JOHN GALTON SCREWED UP
Before he threw in his lot with Culligan in March, John made a carefully considered decision to walk away from Ada Reichler.
What if he hadn’t?
The False Dilemma
The choice is presented as an either/or, but that is from the point of view of a twenty- year-old who has suffered a lifetime of abuse and deprivation. He had options; he just didn’t have the self-confidence to recognize them.
Ada loves him for who he is despite knowing his background. Whatever his exact motivations for telling her about his life in Pitt, it was a good decision. But when she failed to respond immediately, positively and fully to the news he lost his nerve and ran away. Ada gets a little of the blame, but far less than she takes on. Suppose John had been at least slightly patient, or Ada had recovered from the shock a little sooner—what then? John could have been with a woman of true quality, who was also a woman of means.
Macdonald creates a vague impression that John’s abandonment of Ada was necessary for him to establish his true identity as John Gault. But that is not true at all.
There is no reason why they could not have had a conversation, “There’s some business I need to take care of in California before we can get married, honey.” Learning the true story of his birth could hardly have lowered her regard for him. Quite the opposite. However, as I mentioned a few posts ago, it’s hard to ride this particular horse too far, because we have no reliable information about when John realized the truth of his identity. But whether he knew or merely suspected, Ada was there for him either way.
John winds up with Sheila, a bubblehead compared to Ada, whose interest in him will always be compromised by her knowledge, from the start, that he is wealthy.
Why Does Ada Have to Go?
Peter Wolfe, in Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, urges us to take a broad view of the novel as a quest story, where the young hero must undergo a long and complicated journey before he is worthy of the prize.
“John’s rejection of marriage to Ada, despite her assets, prove his unreadiness. The ordeals he goes through in the novel make him a man.”
Which means, I suppose, that Wolfe agrees that the boy made a mistake.
Why Does This Bother Me?
Not so much because it is a bad decision. Most novels, but especially crime novels, are full of bad decisions. At the minimum, there must be at least one bad decision for the book to be a crime novel at all. And I have to concede that Ada Reichler works well as a structural device. As Wolfe points out, John’s rejection of her is a signal of his own immaturity; and second, her information gives Archer information he could not have found any other way.
I am bothered primarily because Ada is so different from most of Macdonald’s female characters. Nearly all of them are deeply troubled people, even the ones who aren’t serial killers. We may feel pity for them, or make allowances, but we seldom like them and almost never admire them. Macdonald wrote few women characters we really respect and it’s a shame Ada wasn’t given more of a chance to shine.
A few more words about the women of the book and we will be ready to move on.