Sanders solves the always thorny problem of exposition by having a first-person narrator who lays things out and puts them together for us, and by having him talk to people who have just the bit of information he needs. Everyone contributes something to the solving of the mystery, but more than once, Todd misses the mark with his hypotheses, which makes situations a little more believable and unpredictable. A reader may well guess at Thorndecker's secret early on, but the ending is likely to be a surprise, anyway.
Todd may not be totally ethical, but he is totally frank. By letting us inside his head he lets us see and understand what he is doing without judging him, almost as we see ourselves. And at the end, when he is able to reconcile his actions and desires at last, his victory is more meaningful because even his weaker characteristics have been revealed.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Readers of Sanders' later novels may find it interesting to reflect on the seeds of future characters here. It's easy to see the trademarks of Archie McNally, protagonist of the later McNally novels, taking shape; his beloved vodka gimlets already much in evidence. How many other such details can you spot?
Telford Thorndecker's morality or lack thereof should provide fertile ground for discussions of medical ethics, animal and human research, and when and whether noble ends justify ignoble means.
1. How believable is it that a whole town would cover up something like this?
2. What if Thorndecker had discovered the secret of immortality for all humankind by doing what he did? Would he have been wrong to do it?
3. How would you describe Julie Thorndecker's morality? Was she lying when she said she loved her husband? And if Todd was right, and she knew he was dying, why did she not wait until after he died to take off with Goodfellow? Surely she would have stood a better chance of inheriting from her husband that way?
4. Why did Thorndecker not seem angry or dejected when he saw his wife in the car with Officer Goodfellow? Why did they not care if he saw them?
5. Did Thorndecker mean to kill his father? If so, how did he justify this to himself?
6. Is Sam Todd an alcoholic? Why does he drink so much? Is it realistic that he is able to function as well as he does considering his intake?
7. What was Ernie Scoggins' mistake?
8. The old man outside Mary's Church tells Todd the best advice he can give him, from all his years of experience is to "do what you want to do." Is this good advice?
9. The Sixth Commandment was written in 1978. Would Millie, Mary, Ernie, or Sam the custodian have better chances of making a new life outside of Coburn today? Would Sanders be likely to refer to Goodfellow as "the Indian" and the bartender as "the black bartender"? Is this a good thing?
(The entire section is 1,088 words.)