STILL THINKING ABOUT THE GALTON CASE
As we have seen, the book does not follow the classic structure of a mystery. If it did, Archer would follow clues here and there, journey to Pitt, and find the Galton heir living as Theo Fredericks, ignorant of his true identity. That is how mysteries work. The detective does the heavy lifting and finds the MacGuffin at the end through his own efforts.
- In the book, the MacGuffin not only presents himself to the detective less than a third of the way through the story but fills the tank and checks his oil as well.
- Archer may be leading the investigation but he is not in charge of the story. One of the most meaningful parts of the story, the acceptance of the boy in the Galton family, happens while Archer is in the hospital.
- In the last part of the book, Archer is literally several beats behind the measure. Everywhere he goes, the boy has already been and left.
- The last several chapters of the book could be rewritten to remove Archer entirely. It’s the boy’s story and his actions drive the plot.
All this tells me that Macdonald desperately wanted to write a novel about his childhood as an outsider and what it meant to him to find his place in California. He’d tried and failed in Winter Solstice ten years before; more recently he’d tried versions of the story that collapsed after a few chapters, in part due to problems with the point of view.
Macdonald’s solution was to turn his theme into a detective story by grafting Archer on to the first ten chapters and telling the story through Archer. As I indicated in my last post, it was not a perfect solution. Fortunately for us all, fiction does not depend on perfection. As Annie Dillard wrote, “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles.” Yes, there are problems with The Galton Case as a detective story. But at least his solution allowed him to bring the book to a conclusion.
A Personal Note
The book is a fictionalized autobiography of Macdonald, down to the fact that John Brown’s birthdate is the same as the author’s. But many of the similarities between the book and the author’s life have more emotional truth than factual. Macdonald grew up knowing both his parents, though neither of them were closely involved in raising him. As marginalized as Macdonald was, he never felt, as Theo Fredericks did, that his real family was somewhere else.
My own story is closer to The Galton Case than Macdonald’s real life, but without the money at the end. I was raised by a couple who told me they were my parents. I got along with them poorly, especially my father. We had so little in common I felt like we were strangers waiting at a bus stop. The woman who raised me said my birth certificate had burned up in a fire at the hospital where I was born. Many years later, when they were both dead, I discovered the truth through Ancestry. My mother was a single 19-year-old waitress (from the Upper Midwest, ironically) and my father was a traveling salesman from Missouri who liked women. A lot. A shady doctor delivered me and handed me to the woman who raised me. When I tracked down the doctor he couldn’t remember what my mother looked like but he remembered that the woman he gave me to never paid him the $300.
As far as I can tell, the husband of the woman never knew I wasn’t their son.
I never had the chance to meet my mother, but thanks to the kindness of my half-brother and half-sister, I have some of her ashes on my bookshelf. And I have found a half brother and sister I love very much and of whom I’m very proud.
But enough about me; I have some further thoughts before we conclude.