MEETING THE FRIENDLY FOLKS IN THE TOWN WITH NO NAME
“The form of the private eye novel is simply the belief in the hero.”
–Robert B. Parker, Introduction to Blue City
Macdonald never let his background in literature get in the way of the crisp, efficient telling of his story. Readers of mysteries identify with the detective. If the case is important to us, we expect it to be just as important to our detective. Macdonald delivers that sense of importance by ceaselessly moving the investigation along. Whether his investigator is Lew Archer or just an amateur, being a sleuth in a Ross Macdonald novel is a 24 hour a day job.
STEP BY STEP
- Weather, in search of the gun-stealing pimp Sault, is directed by the pawnbroker to the apartment of Sault’s sister. She answers the door in a negligee. A man’s jacket is folded across a sofa but Weather does not see him. She tells him where he can locate Sault and shuts the door. For once, Weather does not insult someone—he doesn’t want to peak too early—but as he leaves he makes the observation that she must be a prostitute. The 1947 reading public, used to veiled references, may have drawn that conclusion, but in 2021 it seems to be an unwarranted conclusion. Macdonald never considered that it could have been a Tinder hookup.
- Whatever her profession, the sister gave good directions to a pool hall. Weather strikes up a conversation with his next lead while hustling him in a game of pool. It’s a nice touch. We never get all the details about what Weather has done for the last ten years, but if he has hung around pool halls enough to become adept, we learn a lot about Weather. We also learn a lot about Macdonald’s killjoy attitude about sex when he provides the unnecessary detail that the walls of the pool hall are covered with, among other things, “pictures of naked women as bright and empty as balloons.”
- His pool companion/victim gave Weather directions to the house of “F.” Garland (the town is too poor to afford first names for everyone), which is where he finds Sault.
- After some preliminary wisecracks and insults thrown at Garland, Weather gets to meet Sault. Weather thinks Garland is homosexual and that Sault may share that inclination, in addition to being a drug user. Their conversation goes badly, as Weather should have predicted as soon as he told Sault his real name. The ham-fisted interview ends in a flurry of knives taken away from their owners and guns displayed but not used. The only positive result is that they conveniently volunteer that they both work for the mysterious Roger Kerch, the manager of the Cathay Club.
- Weather insults both of them before he leaves.
What kind of job is this for a nice Jewish girl?
Flushed with failure, Weather next heads to the Cathay Club to track down Kersch. It’s a long shot because Kersch has no obvious relationship to the homicide Weather is investigating. No matter. In one of the few wild coincidences in the book, Weather meets Carla, a prostitute who just happens to be the granddaughter of Kauffman the pawnbroker. If you are following the Hamlet analogy, Carla is the Ophelia character. They banter; she tells him more about Kersch and speculates that Kersch has something on his erstwhile employer, Floraine, Weather’s stepmother. And then she takes him upstairs.
In the upstairs bedroom, before they have sex, she and Weather have a long conversation about self-worth and the degrading economics of sex work that oddly echos the conversation Weather had a few hours before with her grandfather. Several commentators state that Weather brings her to climax but to me the textual evidence is thin. Those pesky censors. It’s a collateral matter and I will give Macdonald the benefit of the doubt.
The importance of the interaction is the information Carla gives Weather about Kerch, which is going to drive the rest of the novel. For our Hamlet fans, Kersch is our Cladius.
And the night was going so well . . .
Weather wanders downstairs. In a homage to his father who brought the slots to town, he plays a machine. Then he is directed to Kersch’s office. From there, things happen fast:
- When Weather asks for a job, Kerch has Rusty, a conveniently-situated thug, test Weather’s fighting abilities. Of course, Weather dispatches the thug in one paragraph and lands the job.
- Unfortunately, as Weather is leaving he runs into Garland, who knocks Weather out with a blow from his gun plus Rusty’s assistance.
- Garland tells Kersch Weather’s true identity.
- Kersch calls the local police and makes a false accusation that Weather was trying to rob the office.
- The police officer takes him to the edge of town, beats and robs him, and tells him never to come back
- The chapter ends with Weather walking back into town.