Sixty-six-year old Rufus Sixsmith contemplates suicide as he looks over the balcony of his temporary apartment in Buenas Yerbas, California. There is a loud party with disco music playing next door. He watches as a young woman emerges onto the next balcony. He thinks she looks sad. Slinking back into his room he hears a loud bang and for a moment he thinks it’s a gunshot. His nerves are frayed.
Luisa Rey, the woman on the balcony of the other apartment, is cornered by the musician she is trying and failing to interview for her magazine, Spyglass. He asks her to come home with him but she refuses and leaves the party. He yells after her calling her a gossip columnist for a magazine that no one reads. Luisa boards an elevator, the only other occupant is an older gentleman. The elevator descends and then suddenly stops between floors. The power has gone out. Luisa helps the man stand, he thanks her in a thick English accent and introduces himself as Rufus Sixsmith.
An hour later Luisa and Sixsmith are discussing her father, Lester Rey, and his work as a journalist. Sixsmith admired her father’s tenacity and his willingness to seek out the truth despite those who would stop him. A former police officer, Lester Rey, was not afraid to go against the crime lords and the dirty cops who protected them. Luisa wishes she were half the reporter her father was. She wants to be an investigative journalist too but is only a columnist at the moment, interviewing celebrities, like Alfred Hitchcock.
More times passes and Sixsmith reveals he is a scientist at Seaboard Inc. and talks about the HYDRA-Zero reactor, hinting it is not as safe as it has been made out to be. He also talks of his beloved niece, Megan, showing Luisa a picture of her. Megan just finished a PhD program at Cambridge and is now in Hawaii researching radio astronomy. He changes the subject and asks Luisa what price she would pay to protect her source if she believed in them. Luisa says she would rather go to prison than rat out her source. Sixsmith wants to tell her all he has learned about Seaboard, the corruption and blackmail but the elevator comes to life and the moment has passed.
As they leave the building Sixsmith tells her “I feel I’ve known you for years, not ninety minutes” (96). They exchange information and promise to keep in touch.
Luisa returns to her apartment in Buenas Yerbas and is exasperated to find her eleven-year-old neighbor, Javier Gomez, in her apartment. She yells at him for climbing through the window, again. She feels sorry for the boy, who has a troubled home life and lets him sleep on the sofa.
On Monday, at an editorial staff meeting, Luisa asks her boss, Dom Grelsch, if she could look into Seaboard Inc’s HYDRA-Zero reactor at Swannekke Island. Sixsmith had indicated there were problems, big ones, but she needs proof. Grelsch hates the idea but Luisa goes to Seaboard anyway.
Once there, she sees groups of people protesting Seaboard Inc. One sign reads “You are Now Entering Cancer Island” another “Where is Margo Roker?” (101). Luisa signs in at security, flashing her press pass. She meets with Fay Li, Seaboard’s Public Relations representative.
In another room at Seaboard, Joe Napier, a security officer, keeps watch over the island through monitor screens. He sees Luisa and Fay Li go into an office building. He watches scientists, diplomats, and politicians gather together in a separate location for the launch of the HYDRA-Zero reactor. A sign reads: eleven out of twelve scientists support the program. Rufus Sixsmith, the twelve, Napier knows, did not.
Alberto Grimaldi, CEO of Seaboard Inc., addressees the launch’s attendees like a king speaking to his subjects. He wants them to believe that the HYDRA-Zero reactor is the answer to the energy crisis. That safe atomic energy will soon be replacing oil. As Grimaldi dazzles the crowd, Luisa sneaks up to Sixsmith’s old office, where she finds Isaac Sachs, one of Sixsmith’s colleagues, going through his papers. She pretends to be Sixsmith’s niece, Megan, and Isaac believes her until Fay Li interrupts them. She escorts Luisa away.
