THE IVORY GRIN
LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED
Archer Arrives at his Office to Find His Prospective Client Already There
Freud wrote a great deal about what it meant when the patient was late (a sign of hostility) or early (a sign that the patient was demanding and controlling.)
Macdonald had been exposed to Freud by the time he wrote The Three Roads; whether Macdonald’s staging here was deliberate or not, it’s a good narrative move because it tells us what kind of a person the client is.
The client gives her name as Una Larkin. Like everything else she tells him, it’s only partly true. Her story:
- She wants Archer to locate a “colored girl” named Lucy Champion who used to work for her as a maid.
- When Lucy left two weeks ago she took a pair of ruby earrings and a gold necklace.
- When Archer says that he has little chance of find a black woman in LA, Una tells him that Lucy is in Bella City, in the Imperial Valley, and that she frequents a lunch counter each day.
- Una says she simply wants Archer to locate the woman for her and report. She tells him she will be staying at the Mission Hotel in Bella City.
This factual summary hardly does justice to the confrontation in Archer’s office. Archer finds her story suspicious and Una just short of detestable. Macdonald is writing under all the constraints that mainstream publishers imposed in 1952, but it is clear that she is a masculine lesbian. Macdonald does not take the occasion to show his tolerance for gender diversity. Quite the opposite:
- “Her grip, armed with rings, was as hard as a man’s.”
- “Her manner had changed from girlish vivacity to boyish earnestness . . . In any case she looked fifty, for all the girlishness and the boyishness.”
- “The incomplete boy in her came to the point.”
- “She lowered her short bristling lashes over her hard black eyes.”
- “She moved deliberately and quickly to the outer door. Her walk was the shortest distance between things she wanted. The back of her neck was heavy under the cropped hair, swollen with muscle as if she had often used it for butting and rooting . . . she hitched her mink stole higher. I wondered if she used it to conceal the telltale grossness.”
Creating tension between the detective and the client is a solid narrative device. Macdonald was weaned on the most fabulously untrustworthy client of all, Bridgette O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, and Una will turn out to justify Archer’s suspicions. I just wish he had focused on her character instead of her gender choices.
Welcome to Bella City
Archer drives to Bella City, a dusty agricultural town, and waits where he can observe the lunch counter where Una has told him that Lucy has lunch each day. Seldom in any of the Archer novels is he given an assignment so straightforward. Macdonald is in no hurry; we get a tour of the town and a good deal of commentary on the disadvantaged lives of the minorities and the poor. We even get some byplay in a drugstore between Archer and the proprietor while we wait for Lucy.
She appears, as Una predicted, and Archer trails her to the house where she is boarding. It’s a poor neighborhood, mostly black. Thanks to some careful investigative work and the inevitable timely eavesdrop, he sees Lucy Champion being evicted from her rented room by her landlady, Mrs. Norris, who accuses her of being interested in her son Alex. (Lucy is in her early twenties and Alex is at least five years younger.) Norris also accuses Lucy of entertaining a man the previous evening, something that will turn out to be a clue.
Although Alex attempts to intervene with his mother, he is unsuccessful and Lucy packs her bags hurriedly. Archer follows her while she takes a taxi to the train station. She heavily powders her face and then takes her bags back out to another cab, which takes her to a sleazy motel. Macdonald offers us a memorable description of the motel owner:
“His forearms were marked with blue tattoings like the printing on sides of beef. One on the right arm said: I Love You Ethel. His small eyes said; I love nobody.”
Archer checks into the room next door. The scene is set.
A Side Note on Race
Readers can be forgiven for not noticing the significance of Lucy powdering her face before she goes to rent a motel room. She is light-skinned, light enough to pass for white, which is one of Mrs. Norris’ many grievances. It is 1952, and even the disreputable motel is off limits to people of color.
I have a larger point. The book has several black characters, and several examples of police oppression and abuse of black suspects. But it is not fundamentally about race. The story could have been written with an all-white cast. This is not a criticism; it speaks well of him that he went out of his way to draw attention to the problem of racism. But race is not essential to the plot the way it is in Trouble Follows Me.