THE DARK TUNNEL                Spoiler Alert



Cover of the Seventies paperback edition



                                                The Preliminaries


This is as briefly as I can summarize a very complicated plot. For those who want a more detailed explanation and analysis, please go to the searchable index for my earlier posts on the book.


The story is set during World War Two, on a university campus much like the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan—which should be no coincidence, since Macdonald was doing graduate work there at the time. Our detective is Robert Branch, a young professor.  He and his colleague Alec Judd are both anxious to take an active part in the war, but Branch has a disqualifying eye injury, the result of being beaten by the Nazis while in Germany in 1937.

Judd confides to Branch that he suspects there is a German spy at work at the university because mobilization data has been leaked.

As the story opens, Branch is waiting for Ruth Esch to arrive to take up teaching duties at the university. Branch and Ruth knew each other very well in Germany years before and even talked of marriage, but then she disappeared. He had not heard from her for years except for a single recent letter announcing that she is coming.

Ruth is an anti-Nazi activist but her brother, Carl Von Esch, is very much a Nazi; Carl was responsible for the beating in 1937 that cost Branch most of the vision in one eye.

Branch is invited by a German refugee professor, Hermann Schneider, for dinner. Scheider was one of Ruth Esch’s teachers in Germany and helped her find her new job. The plan is that Scheider and Brandt will meet Ruth at the train station together.



                                              Things Start Going Wrong


Professor Schneider’s son Peter is at the house; unlike his father he is an ardent Nazi.  Peter challenges Branch to a round of some friendly fencing, which soon turns not so friendly, to the point where Branch thinks Peter is trying to kill him. In the course of the duel Branch’s glasses are broken, seriously impairing his vision.

After dinner Peter offers to drive Branch to the train station, to which Branch unwisely agrees. Peter makes an unambiguous attempt to kill Branch, who escapes.

Branch goes to the train station but Ruth does not get off the train.  Branch finds his way back to the Schneider house where he sees Peter and a person he believes to be Ruth; Peter introduces the person as his fiancé. Branch has no desire to prolong the encounter and leaves quickly.


                                                Things Get Even Worse


Branch gets back to the campus just in time to see his friend Alec Judd fall from his fifth story office to his death.

Branch is suspicious and starts making inquiries.  This prompts a visit to Branch’s office from Professor Hermann Schneider, who denies spying for the Nazis but threatens Branch with a pistol. Branch succeeds in knocking him out with a blow from the paperweight.  But when Branch returns with the police, Scheider has been beaten to death with the paperweight.



                                                   The Chase is On


Branch is now on the run from both the police and Peter, a continuous episode that takes up at least fifty pages.  It would be a shame to spoil it by going into detail because it’s the best part of the book.  Macdonald had a gift, even then, for chase scenes. I will only say that it starts in the steam tunnels of the university, goes to a brothel, then into the woods, continues at a square dance, and concludes with a narrow escape from Peter’s third attempt to kill Branch.  In the course of the pursuit it seems to Branch that Ruth is actively helping Peter.


                                                     The Tables Turn


Branch is able not only to convince the local police that he was not involved in the death of Alec Judd, but obtains the co-operation of the FBI, who are investigating the Nazi spy ring. Professor Schneider brought Peter over from Germany without knowing that he was a Nazi sympathizer. Peter has worked in a number of defense plants under various aliases. He is a well-known homosexual, and one of his lovers has informed on him. Peter has fled to Canada.



                                          We Need to Talk About Ruth


Branch pieces together several clues that lead him to conclude that the person he saw was not Ruth—in fact, that person was Carl Esch, Ruth’s brother, in drag. Carl and Peter are lovers.  The real Ruth is in a hospital recovering from injuries she sustained in an assault by Peter Schneider who left her for dead.  Carl Esch had masqueraded as Ruth to cross the border from Canada. Because of his poor eyesight, Branch was fooled into thinking Carl was Ruth.

Branch arrives at the hospital just in time to ambush Peter, who is disguised as a nurse to finish Ruth off with a lethal injection.  Peter is led away by the Mounted Police in handcuffs.


                                                            Fun Fact


The paperback version was initially published as I Die Slowly, apparently without checking with the author about the changed title.


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