Sixsmith is in his apartment trying to call his niece in Hawaii while yelling at the TV. Grimaldi has just received $50 million in funds to build a second reactor. Sixsmith yells “And when the hydrogen buildup blows the roof off the containment chamber? When prevailing winds shower radiation over California?” (107). He admits he allowed Grimaldi and others to intimate him but he is determined to get his report publish and prove how dangerous the HYDRA- Zero reactor is to the Buena Yerbas community. Still on the phone a male voice speaks and warns Sixsmith to get out of the country with his report or Grimaldi’s men will find and kill him.
Luisa returns to Spyglass and overhears her boss on the phone with his insurance company about his wife’s cancer. Luisa goes in into his office after he is off the phone and he reveals that not only does he believe that something isn’t right at Seaboard but that there is evidence of a massive cover-up.
In the meantime, Sixsmith is at Buenas Yerbas International Airport. He places a vanilla envelope in locker 909. He puts the locker key into a different envelope addressed to Luisa Rey at Spyglass. Then Sixsmith returns to his apartment, dejected. All tickets to London that day were sold out.
Luisa is back at her own apartment with Javier. She ignores the phone when it rings and the answering machine picks up. It is her mother calling to invite her to a fundraiser.
In his hotel room near the airport, Sixsmith reads the letters his long ago lover, Robert Frobisher sent to him. They are nearly a half century old but seeing Frobisher’s familiar handwriting calms Sixsmith. He goes out for dinner, the letters tucked neatly in his jacket pocket. When he returns to his room, he senses someone is there.
A flashback to Bill Smoke, who break into Sixsmith’s narration. Smoke hides in Sixsmith’s bathroom while the scientist is out to dinner. When the scientist returns he watches until Sixsmith’s back is turned then he shoots the scientist in the head, killing him.
On Wednesday morning, Luisa is at the Snow White diner, drinking coffee when her colleague, Roland Jakes. He tells her to read about the death of Rufus Sixsmith in the local paper. Luisa is heartbroken. The article suggests he committed suicide. Luisa tells Jakes she thinks Sixsmith was murdered because of his report on the HYDRA-Zero reactor. Seaboard buried the report before the government could find it and stop their funding of the project, which would have cost Seaboard millions in annual revenue. Luisa exists the diner and goes to the Hotel Bon Voyage in search of answers.
Once there she introduces herself as Megan Sixsmith to gain access to Rufus’ room. A manger hands her some of Rufus’ personal items including Frobisher’s letters. She leaves soon after, passing by locker 909 on her way to the parking lot.
Back at Spyglass Luisa finally convinces her boss to let her do the Seaboard article but he says she has to have hard evidence to prove that not only did Sixsmith not kill himself but that Seaboard is lying about the safety of the reactor. Pleased, Luisa is determined to uncover the truth, but first she orders a copy of Cloud Atlas Sextet from a local music store.
Luisa has reread Robert Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith several times. She feels an unexplainable kinship toward Frobisher and the places he describes “images so vivid she can only call them memories” (120). She wants to believe she is imagining the connection between herself and Frobisher but she too has a birthmark shaped like a comet on her arm.
The next day, Luisa arrives at Swannekke Island and interviews some of the Green Front protestors that have taken up temporary residence on the island. She meets with Hester Van Zandt, the leader of the group of activists. Hester believes the only way to keep corporations in check is with a focused public outcry. Corporations, governments, those with power have always tried to suppress the public’s awareness of what goes on behind corporate closed doors. In order to maintain power, corporations, including the government, dumb down education and buy out the media so only the information they want known is made available.
They speak of Sixsmith, who Hester met a decade earlier. She knows of his report and believes he didn’t kill himself. Luisa suggests they are both being paranoid, that Seaboard, although a large and powerful corporation could not get away with the murder of innocent people, especially those who disagree with them. Hester answers with a photograph of Margo Roker, who owns half of Swannekke Island and allows Green Front to live there to keep Seaboard in their place. Six weeks ago her home was burglarized and she was severely beaten. She is in a coma and the police aren’t interested in catching her attacker. In the meantime Margo’s medical bills are piling up and her family is interested in selling her half of the island. Seaboard had put in a bid to buy her portion of the land two weeks before she was attacked.
