THE FERGUSON AFFAIR – Part Three
Begin Your Story at the Beginning
This truism is beaten into the brains of every student of Intro Basic Creative Writing 101, with varying degrees of success. It can be deceptively hard to follow. Does your story begin when your traveler gets to town, when he meets the girl, or when she persuades him to (1) come home with her (2) invest in cryptocurrency (3) knock off the liquor store? Life is full of hard choices.
Wolfe argues that despite the weak ending, The Ferguson Affair has a strong opening. I disagree in part. Yes, it’s structurally strong—Macdonald places us in the middle of the action and efficiently introduces the protagonist and his client. He started writing a book about disadvantaged Hispanics, some of whom may be criminals. The problem is that then he abandons that book for a story about crime among the ultra-rich. Macdonald has to circle back to the poor part of town in Chapter 10-13 to kill off several minor characters for no reason other than to throw suspicion on Sgt. Granada, but once we meet Colonel Ferguson we can safely forget we ever read everything that happened before he appears.
The setting is one familiar to Ross Macdonald fans—the exclusive pool club for the wealthy. We have already seen it in The Barbarous Coast and we will see it again in Black Money, as well as in several of his short stories. Macdonald and his wife spent much of their spare time at beach clubs. Seeing people with too much time, money and alcohol on their hands gave them some of their best ideas.
Gunnarson arrives at the Hilltop Club and the elements of the real story come thick and fast.
- A sleazy, loud-dressing crook from Florida named Salaman mistakes Gunnarson for the manager and announces that he is there to see the movie actress Holly May, who is now married to a man name Ferguson. Apparently he is there to collect on an illegal debt of some kind. Salaman also tells Gunnarson that Holly May is having an affair with the club lifeguard.
- Gunnarson brushes him off and locates the real manager, with the appropriate name of Bidwell. The man is nearly as frightened as the club manager in The Barbarous Coast.
- Bidwell is frightened of Colonel Ian Ferguson, a former officer, a wealthy Alberta oilman, husband of Holly May and a prominent member of the club leadership. Ferguson has just learned about his wife’s affair with the club lifeguard, Larry Gaines, is drunk, and is in a mood to kill not only Gaines but Bidwell.
- Gaines has disappeared and Bidwell fears he has been left holding the bag.
- Last evening, when Holly May was having dinner with her husband, she was called away for a phone call and disappeared as well.
- Ferguson, drunk and enraged, is in the process of breaking down Bidwell’s office door when Gunnarson defuses the situation with soft words, followed by a well-timed right to Ferguson’s jaw.
- With the help of Tony Padilla, the club bartender and a confidante of Ferguson, they take Ferguson home and sober him up.
- Despite the evidence, Padilla doubts that Holly left Ferguson. He thought they were happy together despite the age difference (he is in his fifties and she is about twenty-five.)
- Ferguson sobers up enough to take a phone call—it is from people who claim to have kidnapped Ferguson’s wife and they went $200,000 for her safe return. And they tell him in no uncertain terms not to involve the police, and that they will know if he contacts them.
The Worst Lawyer in the World
This is a little premature since Gunnarson hasn’t been hired, but he argues with Ferguson up and down for four printed pages about how Ferguson should contact the police anyway. Gunnarson disputes Ferguson’s statement that the kidnappers “have a friend on the force” despite Gunnarson’s knowledge that somebody on the force has inside knowledge of the burglaries and Gunnarson’s suspicions about who exactly it is. With friends like this, Ferguson doesn’t need enemies.
The action is interrupted by one of the several killings of minor characters that have nothing to do with the real plot.
The Most Improbable Marital Dialogue in any Ross Macdonald Novel
Sally and Gunnarson had spoken in the late afternoon when she informed him that she had made him a special dinner—leg of lamb with mint jelly—and that he needed to be home on time because it would dry out.
The exact time Gunnarson shows up is not revealed, but from the amount of action that has transpired, it may be on the wrong side of midnight. And he never called.
I preface their conversation with Peter’s Wolfe’s analysis of this passage as “one of the writer’s rare attempts at domestic realism. Sally and Bill Gunnarson move and speak naturally, superbly unconscious of the reader.”
A drum roll, please.
“You can’t use your profession to cover up every time.” [she said]
“Cover up what?”
“Your failure as a husband,” she said shinily. “When a man deliberately avoids his own house the way you do, it’s enough to understand what it means. You’re essentially unmarried—a perennial bachelor. You don’t want the responsibility of a wife and family. No wonder you get fixated on your clients. It’s safe relationship, an ego-feeding activity, which makes no demands on your essential self . . . I am perfectly capable of observing the state of my own marriage and drawing the necessary conclusions . . . Do you know what you are, Bill Gunnarson? You’re nothing but a profession that walks like a man . . .”
I have no quarrel with the substance of Sally Gunnarson’s analysis and we will have more to say about this later. My astonishment is that a commentator as respected and experienced as Peter Wolfe can call this “natural” dialogue. To me, it’s a polemic of half-digested Freud with not a trace of the personal hurt and betrayal that underlies her feelings. No writer does everything well. We love Macdonald for his deep imagination, his searing portrait of California life, and his exquisite metaphors—and if that all comes with some occasional terrible dialogue, so be it. But let’s forgive him for it, not celebrate it.
The reader will not be surprised when Gunnarson comes to bed, his wife pretends to be asleep. But you may be surprised to learn that when Gunnarson’s sleep is interrupted by a call threatening him and his wife and unborn child if he stays on the Holly May case, he neglects to mention it to her.