The Inescapable Eavesdropping


It’s too much to expect to get through an entire Ross Macdonald book with an eavesdrop.  At least he held off his impulse far as Chapter 27. But this one was worth waiting for.


                                                A Note on Eavesdropping


In a world that turns on intercepted electronic communications, pings on cell phones, GPS coordinates and similar electronic wizardry, acquiring information just by overhearing it seems quaint.  But thirty years ago, it was still an important tool. Eavesdropping is very useful in fiction.  The information conveyed was necessarily fragmented and ambiguous.  The speaker and listener didn’t need to spell out their plans or their references.  They could even argue about their plans, creating even more uncertainty.  Last, since eavesdropping can only involve the persons in the room, it’s easy to disguise the identity and even existence of absent members of the conspiracy. And if the eavesdroppers are not visible to the detective, my mystery is even deeper.

I miss this convention.  To listen, the detective must place himself in danger, or at least in a place where there is no innocent explanation for his presence. How many stories have you read where the eavesdrop is interrupted by someone placing a gun to the head of the detective?


                                                    Let’s Listen In


Molly Fawn has left her informal police custody and returned, predictably, to the only place she knows, the small room in the back of the photographic shop.  Cross has the police park nearby and he creeps up on the shop, Cross listens to Molly argue with a man about what the division of the spoils will be—Molly offers ten thousand and the man counters at 50/50.  During the discussion it’s clear that Molly does not have the money herself; she only has a clear idea of where it is.  And that it is in the control of a woman.  Further exchanges make it clear that the man is Bourne, the head of the shady detective agency that had briefly employed Lemp.

A few important clues:

  • The woman Bourne is looking for is in Pacific Point and Molly saw her this morning.
  • Molly recognized her from a picture Kerry Snow had been carrying all though his years in jail. She was the woman who fingered him in 1946.
  • Molly insists she is not wrong in her identification—the woman has let her hair grow out and she’s older but based on the photo Molly would know her anywhere.
  • When Molly hands Bourne the photo of the woman, she observes that with all Kerry’s talent, he still couldn’t make her look good.
  • In what at first sounds like a confusing statement, Molly clarifies that the red-headed woman has let her hair grow gray since the war.

As Bourne and Molly attempt to leave, they are arrested by Cross and the officer assisting him.  Cross looks at the photograph and recognizes not Helen Johnson but Amy Miller, Fred’s widow.


                                          Chapter 28 Wraps it Up in Style 

      The chapter begins at the Pacific Point courthouse where Amy Miner has just finished her grand jury testimony and has now been released. She drove away in the Johnson Lincoln, with Helen at the wheel. Cross assumes they are going back to the Johnson home where the boy is.  But when Cross calls to check, Helen’s mother answers—Helen and Amy just left for San Diego to pay a brief visit to Amy’s family home.

As Cross and a detective head towards San Diego, the police are at work; Amy’s maiden name was Wolfe and they are able to narrow it down to a small family-owned grocery store in a working-class neighborhood.  They managed to beat Helen’s car and they have some time to talk to Amy’s father, a brutish man but with no reason to lie.  He provides more details on the years immediately after the war:

  • Amy was having a serious affair with Kerry Snow while Fred was convalescing in the hospital. She spent her money making herself attractive for Snow, including dying her hair red to conceal her premature gray.
  • She was ready to leave Fred and run off with Snow in 1945 except that her father forbade it and ran Kerry off. Her father also told Fred about the affair, who also demanded that she stay.
  • The father wouldn’t know this, but we do—that to get Snow out of the way, Fred told Helen where Snow was hiding, Helen told Steifel, and Steifel told the authorities.
  • Amy’s father is not surprised to learn that Fred is dead, stating that Amy has a furious temper and is fully capable of murder.
  • When the father learns that the case involves grand theft he produces a parcel recently mailed to the house. Inside is the fifty thousand dollars of ransom money.

At that moment, Helen and Amy appear at the door.




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