LET’S MEET MILDRED HALLMAN
Archer’s next stop, via a cab, is a visit to Carl’s wife—the task he’d promised before Carl stole his car.
Archer’s visit to the hospital was a good narrative move, because his conversations there give him some suspicion that there just might be something to what Carl said. Without that information, Archer’s decision to keep his end of the bargain with Carl after the carjacking would be puzzling.
Mildred lives with her mother, a self-centered alcoholic, in a neglected house decorated with empty gin bottles. After an awkward few minutes with the mother, Mildred appears:
“She was young and small, with a fine small head, its modeling emphasized by a short boyish haircut. She had on a dark business suit which her body filled the way grapes filled their skins. She held a shiny black plastic bag, like a shield, in front of it.”
Appearances are deceptive. Mildred is a no-nonsense young woman who isn’t afraid of Carl and dismisses her mother’s fears that he is dangerous.
Archer and Mildred have barely met when Macdonald turns it up a notch with a phone call. One of the ranch hands has just seen Carl at the ranch and he is carrying a gun. Archer offers to take her to the ranch in his taxi, but Mildred is reluctant to spend the money and offers to drive Archer in her car.
A Warm Welcome at the Old Hallman Place
Macdonald chooses a remarkable setting for much of the action in the novel. The Haldeman Citrus Ranch is an enormous orange grove, so large that the main house disappears at times behind ridges as they approach. Orange trees, the fruit not yet ripe, extend in every direction.
Before Archer can reach the house he is stopped by Duane Ostervelt, the local sheriff, whom Peter Wolfe describes as “Macdonald’s wickedest character.” Given that Wolfe has absorbed Macdonald’s life work except for The Blue Hammer, it’s a large claim. But Ostervelt is fully worthy of the label. He makes a crude pass at Mildred and insists that he is going to drive Mildred the rest of the way himself. He throws a number of insults at Archer, who refuses to rise to the bait. Archer ignores Ostervelt’s instructions and drives on to the house. Not a promising start for their relationship.
Once they reach the house, events unfold rapidly:
- They are greeted by Zinnie Hallman, Mildred’s sister-in-law, a person quite unlike her. “Her laugh was loud and unpleasant, like her voice . . . She was a beautiful woman, and her green eyes were interested in me . . . She held the door for us [and] her right breast rose elastically under the white silk shirt. A nice machine, I thought: pseudo-Hollywood, probably empty, certainly expensive, and not new; but a nice machine.”
- The house is symbolic of the family chaos. Before Carl’s hospitalization, both couples shared the house. As soon as Mildred moved out Zinnie began a hasty redecoration, moving brand new furniture into a house of classic Spanish architecture. Surveying the living room, Archer notes,“It was a room in which an uneasy present struggled to overcome the persistent past.”
- One of Ostervelt’s deputies is guarding the area immediately around the house, but it’s clear that they have no hope of finding Carl amid the orange groves. Archer gathers that Oservelt has been exaggerating how dangerous Carl really is, and worries that Carl may be shot if he shows himself.
- A Jaguar pulls in, driven by Dr. Grantland, the family physician Carl warned Archer about.
- It is immediately clear that not only are Zinnie and the doctor lovers, but that she is planning to divorce her husband and marry him. It is also clear that the doctor wants to try to keep their relationship discreet. How is your plan working so far, Doc?
- Then Jerry, Zinnie’s husband show up; he has an angry confrontation with his wife and the doctor, and even threatens the doctor with a heavy duty set of gardening shears. But Archer defuses the situation and Jerry stomps off and goes into the greenhouse, which is his refuge from his failures in his career and marriage.
- The atmosphere in the house is tense; Mildred suspects that if Jerry and Zinnie can’t get control of the ranch by keeping Carl locked away, they would be fine if the Sheriff helped with a more permanent solution. The only distraction is Martha, Zinnie’s young daughter, who plays outside with Mildred—and expresses a strong preference for the doctor over her own father.
- While Mildred and the child are outside on the edge of the grove, Carl appears and briefly talks to Mildred, and then runs away again.
- Rather than do nothing, Archer begins searching the grove in the area where Carl was last seen.
- When Archer gives up his search and returns to the main house, he finds Zinnie, Mildred and the doctor in the greenhouse, clustered around the body of Jerry Hallman, dead from two gunshot wounds.
- Sheriff Ostervelt promptly finds the murder weapon, a small pearl handled revolver that had belonged to Carl and Jerry’s mother, who died by suicide three years before. It was also the gun Carl had been seen with earlier that day.
- It’s not looking good for Carl.