FILL HER UP AND CHECK THE OIL
A Gas Station–The Quintessential California Venue
The boy pumping gas can’t find the dipstick for the oil, which gives Archer a chance to get out and size him up. They have one of the most guarded and mutually suspicious conversations Macdonald ever wrote, made more interesting because neither of the parties want it to appear that way.
A Momentary Digression
In his earlier books Macdonald sometimes displayed a tin ear for dialogue. He’s over that. His construction of the conversations with the former Mrs. Culligan in San Mateo, and his first conversation with John Brown, Jr., are small masterpieces of restraint and innuendo. In both instances, what is not said is just as important as what is said. Macdonald’s mature works may be a little talky for some, but it’s nearly always wonderful talk.
That Gas Tank Won’t Fill Itself
Sorry, back to the story. It is not possible to reconstruct the careful push and pull of the conversation, but the salient claims (not necessarily facts) that emerge are as follows.
- John Brown says he was born in Luna Bay, but only recently moved here. He says he was raised in the Midwest and went to college at the University of Michigan.
- Archer, claiming that he and Bolling (remember that Bolling drove down from San Francisco and is still in the car) are talent scouts, gets Brown to admit that he had acting experience in plays in college. Not a point in his favor; Archer (and probably his creator) are suspicious of people who pretend for a living. Not that Archer ever does that, of course.
- Bolling accepts that this young man is the baby he saw in 1936 and tells Brown so. Brown asks if he has any idea where his father or mother are, and of course the answer is no.
- Brown says he has no memory of his father, but he remembers his mother leaving him at an orphanage in Ohio when he was four. She promised to return but never did.
- Brown says he ran away from the orphanage when he was 16, moved to Ann Arbor, and went to school there. He says he attended school under the name “John Lindsay.”
- Archer admits that he is a detective and that if he is indeed the son of the man he thinks he is, the boy’s father is from a wealthy family. John acts unimpressed—he simply wants to know what happened to his parents.
- John has already been to the local police and he is aware of the bones in their custody. He says he doesn’t believe they are his father’s and neither does the police detective.
Let’s Go Down to the Station
It’s not as dramatic as it sounds. Archer wants to talk to the detective himself and he persuades an apparently reluctant John Brown to walk away from his shift and come along.
Archer talks to the detective alone.
- When the body was found, there were only the bones, no clothing or other identification.
- The police theory is that the head may have been cut off after death to eliminate any dental records, but they admit it’s only a guess.
- The old Brown residence was in the middle of a crime-ridden area in the thirties. Besides the Prohibition activity, there was a nearby brothel, the Red Horse Inn.
- The Red Horse was owned by a gangster named Lempi. He died in the thirties, but members of his gang hung around Luna Bay for years thereafter.
- The detective shows Archer the box of bones, including one with a healed fracture of the right upper arm. The fracture healed well, indicating that it was set by a doctor.
- The police have nothing further. John Brown, if that’s whose bones these are, wasn’t reported as a missing person. The bones could involve a death within five years of 1936 in either direction.
Let Me Make a Phone Call
Archer calls the lawyer, Sable. He tells him about the bones and asks Sable to check with Dr. Howell about whether Howell ever set a broken right humerus for Anthony Galton . He also tells Sable what he can about the boy. The physical resemblance to Anthony Galton is strong but the boy’s story is weak. Archer’s own opinion is that he wouldn’t bet his life savings one way or the other.
On a more prosaic note, Sable tells Archer that his car has been found, out of gas but otherwise undamaged. The man who stole it is still at large.
I hope you’re still following all this, because the plot is about to get complicated.