THE DARK TUNNEL
The Rest of the Story . . .
The chase itself finishes at the end of chapter ten in a suspenseful cliffhanger. It appears that Branch’s luck has run out and Carl Schneider is about to finish him off. At one level we know that cannot happen—for all his annoying wisecracks, Branch is the first-person narrator and the book has seventy pages to go—but I don’t think anybody puts the book down at that point.
Till now, Branch has been acting on his own; in the last four chapters of the book he is still the center of the action, but as an instrument of the FBI. From a plotting standpoint, this is a sensible move. A nearsighted college professor squaring off against a Nazi spy ring was always a stretch; when it is time to take them down, Macdonald wisely decides to let the federal government do its job.
A lot happens in the last chapters and I will summarize how the story develops:
- Doctor Schneider was indeed the Nazi spy, but not out of ideological conviction; he was pressured by his son Carl and the German government, who threatened to harm his family members left behind. (Yes, it seems a little odd that nobody seems to have considered this when Schneider was given access to the sensitive information he has been passing along)
- As she related in her letter to Branch in chapter five, Carl Schneider befriended Ruth in Canada as she was waiting to enter the US,. Carl’s motive was to help his homosexual lover, Peter, who had escaped from a prisoner of war camp nearby. They hit Ruth on the head and dumped her in a rural area, taking her clothes and her papers.
- Carl and Peter entered America through Canada. Peter was disguised as Ruth and using her passport. It was Peter, not Ruth, that Branch saw in the fencing match at the Schneider house
- Ruth did not die but was only rendered unconscious. She was found and taken to a hospital in a small Canadian town. She is still very ill, but she and Branch manage to have a few words together and he tells her he still wants to marry her.
- Branch arrives in time to thwart another attempt by Carl Schneider to kill Ruth. Branch has Ruth moved to another hospital room, disguises himself, and waits in the original room to which Ruth had been assigned. Carl appears, disguised as a nurse
- After a fight in which Macdonald gives us one of the worst lines he ever wrote (“I . . . saw him crouched with his right hand under his starched skirt tugging at something. The hand came up with a black gun he had given birth to.” A few lines later Macdonald informs us that when Branch wrestles the gun away from Carl, “the gun dropped to the ground and lay impotent.” I have to completely take back my initial skepticism about the book being saturated with sexual imagery.)
- Carl is arrested. (Peter was arrested earlier by the FBI, along with other members of the spy ring). The book ends, as indicated in an earlier post, with Branch having a positive vision of Ruth waiting for him.
I don’t remember when I read The Dark Tunnel for the first time, but it was certainly many years before I started writing mysteries myself. In rereading the ending for this blog, I realize I unconsciously borrowed (or stole, depending on your point of view) Macdonald’s nurse-as-killer idea for an episode in Cruel April. In my story the patient is taken by surprise; in The Dark Tunnel the patient is laying in wait. But there was something about the visit from a nurse as menacing rather than comforting that stuck in my memory. I’m sure Macdonald borrowed the idea himself from somewhere else, but I’d like to acknowledge yet another debt to him.
The last two posts will discuss the book as a whole and then we are ready to move on to Trouble Follows Me.