It Hits the Fan
Chapter 31 has a no-nonsense opening. Archer arrives at the Church residence. When Hilda says that her husband is not home, Archer forces his way inside. Before he begins, he regards her for a moment:
“She had acted beyond her power to imagine what she had done. I had to drive the truth home to her, give her back reality. I’d rather have shot her through the head.”
- When confronted, she admits shooting her sister Anne.
- She claims not to have intended it but says that Anne deserved it for sleeping with her husband.
- She killed Anne early Sunday morning at the cabin at the lake.
- She had known about their affair for months; what triggered her to act was because Saturday night Tony Aquista had come to her house and told her that he’d just seen the two of them together on the bearskin rug at the cabin.
- She went back to the cabin again Monday. While she was there Kerrigan showed up and offered to help her dispose of the body. (Kerrigan fell into an enormous piece of luck in deciding to visit the cabin since he had no way of knowing that Anne was dead there.) When Hilda was interrupted by MacGowan while attempting to dig a grave, Kerrigan said he would take care of things. It was Kerrigan’s idea for her to swap shoes with her sister after Hilda broke her heel.
- Kerrigan, ever-helpful, said he was also going to go to Anne’s apartment and look for evidence that would implicate Hilda. As Archer observes, there was no such evidence, but there may well have been evidence that Anne was using to blackmail Kerrigan.
- The “change of plan” that Jo referenced in the hijacking was that Kerrigan persuaded Hilda to borrow a car from her father, a car that Aquista would recognize and trust, and flag him down. (The problem with Macdonald’s solution is that Aquista should have been on his guard with Hilda because he had gone back to the cabin the next morning and found Anne dead. To his credit, Archer mentions that it was a risky move.)
- Once Hilda has Aquista in the car, she has another accident with the gun. She shoves him out of the car, apparently without getting any blood or backsplatter on herself or the car.
- Hilda doesn’t pretend that the third killing, that of Kerrigan, was an accident. She said she did so because Kerrigan had told her husband about the first two killings and she didn’t want anyone else to know. (There is a problem with this because the cat was out of the bag already.)
- Her husband took the gun away from her and hid it.
Chapter 32: The Moral Climax of the Book
Brand comes home. Archer levels a gun at him but Brand is in no mood for trouble. He is ready to confess. When Archer searches him and retrieves a revolver, Brand tells him that it’s the murder weapon.
In his later years, Macdonald’s verdict on the book was that it was “too action-fraught . . . but I think the last couple of chapters rise to the wholly human.” It’s a fair assessment.
- Brand is ridden by guilt on multiple levels. As much as he loved Anne, he knew their relationship was morally wrong.
- Hilda had suffered a miscarriage early in their marriage that led to a suicide attempt; that plus her own history of childhood abuse at the hands of her father left her unable to function as a wife. Their marriage has been sexless for years.
- Her mental health was always fragile, which was one of the reasons he was attracted to her in the first place. He is a man who needs to be needed.
- Kerrigan blackmailed Brand with his knowledge of the murder; if Brand wouldn’t cooperate to help get the hijacked truck into Las Cruces, Kerrigan was going to expose Hilda as a murderer. (It may be giving Kerrigan too much credit, but it may be that he thought he would have even more leverage if he forced Hilda to actively participate in the hijacking.)
- The final mystery of how Hilda came to have the gun is resolved; Hilda was so distraught at the cabin that Anne handed her the gun, saying that if she was that miserable she should shoot herself. Anne may have been a good bookkeeper but she was no psychologist.
- Archer is impressed with Brant’s integrity and willingness to accept responsibility. He says he will disclose nothing voluntarily about what he has learned and that he will do what he can to see that Hilda’s mental condition is fully considered.