AN UNCONVENTIONAL BEGINNING
Macdonald takes his starting point from his short story, “The Angry Man,” with Archer being confronted at his home in the early hours of the morning by a stranger demanding help. But unlike the short story, his uninvited guest, Carl Hallman, is not so much angry as confused and agitated.
Not only does Archer handle the situation calmly, but he also keeps his composure as Carl tells an unsettling story.
- Carl says that he was sent to Archer by a friend but refuses to give the friend’s name.
- While Archer fixes them coffee and breakfast, Carl says that his father was killed six months ago.
- Since his father’s death, Carl has been confined to a state mental hospital with a diagnosis of manic depression.
- Carl’s brother Jerry Hallman is responsible for having Carl locked up by persuading Carl’s wife Mildred and the family physician, Dr. Grantland, that he was dangerous.
- Carl and his friend escaped that night from the hospital.
- Carl’s father was a wealthy and influential man and was a state senator. At times Carl says that his death was an accident; at other times Carl thinks he may have killed his father. Carl also suggests that Dr. Grantland may have been responsible for Senator Hallman’s death.
- Whether his father’s death was an accident or murder by someone, Carl is convinced that his brother Jerry, Jerry’s wife Zinnie, and Dr. Grantland are conspiring to get control of the family wealth by keeping Carl locked up.
- Grantland “has a bad record,” according to Carl’s friend, but refuses to elaborate.
- Carl has only disclosed his concerns about Dr. Grantland to his wife Mildred.
A Plan Emerges
Archer has every reason not to believe Carl’s story, but it isn’t impossible. Knowing that the only person Carl trusts is his wife Mildred, Archer makes a proposal; Archer will meet with her if Carl agrees to go back to the mental hospital voluntarily. If Archer thinks there is some reason to believe in a conspiracy, he will take the case. Carl reluctantly agrees.
Like Most Plans, it Fails to Survive First Contact with the Enemy
Archer is no mental health professional, and for him it’s a straightforward transaction. He fails to appreciate that talking about Carl’s story upsets him so much. As they drive, he gets more details:
- Carl’s older brother Jerry is a non-practicing lawyer. After taking a stab at a legal career he gave up and now basically just tends the plants in the greenhouse on the family estate and has vague dreams of someday accomplishing something.
- Jerry has been married to Zinnie, a blonde divorcee, who for the last five years has thoroughly dominated him.
- Carl was a disappointment to his father who had sent him to college to study agriculture with an eye of someday taking over management of the family’s extensive land holdings. But Carl wasn’t interested in agriculture and flunked out.
- Then Carl became a parent’s worst nightmare by deciding to study philosophy.
- After enrolling at Berkeley he reconnected with and married Mildred, his high school girlfriend, over the family’s objections.
- Not long after the marriage, Carl had his first “breakdown,” which from his description sounds like a serious clinical depression. He feels guilty about not being able to be a good husband to Mildred.
- Eventually he recovered sufficiently to go to work at the ranch but he argued with his father, especially about Carl’s plan to eventually return large portions of the ranch to the former Japanese owners who were dispossessed by the wartime internment decree.
- Carl’s father was found dead in his bathtub after one of their arguments; Carl is afraid he caused the man to have a heart attack. But he is not sure and he doesn’t trust Dr. Grantland’s conclusions.
- Carl becomes increasingly agitated as they approach the grounds of the mental hospital; he assaults Archer, pushes him out of his own car and drives off.
You Don’t Have to be Crazy to be Here, but it Helps
Archer watches his car disappear, dusts himself off, and hikes to the mental hospital. He gets a few minutes with Carl’s doctor, who is naturally reluctant to breach confidentiality, but Archer does learn that the man Carl escaped with is a heroin addict named Tom Rica.
Archer and Rica have a history. Ten years before, when Archer was a policeman, he tried to take Rica under his wing and steer him away from a life of crime. A police officer had done the same for Archer when Archer was a troubled youth. However, for reasons that will become clear much later, the relationship between Archer and Rica collapsed.
The psychiatrist passes Archer along to Miss Parrish, the psychiatric social worker assigned to Carl’s case. “She was tall and generously made, with a fine sweep of bosom and the shoulders to support it . . . She had the kind of hips that are made for childbearing and associated activities.”
Archer’s conversation with her brings out a few more facts:
- Carl’s diagnosis is manic depression.
- She is convinced Carl is not dangerous.
- She is sympathetic to her patient to a degree beyond professional interest.
- Their conversation concludes with Archer’s observation, “Carl was a handsome boy, and a handsome boy in trouble was a double threat to women, a triple threat if he needed mothering.”