THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE             Part Nine

                                                                                          Spoiler Alert




                           ARCHER’S SECOND VISIT MAKES PROGRESS (?)


            It’s been a busy night for Archer but his errand with Isobel is now more urgent than ever. On his first visit he was simply bearing news. Now his suspicions are focused on his own client.

She doesn’t cut as fine a figure as during their earlier encounters; she’d taken chloral hydrate to help her sleep and its effects are evident in her speech and mental confusion.  Archer is blunt with her, even brutal, but he has good reason. He’d withheld from the Citrus City police that he knew Mrs. Jaimet’s married name and whereabouts, and he’s worried that he may be shielding a murderer.

  • Since she realizes that Archer already knows about her connection with Dolly, she admits that she took the girl under her wing when she and Ronald Jaimet lived across the street in Citrus City. But she says that she stopped having contact when Dolly became a teenager. Dolly began running wild and stealing from her.
  • In an echo of Macdonald’s real daughter Linda, she says that Dolly “ran with the wrong crowd in high school and picked up gutter ideas about sex. She was already mature at fifteen.”
  • Archer wonders if her deceased husband Ronald might have made a play for Dolly and asks about his death. She confirms that Ronald was hiking with Mark. Ronald slipped and fell down a steep trail. The fall not only broke his leg but also his insulin needle. Mark carried him on his back to civilization but by then Ronald was in a diabetic coma.
  • She says that Mark was completely distraught about Ron’s death and felt he was to blame. She vehemently denies that Ronald could have been involved with Dolly.
  • She refuses to let Archer inspect her husband’s clothes, but after a long and tense interrogation she runs out of the room into a bathroom.
  • Archer takes the opportunity to go into Mark Blackwell’s closet. The laundry marks on the suits are the same as on the brown tweed coat that washed up on the beach with a button missing.

                                        A Chloral Hydrate Digression


The reader may wonder why Archer still reserves judgment about Isobel despite her weak denials and strong evidence that he made a mistake in withholding her name. A small part of that, not enough to be convincing, is that despite everything he has a residual level of attachment. But Macdonald knows it’s not enough so he throws in another reason.

Archer interviews plenty of drunks during his investigations, and this book has its full share, but this time it’s someone who’s under the influence of sleeping pills. The drug was chloral hydrate, which was a common sleep aid in 1962. It was banned in the US in 2012 but at the time Macdonald was writing, it was a staple of hardboiled fiction and was known as a “Mickey Finn” or “knockout drops.” But Macdonald has a clever use for them here. When he arrives at Isobel’s home and orders the maid to awaken her even though she has taken sleeping pills, Archer observes that chloral hydrate can act as a truth serum. It was a widely held belief at the time that this was true, certainly enough that a reader would go along even if there was no science behind it.  And as my friend Les Roberts once observed, “In my book it happens that way. That’s why they call it fiction.”





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