THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE Spoiler Alert
THE ENDING, PART ONE
THE PROBLEM OF GALLEY LAWRENCE
The ending presents the reader with two problems. The first is the problem of understanding Galley Lawrence, which has been noted by many of Macdonald’s critics. The second, what I will call the problem of the $30,000, was noted by Wolfe but not addressed. Both are major stumbling blocks to the full enjoyment of the book and both were avoidable mistakes.
What’s My Motivation?
- The first problem was noted by Schopen, who pointed out that once the missing person is located, the book becomes a mystery of understanding the actions and motives of the missing person—and that mystery is never solved.
- Speir makes the same point: “We are never given sufficient background information to understand Galley and her threatening actions, to understand why ‘only the female sex was human in her eyes’”
- Although Kreyling admires Macdonald’s plot device of a sought-after missing person who turns out to be the killer, he concedes that the psychology of Galley is “problematic” and that her true origins are the misogynistic Black Widow stereotypes of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon and Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep. Galley is not explained any more than her fictional sisters. Like them, she is a useful plot device but not a character.
Macdonald has given us a decent amount of background on Galley Lawrence. Everything we are told makes her action less plausible, even if we allow for the fact that her mother is something of an unreliable narrator:
- She was raised (presumably an only child) in a stable, upper middle-class home. Her father was a respected physician. Although the family has been in economic decline since his death, she was able to afford nursing school.
- She is an experienced and competent nurse and has lived on her own, making a living, for some time prior to the start of the action.
- She is very attractive, sociable, and has no trouble attracting men.
The reader may be pardoned for thinking that there is another Galley Lawrence who killed three men in cold blood for money she didn’t need, but you would be mistaken. The best explanation Macdonald offers is that she hates men. This is not an explanation at all, only an observation. And it may not even be true. Galley kills for money. If a woman had been between Galley and the money, that woman would be as dead as any of the men. The core question of why an educated, attractive, successful young woman goes on a killing spree is never addressed.
Speir gives an odd defense for Macdonald’s omission: “for readers who demand explanations for actions, the clue is there and is fairly obvious. It is in the name Galatea. In an ancient tale told by Ovid, Galatea is the creation of a young Cypriot sculptor. Pygmalion, who hates women. But he devotes his life and genius to the creation of a perfect woman in stone. He is successful beyond his wildest dreams. He falls in love with his creation and strives to bring her to life, but she remains hopelessly cold and lifeless.”
Speir is correct in pointing out that Macdonald picked the name for a reason, but a literary allusion is one thing and providing a plausible motivation for a character is another. This brings us no closer to a satisfactory answer than Kreyling’s analysis that she is best understood as a Black Widow stereotype—that she does what she does just because it’s her nature.
Wolfe takes a crack at defending Macdonald as well, arguing that the sheer lack of basis for her actions shows the capacity for evil in all of us. I concede the point about human nature. But fiction is not an accounting of the random nature of the world. When we crack the covers of a novel we expect a story with characters who are intelligible with reference to their fictional world. They may make bad, foolish or even evil choices, but there are reasons for those choices. Macdonald has let us down on a key point.
Although Schopen is critical of Macdonald’s failure to explain Galley, he offers a sort of defense: “As Archer cannot satisfactorily explain why Galley Lawrence acts as she does, neither can he neatly classify the other characters as good or evil, for in this world both good and evil arise from the same sources . . . “Fair enough, but the reader does not need characters neatly divided into good and evil. Such characters make for very dull books. Macdonald in his maturity will create characters with a nuanced mixture of good and evil. The issue is not good and evil, but motivation. Macdonald gives us nothing.
There Was a Way Out and He Didn’t Take it
I find myself frustrated with the Galley character in part because the problem is so unnecessary. It would have been easy to include, early on, some foreshadowing of what was to come.
- Did Dr. Lawrence perhaps abuse his daughter as a child? Being dead, he would not object to the suspicion.
- Did Mrs. Lawrence inflict mental abuse on her as a child? Macdonald had an awful childhood; he did not refrain from planting a few clues because of ignorance of what childhood could be like.
- Some problems in high school that took her off the rails? At the time this book was written Macdonald’s own daughter Linda was already a serious behavior problem at 12, and it only got worse from there. He didn’t need to do more than look up from his manuscript to see the development of a violent and deeply unhappy person, yet he leaves the central character in the novel as a blank slate.
- It may be that he felt that planting clues would tip his hand. But I have another theory. That he simply wasn’t ready, because of personal problems in his own household, to explore the subject and decided to leave Galley as a black box.
- I have a darker thought as well. It may be that, for Macdonald, if he described a woman as strong and sexually assertive, he was saying that it should not surprise us if she turns out to be a murderer. If that sounds bizarre, consider Mary Thompson in Trouble Follows Me, Floraine Weather in Blue City, Cathy Slocum in The Drowning Pool. Throughout the canon, Macdonald links murder and female sexuality. Tom Nolan has given us more than we want to know about Macdonald’s personal life. I say no more.
- Macdonald will do much better before he lays down his pen for the last time, but at this point he was content with an unintelligible character at its core. It flaws the book but it certainly doesn’t ruin it. The Way Some People Die is a fast-paced and enjoyable story that will keep you guessing on your first read—and if you have as bad a memory as I do, on subsequent reads as well.