9. Pale Gray for Guilt (Spoiler)

In all emotional conflicts the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.”   —Meyer’s Law

Pale Gray for Guilt holds a special place in my heart because it’s both the first John D. MacDonald (JDM) and the first Travis McGee book I ever read.

It was 1989. I’d been taking a mystery-writing course from a novelist named H. Edward Hunsburger. (Nice guy, good teacher. I lost touch with him shortly thereafter, and have since learned that he was murdered in 2011—dying of head injuries sustained in a mugging.) One time my wife and I had him over for supper. He asked me who my favorite mystery writers were. I mentioned Robert Parker, Ross MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett. Ed noted my interest in hard-boiled PI stories and cagily asked: “Ever read John D. MacDonald?” Nope, I said, never heard of him. Ed was appalled—in a joshing way. And he proceeded to tell me that JDM’s Travis McGee was the apogee…the summit…the paragon…the best of the best of the first-person crime yarns. And then told me why. A few weeks later I randomly plucked Gray off the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I read it on a trip and was utterly beguiled. Thus began my Travis McGee quest.

Gray (1968) remains one of my favorites from among the 21. It has all the elements that compel the Ft. Lauderdale boat bum to bring his best game. It’s set close to Slip F-18, in the world of coastal Florida, amidst the machinations of rapacious real estate developers and crooked pols. A good friend—Tush Bannon, who played pro football with Trav—dies horribly in mysterious circumstances. The lovely young widow and kiddies need rescuing. Puss Killian is one of the three most important women in McGee’s entire fictional life. Even though she’s keeping important secrets from him—he’s not even sure her name is real—McGee is head over heels for her. For the second time, McGee’s best friend Meyer plays an important role. Above all, Gray casts McGee as the avenging angel. If you like a great first-person crime story, it doesn’t get much better than this.

In the early going, Trav connects with ol’ Tush at his little marina/motel. The business is dying, relations with his wife Jan are strained. Later, at a chance meeting, Tush tells Trav how the local authorities are trying hard to push him out—to free up his piece of a parcel for some unknown property development. When Trav goes again to the little marina, it’s deserted. A phone service man on the site informs him that Tush went and killed hisself by dropping an engine block on his own head. Which an unofficial autopsy later shows to have been a miracle of sorts—as Tush seems to have lifted and dropped the engine three times.

Jan had left her husband and didn’t know about his death. After McGee and Puss find her, and let her vent her grief, they begin probing the power structure of Shawana County. Jan legally reclaims the marina property the bad guys thought they had possession of. Then she promptly sells it to Trav. As their attorney says: “Son, we sure God rammed a crooked stick into the hornet’s nest and stirred it up.” Next Trav rams the stick in a little deeper by making a rich offer to another landowner with a larger piece of land. Meyer (the economist) is recruited to design and set up a con for the guy at the top of the food chain, a wheeler-dealer named Santo. And the main local operator, Preston LaFrance, is drawn out of his cover. He seems honestly distraught that Bannon went and smashed himself to jelly.

At this juncture, McGee sustains a kick in the gut. One morning he wakes up to find that Puss has vamoosed, leaving only a sad, affectionate note and a warning that he won’t be able to trace her. Trav is utterly deflated and baffled. But for now there’s still vengeance to be exacted.

McGee sets his hooks into Santo with Meyer’s stock scam, involving an obscure equity that seems foolproof but is in fact rotten. Simultaneously McGee sets up Preston LaFrance with a parallel scam that works a treat. When the conned businessman appears at the Busted Flush, spitting and fuming, McGee has the pleasure of explaining why he’s relieved him of a hundred grand—payback for Tush Bannon. LaFrance is mystified: Bannon was a nobody, a nonentity waiting to be run over. Santo gets a similar slap in the face—literal a well as figurative. Trav may even have put the oily operator on the slippery slope to financial failure.

While Meyer clearly has the makings of a great con artist—as McGee observed in Amber—the whole operation takes him to places he’s not accustomed to, not comfortable with. In an uncharacteristic outburst he suggests a solution to LaFrance for his situation: Suicide. “…it was like changing your step to squash the bug not flat, just a little squash so he can crawl a little bit, slow, leaking his juices,” he reflects after the man has left, surprised at his new-found capacity for vitriol. “McGee, my friend, I am ashamed of that kind of anger.” Even as Meyer sticks with McGee for nearly another 18 years, there will be yet darker places he’s taken by this friendship. And readers will puzzle over JDM’s ruthless treatment of the retired economist in one of the later adventures.

