THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE Spoiler Alert
Before we Move on . . .
The central mystery of the book, as Schopen noted, is always Galley Lawrence; first, her whereabouts, and later, her essence.
When she appears in the book, aside from the last chapter at Dalling’s house, she is a remarkable character; beautiful, energetic, tough-talking, smart, always ready with a comeback, and sexual. So sexual that her appetites are hardly restrained by conventional limitations. She is a sort of female Nietzschean uberman, unwilling to be constrained by bourgeoise notions of propriety. If she wants a man she takes him, whether he’s a doctor or a grocery store clerk. Such a woman is more at home in 2022 than 1950.
Macdonald could have given Galley a chance to explain herself in the same manner he gave Ruth, the teenage prostitute. Ruth is a very minor character in the book but we learn her story. She and Archer have a frank conversation about what she is doing with her life and what that means. The mystery of Galley is far more important than Ruth’s. Macdonald seems not to want us to understand Galley, or to understand her himself. Archer, who spends most of his career attempting to understand the motivations and points of view of others, offers us:
- “’ . . . you like killing men. The real payoff for you wasn’t the thirty thousand. It was smothering Joe, and shooting Keith and Mario. The money was just a respectable excuse, like the fifty dollars to a call girl who happens to be a nymphomaniac.’”
- “Only the female sex was human in her eyes, and she was the only really important member.”
Whatever Galley Lawrence was, she was not born that way.
An Author in Control of his Plot
Macdonald’s careful structuring of the plot deserves admiration. Just a couple of examples:
- An uncharitable reader may have balked at the passage where Archer wakens from being sapped at a house in the middle of the desert to find Marjorie Fellows. It sounds like a ridiculous coincidence, so much so that even Archer can’t accept it. But by the end of the book we know that she was there for good reason.
- Archer’s decision to follow the teenaged prostitute Ruth seems arbitrary at the time, and an undeserved piece of luck when it turns out that Ruth leads him to Ronnie who leads him to Mosquito who leads him to Speed. But Archer was following a reasonable lead. He had a heroin addict desperate for a fix. Tarantine and his underlings are the heroin dealers in town. Following the addict will lead to their supplier—and when the addict is strung out, as Archer knows she is, sooner rather than later. The fact that Ronnie was a partner in the badger game made Archer’s job simpler, but Ruth would have led Archer to a supplier anyway. And why have both Ruth and Ronnie? Couldn’t they be consolidated into one character? Yes, but that character wouldn’t be as sympathetic as the teenaged waif coaxed into heroin by a nasty boyfriend. Separating them in two allows us to feel for her.
Next we move on to The Ivory Grin.