It’s early in the novel. The narrator, Walter Sands, has a strange desire to become a private eye — strange, because he lives in a world that has been devastated by some kind of catastrophe. At this point, we’re not quite sure what that catastrophe was, but it’s beginning to look like some kind of limited nuclear war. Walter has a job offer to become a hired gun for a black-market operation, but prefers to pursue his dream–no longer entirely a dream, however, since he has gotten his first case. A man has come to him believing he is the cloned offspring of a scientist from MIT, back before the catastrophe. He wants to track down his “father” and find out why someone is trying to murder him.
Walter is a bookish sort, we are learning, and so he feels the need to come up with a name for his case. The name, it turns out, is based on an old mystery–Trent’s Last Case. You probably haven’t heard of it. But you can download it for free thanks to the nice folks at Project Gutenberg. (There’s an obscure movie version starring Orson Welles that I have never seen.) Walter likes the first line of the novel. So do I; so much so that I made it the epigraph for Dover Beach:
Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?
Not that Walter knows it just yet, but this is whatDover Beachturns out to be all about.
Anyway, here he is, back from a trip to the wilds of New Hampshire with his black-market friend Bobby, where they traded scavenged antiques for computer parts. He lives with his girlfriend Gwen and a couple of other people, holding onto each other in the darkness of their fallen world. He helps Gwen sleep, but he is unable to sleep much himself.
Gwen was waiting for me in the front parlor when I arrived. She was wearing her patched blue robe and a couple pairs of woolen socks. “How did it go?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I think I’ll have a glass of cider.” We went out to the kitchen. With Gwen, I was never sure if my lies were successful. I always had the feeling that she understood everything, and that sometimes she just decided to let me get away with one.
She poured us each some cider, and we sat at the table. I told her all about the farm and Lavinia and Mr. Fitch and the electric lights and the tapestries on the wall. And then I remembered something. “I brought you a present.” I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of cake I had grabbed from the Rose Medallion plate.
“Oh, Walter. Thank you.”
“It was either this or a hard disk, and I figured you had more use for cake.”
She smiled and ate the cake.
“Bobby wants me to go to work for him full-time,” I said.
I waited for a response, but none came. She looked at me and sipped her cider.
“I told him to forget it. I’m a private eye now. No time for stuff like that. ”
She nodded, “You must feel good about getting that case.”
“Yeah. Well.” No sense going into it. She knew how good I felt. I finished my cider and stood up. “You should get some sleep,” I said.
Gwen stood up too. She took the lamp in one hand, and my hand in the other, and we went upstairs. We paused as we passed Linc’s bedroom. He was breathing heavily; he muttered something unintelligible in his sleep. Gwen’s hand squeezed mine. We went into our bedroom.
She set the lamp on the night table and pulled the bedcovers down. I took off my shoes. We got into bed, and she put out the lamp.
The darkness was total. We pulled up the covers. I put my arm around Gwen, and she snuggled into the crook of my shoulder. “Do you feel like it?” I asked.
“I guess not,” she said.
We were silent for a while. The darkness became less total. I could make out the looming bulk of the dresser, the elegant curves of the escritoire, the useless outline of the useless radiator.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” Gwen said.
“So am I,” I said. Glad to see the dresser and the escritoire for another day. Glad to see her. Across the hall, Linc snorted and groaned.
“Someday,” I murmured, “sleep will come easy.”
“And dreams will come true,” Gwen replied.
We didn’t say anything then. I stroked her hair, and we breathed together, and eventually her breathing became deep and regular. I listened to it for a long while, and then carefully pulled my arm from beneath her head. She settled herself onto the pillow, still asleep. I got out of bed, groped for the lamp, found it, and made my way out into the hall. I was an old hand at this. I lit the lamp in the darkness and walked slowly up the creaking stairs to the third floor. The lamp threw spooky shadows against the walls. I wasn’t afraid of spooks, though; there was too much else to be afraid of in this world. At the top of the stairs, I turned right. More shadows, more spooks, beckoning to me in the dim light, writhing in their lust for life, for freedom. The room reeked of the past, overpowered me with the musty odor of lives lived, of genius spent. It was an odor as exciting as any perfume. I entered the room.
Too many books, Bobby had said. An accusation.
Guilty. I stared at them:
The Dreadful Lemon Sky
The Good-bye Look
Ten Little Indians
The Case of the Amorous Aunt
Green with mildew, brown and brittle with age, dying but not dead yet. Not dead yet.
It occurred to me that I needed a title. What good was a case without a title? Confess, Clone. The Case of the Confused Clone. I was new at this.
The Godwulf Manuscript
God Save the Child
In those books Spenser was still alive. Still working out at the health club, drinking beer, listening to the Red Sox. Ah, would that it were not fiction. That way madness lies, as Mr. Fitch would say. But maybe you had to be mad to stay alive nowadays. God Save the Clone. Early Winter. No, try again.
Farewell, My Lovely
The Maltese Falcon
Penance for Jerry Kennedy
The Big Sleep
Trent‘s Last Case
Trent’s Last Case. An old, old British mystery with a couple of twists at the end. I took it off the shelf and glanced through it. Private eyes were nowhere to be found, although I liked the first sentence.
Sands’s First Case. The possessive sounded ugly.
Sandman. That was Linc’s nickname for me. I didn’t like it. The Sandman went around putting people to sleep, and I—I only did that for Gwen.
The Sandman’s First Case.
It would have to do, until I came up with something better.
I rummaged through a rotting carton of textbooks until I found one on cellular biology. I took it out, sat in my old, overstuffed armchair, and read by lamplight until dawn. Then I tiptoed back downstairs and got back into the warm bed beside Gwen.
I shut my eyes and snuggled up to Gwen, and after a while sleep came for the Sandman—short and troubled as always, but enough to let him make it through another day.