Quotes and endings

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Following up on "Proportion of dialogue in novels" (12/29/2017), I've taken a look at the same numbers for Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels (which as before Yves Schabes and I have been analyzing for reasons irrelevant to this post).

Here are the proportions:

DATE      NOVEL                   QuotePercent
1949	The Moving Target	    46.28%
1950	The Drowning Pool	    41.87%
1951	The Way Some People Die     47.22%
1952	The Ivory Grin	            52.18%
1954	Find a Victim	            54.74%
1956	The Barbarous Coast	    53.98%
1958	The Doomsters	            58.32%
1959	The Galton Case	            59.56%
1961	The Wycherly Woman	    61.83%
1962	The Zebra-Striped Hearse    61.29%
1964	The Chill	            59.27%
1965	The Far Side of the Dollar  56.40%
1966	Black Money	            58.85%
1968	The Instant Enemy	    53.31%
1969	The Goodbye Look	    54.98%
1971	The Underground Man	    51.63%
1973	Sleeping Beauty	            57.91%
1976	The Blue Hammer	            55.76%

Or in graphical form:

There seems to be a rising and then falling trend, and the initial rise is maybe consistent with the idea that novelists of a certain type tend to use higher percentages of dialogue as they perfect their craft. But whether this is really a valid generalization remains to be seen.

The main thing that struck me today as I looked over these novels, which I read many years ago (and occasionally commented on here, e.g. "Ultima Toolies", 8/27/2005, or "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing", 11/1/2006), is how reliably bleak the endings are.

The Moving Target:

Deep shaking sobs bowed her over the wheel.

I lifted her over, and drove myself. As we rolled down the hill, I could see all the lights of the city. They didn’t seem quite real. The stars and the house lights were firefly gleams, sparks of cold fire suspended in the black void. The real thing in my world was the girl beside me, warm and shuddering and lost.

I could have put my arms around her and taken her over. She was that lost, that vulnerable. But if I had, she’d have hated me in a week. In six months I might have hated Miranda. I kept my hands to myself and let her lick her wounds. She used my shoulder to cry on as she would have used anyone’s.

Her crying was settling down to a steady rhythm, rocking itself to sleep. The sheriff’s radio car passed us at the foot of the hill and turned up toward the house where Graves was waiting.

The Drowning Pool:

“I turned in my resignation this afternoon. I didn’t tell them why. You’re not going to tell them, either.”

“No,” I said. “She’s your baby.”

“She knows that she’s my baby. She’s coming with me, back to Chicago. I’ll put her in school there, and try to give her a home. Does that sound impossible to you? I’ve seen worse cases than Cathy straighten out and grow up into people. Not often, but it happens.”

“Cathy will make it if anybody will. What does Slocum say?”

“Slocum can’t stop me,” he said. “He isn’t going to try. Mrs. Strang is coming with me; she and Cathy are fond of each other.”

“Good luck, then.”

Around us and above us the darkness was immense. Our hands groped for each other and met. I left him there.

The Way Some People Die:

I stood up and moved to the door. “Do as you like. If the police discover the source of the money, it will wreck your daughter’s defense.”

She followed me down the hallway: “They shan’t know a thing about it. And you won’t tell them, Mr. Archer. You believe that my daughter is innocent, even though you won’t admit it.”

I knew that Galley Lawrence was guilty as hell.

The colored fanlight over the door washed her mother in sorrowful purple. She opened the door, and noon glared in on her face. The tear-tracks resembled the marks of sparse rain on a dusty road.

“You won’t tell them?” Her voice was broken.


I looked back from the sidewalk. She was standing on the steps, using the brown paper package to shield her eyes from the cruel light. Her other hand rose in farewell, and dropped to her side.

The Ivory Grin:

“You’re a hard man.”

“I hope so. It’s the soft ones, the self-pity boys like you, that give me bad dreams.” I had had enough of that basement, cluttered with broken objects, wet and hot and squalid with broken desires. “Let’s go, Benning.”

