THE FERGUSON AFFAIR – Part Nine SPOILER ALERT
Some Necessary Background
This book was written during one of the lowest points of Macdonald’s life. As we have discussed earlier, when he was working on The Galton Case, his daughter Linda ran down several Hispanic pedestrians while she was drunk, killing one and seriously injuring others. This should have been good for several years in jail. But Macdonald hired excellent counsel (not William Gunnarson) and played every contact he had in the Santa Barbara community. His daughter wound up with a short stay in a psychiatric hospital and no jail time. For a man who repeatedly claimed that all should be equal before the law and that people should accept responsibility for their actions, his role in engineering the result must have been a deeply humiliating experience.
Macdonald had started a new book. It involved a Canadian Colonel Ferguson who contacts an unnamed detective, thinking he has shot someone. When the two investigate there is no body. The stress of dealing with the aftermath of Linda’s homicide by vehicle caused him to put it aside. (The fragment is published as “Stolen Woman” in The Archer Files.)
A few months later, Linda went off the rails in an even more spectacular way. She left her college dorm at University of California at Davis and disappeared for three weeks. The Macdonalds made repeated television appearances pleading for her to return home and were both placed under sedation. They barely slept during the ordeal. Finally, a Nevada private detective located her and she was brought home. Macdonald was able to use his influence to avoid a probation violation, although she was expelled from college. The details never came out, but the known facts involve a number of men, a lot of alcohol, and multiple sleazy motels. Macdonald was hospitalized for three weeks with exhaustion and high blood pressure when it was all over.
He needed to turn in a manuscript quickly.
And he wanted to apologize, to others as well as to himself.
Tom Nolan, who as a biographer can take a larger view, explains the presence of the extraneous subplots. These involve numerous Hispanic working class minor characters who are painted in an admirable light before being dispatched by the homosexual ambulance drivers. All these subplots may have made Macdonald feel better, but they do a disservice to the logic of the main story.
One Man’s “robustly told novel” (Wolfe) is Another
Man’s “widely divergent set of plot lines” (Spier)
It’s no coincidence that some of the plots have little or nothing to do with each other—Macdonald took his “Stolen Woman” fragment and expanded it in every direction as fast as he could; backwards, forwards and sideways. Wolfe is a deeply intelligent man and has read the text closely. But this is one of the times he is too sympathetic to the author. He views it at a strength that Macdonald threw in everything but the kitchen sink. As a writer, I know that the the decision of what to leave out is just as important as what to put in. Macdonald knew it too; this time he let us down.
Artistic merit has little to do with commercial success. The Ferguson Affair, for all its flaws, sold very well and rescued Macdonald from the commercial failure of two far better books, The Doomsters and The Galton Case. The reading public of 1960 loved the gratutious violence and nonstop action and wasn’t bothered by the disorganization, lack of focus, and plain silliness of the plotting. If you consider some of the current bestsellers, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that nothing has changed.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move on to one of Macdonald’s most remarkable books, one that has been neglected, The Wycherly Woman.