THE REST OF THE STORY
The final chapter, 35, is a strange mixture of pontifications about psychology and new information about developments since Mildred’s arrest. There is nothing like it in the original story. As we have previously noted, there are commentators who think the chapter ruins the book and others who regard it as the book’s greatest strength.
The chapter opens with a conversation between Archer and Rose Parish in the cafeteria of the local hospital.
- Carl survived the operation to remove the bullets and should recover.
- Tom Rica is still undergoing withdrawal and is under arrest in another wing of the hospital.
- Parish expressly confesses her love for Carl and “expects to have to wait for him,” an allusion to the life sentence Mildred will probably get. I am no expert on California domestic law, but if a life sentence doesn’t dissolve the marriage, the fact that Mildred murdered her husband’s father, brother, and sister-in-law just might be grounds for divorce.
- Parish tells Archer that Rica sent Carl to Archer in a spirit of revenge. Archer had been trying to work with Rica ten years before but the boy had drifted back into crime and Rica blames Archer.
- She confirms that the madam at the Buenavista Inn used her influence with Ostervelt to get Rica a sentence to a mental hospital instead of jail.
The Bomb Drops, a Little Late
Rose and Archer look in on Rica and the truth about the death of Alicia Hallman comes out.
- Grantland lied to Mildred. She had hurt Alicia by hitting her with the bottle, but she was still alive and conscious when Grantland pushed her off the pier and watched her struggle in the water and then drown. Rica drove the car to the pier but was not otherwise part of the killing.
- At the time it happened three years ago, Rica had come to Archer intending to tell him the story. Although the two were estranged, Rica still felt that although he didn’t want to go to the police, he could trust Archer.
- When Rica came to Archer’s office, Archer brushed him off; Archer’s final attempt to reconcile with his wife Sue had collapsed, he’d had a good deal to drink, and he wanted to get Rica out of his office before his lunch date, a young blonde with connections, showed up. Rica never tried to tell Archer again, with the result that Mildred believed Grantland’s version that she was responsible for Alicia’s death.
The last page of the book is Archer reflecting on the news.
“It isn’t possible to brush people off, let alone yourself. They wait for you in time, which is also a closed circuit . . . When you looked at the whole picture, there was a certain beauty in it, or justice. But I didn’t take care to look for long. The circuit of guilty time was too much like a snake with its tail in its mouth, consuming itself. If you looked too long, there’d be nothing left of it, or you. We were all guilty. We had to learn to live with it.”
Macdonald Yields to Temptation
That would have been a great place to stop. But wriiters love their words; otherwise they would not be writers. All of us write badly at times; cutting the bad stuff is easy if you have a clear eye and a steady hand. But there is a temptation on the other end, too. Sometimes we find ourselves writing a paragraph of such beauty, clarity and lyricism that we just know it belongs in the book. If we are professionals we know that those paragraphs may wind up in the wastebasket, sacrificed for the integrity of the work as a whole. Macdonald came up with a paragraph like that, but for once his instincts failed him.
After he says his goodbyes to Rose Parish comes the concluding paragraph:
“For once in my life I had nothing and wanted nothing. Then thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum. My mind picked it up and ran with it and took flight. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she’d aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head.”
The alert reader of the Archer series, or even this book, will note that Archer’s ex wife never appears anywhere. When Archer thinks of her, it is always with regret rather than longing. She is as firmly in the past as the deceased members of his extended family. Macdonald has given us a beautiful piece of writing that is irrelevant to the story and leaves us confused about the book we have just finished.