Outside, the flawed white moon was higher among the stars. Benning looked up at them as if the night had really become a cave of shadows, the moon a clouded port and the stars peepholes into a terrible brightness:

“I do feel grief for her. I loved her. There was nothing I wouldn’t do.”

He started down the veranda steps, his short black shadow dragging and jerking at his heels.

Find a Victim:

Church groaned behind me. I turned. He looked like a man who had barely survived a long illness. A hummingbird whizzed over his head like an iridescent bullet. He watched it out of sight, peering into the blue depths of the sky.

His wife was back among the flowers, ripping the last of them out of the moist earth. When the police car arrived, the planter was denuded and she had begun to strip the thorny lemon tree. Church washed and bandaged her bleeding hands before they took her away.

The Barbarous Coast:

He looked at me as if I was a fool. I don’t know how I looked at Graff, but it made him drop his eyes and turn away. I closed the safe and spun the dials and rehung the photograph of the three young divers. Caught in unchanging flight, the two girls and the boy soared between the sea and the sky’s bright desolation.

The siren’s whoop was nearer and louder, like an animal on the roof. Before the sheriff’s men walked in, I laid the Walther pistol on the floor near Bassett’s outflung hand. Their ballistics experts would do the rest.

The Doomsters:

Rose met me with a smile at the door of Carl’s private room. She held up her right hand and brought the thumb and forefinger together in a closed circle. I smiled and nodded in response to her good news, but it took a while to penetrate to my inner ear. Where the ash-blond ghosts were twittering, and the hype dream beat with persistent violence, like colored music, trying to drown them out.

It was time I traded that in, too, on a new dream of my own. Rose Parish had hers. Her face was alive with it, her body leaned softly on it. But whatever came of her dream for better or worse belonged to her and Carl. I had no part in it, and wanted none. No Visitors, the sign on the door said.

For once in my life I had nothing and wanted nothing. Then the thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum. My mind picked it up and ran with it and took flight. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she’d aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head.

The Galton Case:

Somewhere outside, a single bird raised its voice for a few notes, then fell into abashed silence. I went to the window. The river was white. The trees and buildings on its banks were resuming their colors and shapes. A light went on in one of the other houses. As if at this human signal, the bird raised its voice again.

Sheila said: “Listen.”

John turned his head to listen. Even the dead man seemed to be listening.

The Wycherly Woman:

He wrote slowly and painfully, frowning over his penmanship. I lifted the tablet from his blue-nailed hands. He had added after his signature:

“May God have mercy on my soul.”

And on mine, I thought. I tore out the page and laid it on the bureau, out of Trevor’s reach. Shadows lay like sleeping dogs behind the closet door. Darkness and silence. We didn’t speak again.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse:

She shook her head, and began to shiver more violently. I put my arm around her shoulders and walked her toward the door. It opened, filling with the red sunset. The beggar woman appeared in it, black as a cinder in the blaze.

“What will happen now?” Harriet said with her head down.

“It depends on whether you’re willing to waive extradition. We can go back together, if you are.”

“I might as well.”

The beggar held out her hands to us as we passed. I gave her money again. I had nothing to give Harriet. We went out into the changing light and started to walk up the dry riverbed of the road.

The Chill:

She turned abruptly and started for her car. I guessed what was in her mind: another death, another shadow to feed on: and got to the open door of the Rolls before her. Her black leather bag was on the floor where it had fallen in the collision. Inside the bag I found the new revolver which she had intended to use on Roy’s new wife.

“Give me that.”

She spoke with the authority of a Senator’s daughter and the more terrible authority of a woman who had killed two other women and two men.

“No more guns for you,” I said.

No more anything, Letitia.

The Far Side of the Dollar:

“You’re very hard.”

“It isn’t me, really, Mrs. Hillman. It’s just reality catching up.”

