John D. MacDonald’s One Fearful Yellow Eye

One Fearful Yellow Eye
John D. MacDonald
trade paper $16.00
Kindle Nook $11.99

It’s been a few years since I read any MacDonald, and a few years more since I read one of the Travis McGee novels.  I’d been reading them in order, and this one was the next in sequence.  It was also the only one I was missing.

I’d had an urge to read MacDonald for a while, sort of a mental itch that wouldn’t go away, and so I decided to pick up this series where I’d left off.  A quick online check found a good copy in the editions I was collecting for a few bucks plus shipping, so I placed my order.

Much of this one takes place in Chicago in the winter, not your typical setting for a McGee novel.  Travis gets a call from an old girlfriend.  Her rich older husband has died of cancer.  This was expected.  His fortune, which he had said he would divide between her and his two grown children, has vanished.  Over a period of several months before his death, he quietly liquidated most of it.  This was not expected.

Now the children are accusing the stepmother of being a gold-digging treasure seeker who has hidden the money somewhere.  It’s up to Travis McGee to find out what’s really going on.

This one had lots of twists, along the usual amount of casual sex and philosophy one would expect from a Travis McGee thriller.  Initially the setup looks pretty hopeless.  The grown kids aren’t friendly.  The trail has gone cold.  The widow is completely in the dark about her husband’s motives.  So is the husband’s former mistress.  Everything looks like a dead-end.

The first Travis McGee novel appeared in 1964, which means MacDonald was probably writing the first couple in 1963 or perhaps as early as 1962.  Four were published that first year, with three more following in 1965.  One Fearful Yellow Eye was the sole title published in 1966.  After that, the pace slowed down considerably.  Looking at the bibliography on his Wikipedia page, I was surprised to see that after the mid-60s, most of MacDonald’s output was Travis McGee.  He wrote so many novels, I thought he had continued on with stand-alones while writing the McGees.

The books are products of their time.  LSD figures into the plot of this one, the second novel in which this happens.  Some of the language is different from what you would hear today, for instance referring to a man’s secretary as “his girl”, smoking occurs in all sorts of places where it is no longer permitted.  McGee’s philosophizing about his society is a bit old-fashioned in some respects, and a few of the cultural references would probably be lost on younger readers.

Overall, though, the story has aged well.  The things that are clearly period add to the charm of the book.  The action and the characterization, the knight errant aspect of Travis McGee, these are the reasons people read this series, nearly 30 years after the last one was written.  MacDonald’s influence can be seen in the works of numerous writers in crime and suspense.  Read him and see why.

I’m embarrassed to say how long it’s been since I read one of these.  I’d forgotten how much fun they can be.  Also how dark some of them are when you get down to the core of book.  Still, I’m looking forward to the next one. 

Also, MacDonald wrote a great deal of science fiction, most of it at shorter lengths.  The SFBC collected his three novels (Wine of the Dreamers; Ballroom of the Skies; The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything) back in 1980 in the omnibus Time and Tomorrow.  There were also a couple of short story collections which aren’t too hard to find (End of the Tiger and Other Stories; Other Times, Other Worlds).  I may take a look at them soon.  Still there are enough uncollected sf tales to make a fine collection or two.  (Mr. Haffner, are you listening?) 

7 thoughts on “John D. MacDonald’s One Fearful Yellow Eye

    1. Keith West

      As I said, I started reading them in order. But it’s easy to get hooked on these. If I didn’t have some commitments for review I would have already started the next one, PALE GREY FOR GUILT. I was introduced to MacDonald through his science fiction. Two of his stories were included in ISAAC ASIMOV PRESENTS THE GREAT SF STORIES 10 (1948), “Ring Around the Redhead” and the excellent “A Child is Crying”. That was when I started hunting down MacDonald’s work.

  1. Charles Gramlich

    The Turquoise Lament was my first MacDonald and first McGee. Great series. His characterizations are so realistic to me. Liked his SF too, and his short story, “The Hangover” is one of the best stories I ever read, I think.

  2. Ed Gorman

    Nice review, well written. I still prefer JDM’s one offs but there is in the McGee saga some damned fine American writing. The only problem I have is with his women. Even for the period some of them seem pretty weak specimens. Ole Trav humping them back to life gets silly in places. But overall the books are classics. The Green Ripper is one of the finest thrillers I’ve ever read. But I’m everybody has his or her favorites.

    1. Keith West

      I’m glad you liked the review, Ed. I think you’ve got a good point about the women. That’s the part of the books that I have the most trouble buying into. Still, as you say, some damned fine American writing. I’ve only read a few of his stand-alones, but the ones I’ve read have all been top-notch.


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