Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arbana, 1944

Ross MacDonald's early spy-mystery The Dark Tunnel (alternate title I Die Slowly) is set at Midwestern University in Arbana, Michigan, near Detroit, in 1944.

"Although it bears a certain physical resemblance to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Midwestern University is, like all the characters in this story, a figment of the author's imagination," reads the disclaimer right after the copyright page.

Yeah, right.

You can still follow the path of the brave narrator as he flees from both an evil cross-dressing Nazi spy and the local police who believe the frame-up job that's been done to him. Despite decades of growth and development in my town, Ann Arbor, I recognize the campus buildings, the museum just to the north, the steam tunnels, the power plant, the hospital on a hill, and the rural area to the east (no longer rural now) where the narrator tries to hide in a seedy roadhouse full of drunks.

I reread this obscure tale a few years ago because I had forgotten most of it. (This post is an update of one I did in 2010.) I found it very readable and suspenseful. I had always thought the seedy roadhouse in the story was identifiable as a still-existing restaurant east of Ann Arbor. I'm not so sure any more. I don't think the distance the narrator runs after going past the hospital is necessarily far enough to get to Dixboro Road. Anyway, I was hoping the narrator would describe a little more about the place and what he ate there -- all he orders is a fried-egg sandwich for thirty-five cents, served on a cracked plate along with some whiskey. And then he goes on fleeing and trying to solve the mystery of who is spying and who killed his friend and made it look like suicide.

The narrator eats one other egg while being held prisoner in the University hospital, and then is let go by an FBI agent who believes his story. He continues to help the FBI agent chase down the spy ring. Later he ends up in another hospital in Northern Ontario where he eats "a good dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes and gravy and a quarter of a lemon pie" while waiting to finally do in the villain. Interesting menu. There are all kinds of interesting historical attitudes and details in the book, as well as the descriptions of "Arbana" which are so recognizable.

This book doesn't have a lot a lot about food compared to some mystery stories, especially some very recent ones that could almost double as cookbooks. When I read, I usually look for food details and how the author uses them, along with whatever else is interesting. To see all my blog posts about food in detective fiction, including this one, click HERE.

The Dark Tunnel was originally published under MacDonald's real name, Kenneth Millar, under the title I Die Slowly -- I located the image of an early paperback edition (right/above), as well as of two more current editions (top). Subsequently the author moved to California, writing a large number of successful books under the Ross MacDonald pseudonym. This is the only mystery I've read that takes place in Ann Arbor, and I might try to find more.


Jeanie said...

Hi Mae, just catching up. This is great -- I love mysteries but I've never read Ross MacDonald. I can hardly believe that when I think of it. I didn't know about this one and certainly its A2 ties. Might be one to add to the queue! I enjoy novels set in areas familiar to me, whether or not they change all (or some) of the location names. This one looks fun.

You're making me think about food and mysteries. I need to be more aware of that one!

Jeanie said...

Fascinating! Must share with my masseuse/baking friend Sarah, whom we call the Cake Lady because she loves baking cakes so much! Beautiful interview -- really fascinating story. I thought her first effort in fondant was terrific -- loved how the skirt flared. And the cakes are all so lovely -- that last one, WOW! But so many incredible pieces and very clever! What a fun post and what an inspiration!