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.’”