THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE Part Seven
Archer Starts Picking up the Pieces
But Before That, a Moment of Insight
I have been ranting about nearly every Macdonald book regarding the sarcastic, flippant dialogues between his protagonists and the police. The wisecracking detective is a staple of hardboiled fiction, the most famous example being Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The trouble is not that Macdonald followed the trope; it was that he did it badly. He had learned to restrain himself a little by the time he invented Archer, but there were still some cringeworthy passages. Now he has finally learned his lesson.
Archer is trying to enlist the help of the desk sergeant in getting a message to the officer in charge of the investigation into Simpson’s murder. After the officer shows a lack of interest, Archer leaves his name as Sherlock Holmes. Archer then asks if the sergeant can give him the man’s home address.
“Sure I can. But you’re the great detective. Find it for yourself.”
Archer the wit. Archer the public relations wizard. I took my keen sense of humor and social expertise for a walk down the corridor.
Another Conversation with Ralph Simpson’s Widow
Except for a few minor characters, everyone in the book is holding out on Archer. My summary of the plot would be twice as long if I detailed how Archer drags out every scrap of information. Vicky Simpson is unique in that, when cornered, she freely admits she lied. It’s refreshing, sort of.
- She admits she recognized Campion from the sketch and that he and Ralph were friends.
- She says that Ralph was a “financial advisor” to Dolly.
- Although Ralph had loaned Dolly a little money from time to time, Dolly paid him back.
- Just before Dolly was killed she told Ralph that she had a thousand dollars ($10,000 today) and wanted to know what to do with it. Ralph said she showed him the money.
- Dolly said that she’d had another $1,000 when she and Campion married but he’d squandered it. She didn’t want Campion to know about the second $1,000.
- Vicky doesn’t know where this money came from, but she and Archer suspect it was from the father of the child. She denies it could have been Ralph. The reason she doesn’t believe her husband could be the father was that he was too good a friend of Bruce. There’s a realistic view of the world for you.
- Ralph doesn’t have an alibi for the night of Dolly’s murder, either.
- A deputy came to see Ralph after Dolly died. Then Camion came to see Ralph after the police questioned him.
- Campion and Ralph were more than friends; they were like brothers. Ever since their army service in Korea, Ralph would have done anything for Campion.
- When Ralph came back from his week at Lake Tahoe working for the Blackwells, he had a brown tweed coat with him, with one brown button missing.
- Chapter 23 ends with Archer remembering where he saw the coat.
The Perfect Beachwear Accessory
Chapter 24 is a straightforward bit of plotting; Archer goes to the beach, locates the hapless band of surfing teenagers, and retrieves the coat. But it’s a mark of Macdonald’s control of his material in his mature works that he uses the encounter to portray the aimless generation growing up in the Sixties. It’s not essential to the plot and I won’t spoil your own pleasure, but it’s nicely done.
- The coat washed up on the beach May 19th. It was missing the top button when they found it. They are certain of the date because of the tide tables.
- Someone had put stones in the pockets to weigh it down.
Archer takes the coat with him. Although Macdonald doesn’t make it explicit, it’s now clear why Campion was going through Blackwell’s closet the night that he and Harriet were invited for dinner.
What’s not clear at all is how Campion knew to be looking in the first place.