TROUBLE FOLLOWS ME
ON THE WHOLE, I PREFER HAWAII
“Five thousand miles away and two weeks later I met Mary again.”
Macdonald hasn’t figured how to write a memorable opening sentence for a book, but he nails the opening of Part II, where we are magically transported from the trade winds and gentle surf of Oahu to the ghettoes of wintertime Detroit.
Part II is the shortest subpart, comprising only two chapters (four and five) in 24 pages. But it’s the moral axis on which the entire work depends. Macdonald takes us on a sympathetic guided tour of the miserable lives of the inner-city residents. The tour is not essential to the plot, but it’s essential to Macdonald’s larger aim of forcing his white readers to consider what the lives of others are like. And he will not let them forget that they are sacrificing for the war as well:
“. . . I took a cab to the black town, then walked through the bleak streets of slum houses, every second one of which had a service star in the window . . .”
Macdonald’s asides will get much better, but he is already showing promise. Here is the narrator speaking about his married friend Eric Swann, who was having an affair with Sue Sholto, the murder victim:
“I doubted Eric’s ability to shift with a perfect ease from a dead mistress to a living wife. On the other hand, Helen Swann’s tremulous and brooding love needed very little to feed on. Which is why, I thought, her husband had been unfaithful to her.”
You Have Won a Week in Detroit (Second Prize is Two Weeks)
A lot happens in Chapter Four:
- Drake arrives in town a week ahead of his friend Swann and basically kills time; this is necessary to allow enough time for other events of which he is unaware.
- Before Eric Swann arrives, he telephones Drake and informs him that Hector Land jumped ship in San Diego and has disappeared.
- Mary Thompson calls from Cleveland and plans for dinner with Drake.
- In one of the more bizarre investigative scenarios I have ever seen, the two couples have dinner and then go looking for Hector Land’s wife. Apparently Detroit lacked good dinner theater. Or Macdonald has not realized that it is possible for plotting to be too efficient.
- After a search, the couples track Hector Land’s wife to a bar, where she is working as a prostitute. She is on the point of discussing Hector with Swann and Drake when a man intervenes and warns her to keep quiet.
- The next day, when Drake goes back on his own, he finds her body in her apartment with her throat cut.
And even more happens in Chapter Five:
- The local police, who are openly racist and dismissive of the death, decide it was a suicide (based on a hesitation mark made by the knife, the thinnest justification for a finding of suicide by throat-slashing in the entire history of Western literature).
- Drake has conversations with the FBI and others that educate the reader into the historical basis for radical black separatist movements, including the fictional one, Black Israel, that arose in response to the Detroit Riots of 1943.
- We learn that Hector’s brother was beaten to death by white rioters, and that Hector went to jail for assault when he attacked the rioters. He joined the Navy to obtain his release.
- Hector’s wife had not been a prostitute before she lost her job when her husband was arrested.
- The FBI informs Drake that a man answering Hector Land’s description had been seen crossing the border into Mexico at Tijuana.
- Drake resolves to follow Land’s trail to Mexico and to take Mary Thompson along. The transcontinental train ride that forms the third part of the book is about to begin.
Wait Just a Minute!
Drake has a long conversation with an FBI agent who hears him out at length and who reveals that the Bureau is actively investigating Black Israel in general and Hector Land in particular. The FBI is also actively looking into the possible connection between Sue Sholto’s death in Hawaii and Hector Land. (We should note that the doctor in Hawaii only said that her death was not part of a sex crime, not that Land couldn’t have killed her.) Except inside the slightly skewed world of this book, that should have been the end of the matter for Drake. He’s brought that matter to the attention of the government professionals, even at personal risk.
But what the hell, he’s going to play detective on his own . . .