The sheriff’s car was in the driveway now. I rose and went as far as the sitting-room door and called out to Bastian to come in. Elaine sighed behind me like a woman in passion.

Her passion was a solitary one. She had picked up her knitting in both hands and pressed both steel needles into her breast. She struck them into herself again before I reached her. By the middle of the following day she had succeeded in dying.

Black Money:

I took the revolver, which still had three rounds in the chambers, and went next door to telephone the county police. Peter became very excited. He wanted to come back to the Fablon house and look after Ginny. He was the one who needed looking after. I ordered him to stay home.

It was just as well I did. She was lying on the sitting room floor face to face with Tappinger, their profiles interlocking like complementary shapes cut from a single piece of metal. She lay there with him, silent and unmoving, until the noise of sirens was heard along the road. Then she got up and washed her face and composed herself.

The Instant Enemy:

Later I made my way through the crowds of night-blooming young people on the Strip and climbed the stairs to my office. The basket of cold chicken, washed down with a slug of whisky, tasted better than I expected it to.

I had a second slug to fortify my nerves. Then I got Mrs. Marburg’s check out of the safe. I tore it into small pieces and tossed the yellow confetti out the window. It drifted down on the short hairs and the long hairs, the potheads and the acid heads, draft dodgers and dollar chasers, swingers and walking wounded, idiot saints, hard cases, foolish virgins.

The Goodbye Look:

“Now we know what she died of,” I said. “She found out what had become of her son.”

As though he had overheard me, the dead man seemed to have cocked his head in an attitude of stiff embarrassment. His widow moved toward him like a sleepwalker and stood beside him. She touched his hair.

I stayed with her while Truttwell phoned the police.

The Underground Man:

“It’s over,” I said.

Ronny said, “That’s good.” His mother sighed.

I hoped it was over. I hoped that Ronny’s life wouldn’t turn back toward his father’s death as his father’s life had turned, in a narrowing circle. I wished the boy a benign failure of memory.

As though she sensed my thoughts, Jean reached behind him and touched the back of my neck with her cold fingers. We passed the steaming remnants of the fire and drove on south through the rain.

Sleeping Beauty:

Behind me, the door to the balcony opened and closed. Marian Lennox was climbing awkwardly over the railing.

I moved toward her. “Marian, come back.”

She paid no attention to me. She stepped off into air and fell in silence until the black boulders stopped her. Smoke swirled over her body like the smoke from funeral pyres.

I went back to Laurel. She stirred and half awakened, as if my concern for her had reached down palpably into her sleeping mind. She was alive.

I picked up the phone and started to make the necessary calls.

The Blue Hammer:

He peered out at the city we were driving through as though its shadowed streets were alien.

I felt the strangeness, too. The halls of the courthouse were like catacombs. After an elaborate proceeding that reminded me of the initiation rite into a tribe of aborigines, the D.A.’s men ushered us into the presence of the man I had taken.

He didn’t look like a mass murderer, in spite of the armed guards who stood one on each side of him. He looked pale and weak and worried, as violent men so often do after the event.

“William?” I said.

He nodded once. Tears had begun to form in his eyes and run down his cheeks, slowly, like the sparse blood from stiletto wounds.

Jack Biemeyer stepped forward and touched his son’s wet face.


  1. Joyce Melton said,

    January 6, 2018 @ 12:46 am

    Ross Macdonald wrote with a sledgehammer instead of a pen.

    [(myl) I would have said "razor blade".

    I'll look into what metaphors Eudora Welty might have used.]

  2. Mr Punch said,

    January 9, 2018 @ 8:34 am

    A couple of thoughts about markets. Wouldn't writers who are known/praised for dialogue (Elmore Leonard for example) tend to respond by writing more of it? And what about movie/TV adaptations? Ross Macdonald had some success there in the '50s and '60s, most notably with the Paul Newman vehicle "Harper."

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