But all of this, of course, begs the question: Who killed Tush Bannon and why? The murder was not really necessary. In typical fashion, JDM brings the accidental killer charging out the shadows, nearly taking out McGee and the widow Jan. Once again, proximity to Trav proves a very dangerous thing for one of the story’s innocents. But, of course, the boat bum’s ingenuity and grit save the day. With a huge assist from the lady.

And what about Puss? Why did she ditch McGee?

Near the end of the novel, a letter arrives from her, explaining her decision. “You see my dear,” Puss writes, “about six months before you met me on the beach…they took a little monster out of my head, maybe as big as an English walnut almost, and with three stumpy little legs like a spider. Half a spider. And the men in white dug around in my head to try to find every little morsel of the beast, because he turned out to be the bad kind… No treatments possible…” It turns out Puss has a husband whom she loves just a little bit more than McGee, and it was he she needed to be with.

“Of course I’m scared,” she concludes. “It’s real black out there and it lasts a long time. But I have no remorses, no regrets because I left when I had to… Don’t do any brooding, because if I can try to be a grownup, you ought to be able to take a stab at it. Here’s what you do, Trav my darling. Find yourself a gaudy random gorgeous grasshopper wench, and lay aboard the Plymouth [Gin] and the provisions, and go fun-timing and sun-timing up and down the lovely bays. Find one of good appetite and no thought of it being for keeps, and romp the lass sweetly and completely, and now and again, when she is asleep and you are awake, and your arms are around her and you are sleeping like spoons, with her head tucked under you ugly chin, pretend it is… Puss, who loved you.”

Puss’s elegy cuts deep into Trav’s thick, scarred-up hide. She doesn’t want him with her in her hour of darkest despair, because he is not entirely solid, not entirely reliable—as her husband is. That at least is how she perceives it. It is a haunting, bittersweet moment, and one of the few places in the entire chronicle where Trav is raw and open and in pain. Here you are apt to ask: Is his dream lifestyle really worth it? One is even tempted to shed a tear for McGee.

At the outset Trav ruminates over Jan Bannon’s dislike of him and imagines what she would say: “Prove yourself to me, McGee. But you can’t…because you aren’t housebroken. Your life isn’t real. You drift around and you have your fun and games.”

McGee in his heyday was the subject of envy for millions of male readers. I mean… No wife? No boss? A parade of attractive, bikinied young ladies? Taking your retirement in installments? Living on a houseboat on the sunny, beautiful east Florida coast? Charging to the rescue time and again? What’s not to love? But maybe in Gray JDM is simply making a morality tale of the aspects of McGee that Jan Bannon found wanting: This is not real! This kind of lifeeven if you pull it offcomes with big costs.

One final note: Puss Killian is not quite done with Travis McGee. But I’m not going to tell you when or where or why or how. You deserve to have the pleasure of discovering that on your own.

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8. One Fearful Yellow Eye

One Fearful Yellow Eye takes Trav far, far away from his balmy native habitat—and in early winter, no less. But McGee, of course, will go to any lengths to help a friend. The 1966 novel begins with his descent into O’Hare through a wet, chill, gray soup. JDM depicts the airline experience with nearly as much disapprobation as today’s tormented fliers might feel. We forget that even back then arcing through the sky in cramped metal tubes was not all that romantic. Meeting him at the gate—do you miss meeting people at the gate as much as I do?—is his friend and former lover Gloria Doyle Geis.

She had been one of those damaged birdies who washed up on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale. Her particular wounding had come from the murders of her husband and children. She only failed to take that suicidal walk out into the surf because of malnourishment and exhaustion. McGee rescued her, revived her, briefly romanced her, built her up and set her free. Glory then had the good luck to meet a fine, decent man—Dr. Fortner Geis, a Chicago neurosurgeon some years her senior who was nursing a slow-moving fatal illness. In spite of the doctor’s foreshortened time, they married and returned to the Windy City.

