McDonald is best known for his Travis McGee series, but crime fiction readers are doing themselves a major disservice by ignoring his two dozen other novels. The Empty Trap, first published in 1959, is a narrow laser-beam focused revenge tale. McDonald tells one story of one man rather than addressing everything in the world. It is a short, precise tale that begins with Lloyd coming to the realization that he flubbed it big time. Lesson one is that, if you are running a hotel for a mobster with a penchant for violence, you don’t run off with his wife and a $100,000 in small bills. It makes for a short romantic interlude while you try to pretend the hellhounds aren’t in your trail, while you try to forget that you’ve now publicly shamed the big man and there’s no place left on earth where you can hide.
McDonald made a conscious choice to open the novel, not with the cute story how Lloyd and Sylvia met and lost each other in their eyes, but with what happens when the three toughs catch up with the happy couple in a small town south of the border and beat them to a pulp. After taking turns brutalizing Sylvia, they roll the two lovebirds over a cliff. This entire excruciating sequence is told from Lloyd’s point of view as he sits tied helplessly, hoping something happens to save them.
His survival is carefully documented as he is battered and disfigured and barely alive. And as he slowly learns to walk, his mission as a man is contemplated. One of the themes McDonald plays with is whether revenge will ultimately be satisfying or will it leave Lloyd even more broken and lost. McDonald also asks whether Civilization as we know it is just corrupt and whether a simple life would be better, themes he later espoused at far greater length with Travis MCGee.