis McGee, and want to start the series, the first novel, 'The Deep Blue Goodbye', is probably the best, for sheer pace & drive. It's not for the squeamish, though, being extremely unsavoury (Travis even tortures people). If you are easily shocked,'Pale Gray For Guilt' could be the place to start. It's more mellow, and presents Travis in a different light.
I first started reading Travis McGee, because Spider Robinson (I used to read Spider's Callahan's Bar stories in my Dad's 'Analog', when I was a teenager)said that John McDonald was his favourite author. They are trash; but there are few things better to read, for when you can't get to sleep at night.