In her house on the Lake Michigan shore, amidst the dunes, she tells Trav about her untenable situation. After the doctor died some months earlier, it was discovered that he had been methodically stripping all his investments and bank accounts of their funds. Some equity in the house and a small annuity for Glory were all that remained. The six-hundred grand (over $4 million in 2009 dollars) that should have been there was nowhere to be seen. Geis’s adult son and daughter think Glory plundered Daddy’s estate—and aren’t shy about saying so. The IRS is keeping an eye on her. The gamine young widow admits that having her share of the money would be nice, but money isn’t what’s important to her. Mostly she wants to discover who put the screws to her husband, and why he felt obliged to pay up; and to clear her own name. The only skeleton she can think of rattling around in the good doctor’s closet was an unfortunate but understandable fling he had with the housekeeper’s buxom daughter, while his beloved first wife was dying. That liaison produced an unexpected girl child.

Trav dons his gumshoe fedora and gets busy. He interviews the doctor’s icy daughter Heidi—a capable but mediocre artist. Then his long-time OR nurse, who was his lover for a time. Trav talks with the daughter-in-law, who had a better relationship with Geis than her husband. Next up are the detective who kept an eye on the doctor’s bastard daughter and Heidi’s ex-hubby—on whom Trav administers an oddly gratuitous dose of whoop-ass. He learns that a year and a half earlier certain clear signals had been sent the good doctor’s way: The nurse’s cat skewered. The grandson kidnapped and quickly released. The daughter’s chocolate candy tainted with pepper sauce. A smoke bomb under the hood of Glory’s car. Translation: Fork over the money or loved ones start to die. McGee also learns that someone other than the IRS is watching her. Some people who take him down with unsettling, professional ease. People who speak an unfamiliar foreign language. People to whom he will ultimately be very grateful.

In the midst of Trav’s legwork, Glory, apparently trying to assuage her tattered psyche, takes some acid and goes on a very nasty trip. But for the Florida beach bum finding her in the nick of time—almost literally baying at the moon, naked on top of a winter sand dune—the lady would have died of exposure. As it is, she survives by a hair’s breadth.

By this point, all clues are pointing toward the man who married the doctor’s bastard daughter, an ex-con. She has disappeared, possibly murdered. He’s attempted to rape her oldest daughter (the doctor’s daughter), and the girl has fled the desolate farmstead where the ex-con had brought her, his wife and the other children. Things come to a head when that teenager ends up in Chicago with Trav and the doctor’s older daughter, Heidi the painter. Trav decamps to the farmstead and discovers the dead, gruesomely tortured body of the ex-con and a part of the missing fortune—hidden in a deconstructed Cadillac. Most of the doctor’s money has already been removed. The ex-con, by the way, is the owner of the titular “Fearful Yellow Eye.”

It seems that this is as far as Trav can take his investigation. Glory is on the mend. The kids are okay. Trav lures Heidi off to the Caribbean for a few weeks of McGee’s Miracle Cure for Frigid Ladies. But certain inconsistencies nag at him. And as he zeroes in on the definitive truth, the ultimate villains are revealed. But the knight in tarnished armor stupidly lumbers into their lair, clanking and shouting “Huzzah,” with no real idea of what he’s up against; and, doubly stupid, exposes the helpless Heidi to a terrible risk.

McGee, always brutally honest about himself, puts it this way: “I’d been a damned fool prancing in total naïve confidence around the edges of disaster, like a blind man dancing on a roof.”

Here are a few passages from Yellow:

In many ways life is less random than we think. In your past and mine, there have been times when we have, on some lonely trail, constructed a device aimed into our future. Perhaps nothing ever comes along to trigger it. We live through the safe years. But, for some people, something moves on the half-forgotten path, and something arches out of the past and explodes in the here and now. These are emotional intersections, when lives cross, diverge, then meet again.

It’s the old sun-city syndrome. Instead of fun in the sun in the golden years the oldsters find they’ve locked themselves into a closed society with a mortality rate any combat infantry battalion would find impressive. You have to make friends fast because they aren’t going to be around long. Spooks in the sunshine. Change the club rosters once a week. For sale signs sprout as fast as the pretty tropical flowers and trees.

Heidi, eviscerating Ol’ Trav, the sexual healer: “‘So you’ll make this terrible sacrifice, huh? Wow! I’m impressed. If you’re the great lover who finds out how to turn me on, it gives you an ego as big as the Tribune Tower. And I can learn a wet smile, pose for the centerfold, and become a happy bunny. And if you try and try and I never make it, then you’ve had the loan of what I’m told is very superior equipment for God knows how long, and you can trudge away shaking your head and feeling sorry for the poor frigid woman. Tails you win, tails I lose, buddy. If foul-ups are your hobby, go find a different kind. I’m too bright to buy that line of crap, my friend. I’m not a volunteer playmate.’”