LAYING IT OUT
Chapter Twenty-Nine opens in Archer’s office in West Hollywood, shortly before ten in the evening. Archer and Sylvia look out the window and wait. It’s a shame that Macdonald seldom wrote static scenes because he was very good at it. After more than two hundred pages of action, a few pages where nothing happens is very effective. It lets us catch our breath and it leaves us in suspense for what we know will be an important conversation.
The phone rings and Archer answers, but no one is there. Archer cannot know this, but the caller is Una and she has just verified Archer’s whereabouts.
Just before ten, Archer bundles Sylvia into a small side room so she can observe and take notes.
At the appointed time Bess Benning pulls up. Archer meets her at the curb and tells her to come inside, assuring her that the five thousand dollars is waiting. As Archer frisks her, Macdonald gives us another of the descriptions that gave rise to the charge of misogyny.
“. . . I saw that she was losing what she had. Her past was coming out on her face like latent handwriting. Her powder and lipstick, alkali and orange in the fluorescent light, were cracking and peeling off. Grime showed in the pores of her nose and at the sides of her neck. Dissolution was working in her rapidly like a fatal disease she had caught from her husband that day.”
The Big Reveal
Once Bess is in Archer’s office and has seen the money for herself, the story comes out.
- Ten years before, she was the minor that Leo Durano had corrupted.
- Charles Singleton was the love of her life, but he came along too late, after she had married Benning to escape her life of poverty and crime.
- While Singleton was away in the war she made “the best of a bad job” with her husband but as soon as Singleton returned their affair resumed.
- After a few months of happiness seeing Singleton on the weekends he went to Boston for law school. After a year of missing Singleton she left Benning and went east to be with him.
- Their time in Boston did not go well. With her rough manners she didn’t fit into his life there. As he told her, she was only part of his California vacations, not the rest of his life. She left and drifted around the country, supporting herself in dubious ways.
- She was in jail in Detroit for extortion (she and a confederate had been playing the badge game) when Leo arranged for her release and they took up again.
- It didn’t last long because the incident at the night club where Leo shot at a man for no reason meant that they had to get Leo out of Detroit to conceal his end stage paresis.
- She confirms what Una had said, that Arroyo Beach was her idea.
- Her original reason was to create an opportunity to show up Singleton and demonstrate that she had made a success of herself despite her upbringing; but when they met she realized how much she still loved him and their affair resumed.
- That night two weeks before, Leo drove up to Singleton’s cabin; when Singleton walked out Leo shot him in the stomach.
- Una, who was with Leo, told Bess the same story she’d told Archer: that Leo had forced her to drive him there. Iin the heat of the moment she’d accepted the story. In any event, she was afraid of both Leo and Una and decided to help them cover up the shooting.
- Bess bundled the injured Singleton into her car and drove him to the office of her husband in Bella City. She had left Benning two years before and had only seen him occasionally since.
- When she brought Singleton to Benning, his demand for treating him was that Bess would resume her life as his wife. She agreed.
- Singleton died during the operation in Benning’s office.
- Benning disposed of the body by dismembering it and turning it into the skeleton Archer had seen when he searched the office. Benning said he would retain it as proof in case she ever attempted to leave him again.
- She and Benning hid Singleton’s car in a barn in back of Benning’s house, where it remained until Max Heiss found it.
It’s a Lot to Take In
The story doesn’t allow Bess much time to reflect on the sad story of her life, but she makes an important observation.
“I’ll tell you what’s really strange . . . The people you love are never the ones that love you. The people that love you, the way Sam [Benning] loved me, they’re the ones you can’t love. Sam was a good man when I first knew him. But he was too crazy about me. I couldn’t love him, ever, and he was too smart to fool. It ruined him.”