TROUBLE FOLLOWS ME
THE SUMMING UP
What’s Good About it?
- Its choice of race relations as its subject. Nobody forced Macdonald to choose a controversial subject. Mystery writing is, generally, a very conservative genre. It’s a morality play about criminals being caught and punished. Macdonald was far ahead of his time and it took moral courage in 1944 to write this book.
- Macdonald shows growth in his ability to handle minor characters. This is a problem area for most new fiction writers, but he is already showing good progress. We remember Sue Sholto even though she is only in a single chapter. The train passengers are well and economically drawn. Clearly, he’s figuring it out.
- His descriptive prose is already good and will just keep getting better from here. Not for nothing that he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on imagery in Coleridge.
- The story is well-organized. A lesser writer would feel the need to fill in the two weeks between Part I and Part II. Macdonald has the confidence to jump the gap. The four-part structure, signifying the four locations, is logical and helps bind the book together.
- The character of Sam Drake is still a histrionic mess—but not nearly as much of a mess as Robert Branch, the hero of his first book. (I am reminded of the joke about the preacher at the grave side who asks someone to say some good words about the deceased. After a long pause, someone says, “His brother was worse.”)
What’s Bad About it?
- Three things: the ending, the ending, and the ending. It is absolutely not credible that Mary Thompson is the monster she turns out to be. Readers who get hold of a mutilated copy that stops thirty pages before the end are better off.
- Hector Land coming back from the dead to kill Thompson is ridiculously melodramatic.
- Having a main character named Drake with a buddy named Swann, a sailor named Land . . . Blessedly, Macdonald will eventually free himself from the naming nonsense, but we will have to be patient.
- Macdonald’s view of women has twisted his sense of plot all out of recognition. Note that I do not call it misogyny. It’s more complicated than that. His attitude does not spring from lack of generosity of spirit—quite the opposite. Macdonald was a man desperately hungry for love and approval who received neither from his wife, and his ironbound morality prevented him from either divorcing her or seeking comfort elsewhere. Macdonald was only thirty when he wrote this book but he is already deep into pessimism about the possibility of joy in romantic relations.
- A relatively minor criticism by comparison is the coincidence of Drake striking up a casual conversation on a train with the only person in North America who could have given him the necessary information. Robert Gale is right to call this one of the “monstrous coincidences” that flaw the plot. In Macdonald’s defense I can only say that such coincidences are his stock in trade, and they feature in pretty much every book.
The Book is a First Draft that Needed Work
Trouble Follows Me was written, not only in difficult physical circumstances, but under time constraints. For reasons that had nothing to do with artistic choice, he wanted to get the manuscript to a publisher as rapidly as possible, without having the time or opportunity for revision.
- The problem of how Drake comes to learn of timing coding could be fixed if Drake followed up with the right FBI agent, possibly one who is working together with someone in cryptographic intelligence.
- The problem of Mary Thompson is more complex but it can be solved from both ends.
— At the front end, Macdonald could have given some clues so that we are not completely caught flat-footed by the reveal.
— At the back end, why does her motivation have to be, that since I’m a woman who has sex outside of marriage I might as well commit espionage and murder while I’m at it?
— A mature Macdonald would have created a sympathetic backstory of how she was being blackmailed, how she was a true believer in Black Israel, how her first husband, a black man, had been lynched . . . a motivation could have been provided. Macdonald did this in The Dark Tunnel by having Doctor Schneider do evil things because of blackmail. It’s interesting that Macdonald didn’t think of that when he had a female character.
My next post will be some general observations on the art of revision from the point of view of a working writer.