BLENDED FAMILIES CAN BE AWKWARD
“There is nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”
Once Johnny Weather slips into his stepmother’s house, Macdonald deploys a device he will never tire of—the overheard conversation. If you are bothered by the unusually sharp ears and convenient location of the detective, or by the fact that the suspects are always discussing the crucial events of the conspiracy rather than what’s on Netflix, you should stop any plans you ever have to read Ross Macdonald because he will drive you nuts. Macdonald had some short stories that do not include eavesdropping, but if he wrote an entire novel without at least one instance, I can’t recall.
You may ask why this unrealistic plot device doesn’t bother me unduly:
- It moves the action along like nothing else could.
- It can be used to easily create ambiguity, as when the speakers do not state which character or action they have in mind.
- The amount of information can be cut off at any time if an eavesdropper is suddenly suspected.
- The conversation can convey mood as well as information.
- It suits a fast-moving story where the plot depends on action instead of documents.
- Given the technology of the time when Macdonald wrote, there is no better alternative.
Meanwhile, back in the living room . . .
- You will be shocked, shocked to learn that Sault and Mrs. Weathers were having an affair before the death of Mr. Weather.
- She tells Sault that Kersch knows a secret about her, in the form of a document locked in Kersch’s safe at the Cathay Club.
- She asks him to kill Roger Kersch.
- He is shocked and dismayed at the prospect of committing murder. For about a paragraph. Then he’s fine with the idea.
- Inconveniently, Kersch himself shows up, along with Garland. Kersch has figured out just from Sault’s presence that Sault and Floraine are somehow in league against him.
- After Kersch and Garland take Sault and Floraine away, Weather decides to follow.
Taking the show on the road
- Weather’s eavesdropping his given him a general idea of where Kersch is taking his captives, so he steals his stepmother’s car, stops at a gas station and gets directions to the place he is looking for, an isolated rural property.
- Weather’s second eavesdrop of the evening is at the kitchen window, where Sault, tied to a chair, is being tortured by Kersch and his thug, Rusty. (I believe that the cover art I included in Part Four is intended to illustrate the scene.)
- Endearments from Floraine to Kersch such as, “Did you ever imagine I took pleasure in having a diseased thing like you crawl into my bed?” suggest that their relationship has hit a rough patch.
- Kersch has given her a paring knife, intending that she do some scrimshaw on a portion of Mr. Sault’s anatomy.
- She stabs Kersch in the face instead; proving either the importance of clear directions or that size may indeed matter after all.
- Kersch takes this development badly. With Garland holding her, stabs her numerous times as Weather heads back towards his car.
See that cloud of dust? The cavalry is on the way
Weather returns to the gas station where he received directions. Remarkably, it is open at five in the morning. He telephones a contact of the Mayor and asks for help. Rather than wait for the police, he returns to the scene himself.
Weather finds Rusty digging a grave behind the house and knocks him unconscious. He charges the house but winds up firing seven rounds at shadows. Garland, who is feeling very lucky indeed, decides to risk his life on the assumption that Weather’s gun is empty, and is correct. He shoots Weather’s gun out of his hand and marches Weather inside. Sault is dead and Floraine is bleeding badly, barely alive.
Garland forces Weather to drag Rusty’s unconscious body inside and announces that they are waiting for Kersch to return with a doctor to treat Floraine.
That cloud of dust? More Indians
Weather is forced to finish digging Sault’s grave. Kersch returns, also with a sort-of doctor who tends to Floraine as best he can. She dies anyway and Sault is buried. Kersch takes a button and some hairs from Weather, intending to frame him for Floraine’s death. He and the doctor leave with the evidence and Floraine’s body.
Nobody else comes.