Back at Seaboard, Grimaldi heads to a meeting with Joe Napier, Bill Smoke, and Fay Li. They do not view Luisa as a threat but want to tread lightly. They know she has some connection to Sixsmith and that puts them on edge. Fay invites Luisa to Seaboard’s banquet later that night to find out what she is up to. Grimaldi tells Smoke to plan an accident for Luisa, just in case.
Isaac Sachs sits at a table at the banquet later that evening alone with his thoughts. He knows what Sixsmith wrote in his report and has a secret copy of it. He wonders if he will be killed for it. Isaac wants to get rid of the report but is unwilling to risk the lives of so many people if and when the reactor finally explodes. If he doesn’t act now, he would be just as guilty as everyone else at Seaboard. Luisa enters and Isaac watches her with curiosity.
Luisa sits with Isaac Sachs after a brief conversation with Fay Li. He realizes he is strongly attracted to Luisa and feels comfortable telling her about the default in the reactor that Sixsmith wrote about in his report. Sachs was one of the scientist who helped build the reactor and had been silenced by Seaboard. He admires Sixsmith for his convictions but does want to end up dead because of them. He warns Luisa that Seaboard will do anything to keep Sixsmith’s report a secret.
The next morning at the hotel, Luisa had planned to meet Isaac for breakfast but Joe Napier tells her Isaac was sent away on Seaboard business and at that very moment was passing over Colorado in a plane. While Napier shows Luisa around Seaboard, Fay Li enters Luisa’s hotel room and roots through her things, looking for Sixsmith’s report. It isn’t there. She needs to find it so she can sell it to another company for a large payout.
When Luisa returns later and has lunch with Fay she has no idea of the other woman’s intentions until Fay slyly implies that she would be interested in Sixsmith’s repot if Luisa were ever to get a hold of a copy. Not for Seaboard but for herself.
That night Luisa receives a phone call from Isaac out of Philadelphia. He says he has left her a present with Garcia for her. They promise to meet for dinner and hang up. Blocks away Napier is eavesdropping but does not understand who Garcia is or how they are related to Luisa. In the hotel Lucia packs her bag and has a momentary flashback to Robert Frobisher packing his own belongings and leaving a different hotel in a similar fashion. The déjà vu passes and she heads out to her VW Bug, named Garcia (something she had mentioned in passing to Isaac the night before). Joe Napier sees her pull a vanilla envelope containing Sixsmith’s report out of the truck and goes after her. She almost hits him with her car as she speeds off.
Bill Smoke purses Luisa in his black Chevy. Lights off, she does not know he is behind her. Once they reach the only bridge leading off the island, Smoke rams Luisa’s car, toppling it off the side of the bridge and into the waters below.
Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery Analysis
Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is set in the fictitious city of Buenas Yerbas, California. Note the reoccurrence of California as the home of two main characters, Adam Ewing and Luisa Rey. In fact, San Francisco, Ewing’s city, was once called “Yerbas Buena” when it was a providence of New Spain until California became a territory of the United States in 1848. The term “yerbas buena” means “good herbs” in Spanish and the missionaries who founded the area cultivated the “yerbas buena” near their settlement after learning of its uses from the native population. Today the herb is more commonly known as spearmint. Note again the reoccurring imagery of the missionaries and their interaction with the native population, used by the author as a subtle connection between Ewing and Luisa’s sections.
The most apparent connection between sections is the theme of reincarnation which is especially strong in Half Lives. Luisa, unlike the other main characters, is aware of the connection between herself and Robert Frobisher and is intrigued by the notion that she may have been him in a past life. Her connection is enhanced by three factors: the letters, the birthmark, and the presence of Sixsmith. After Luisa reads Frobisher’s letters she recalls images or memories of Ayrs’ châteaux that she cannot explain. There are also similarities in their circumstances. For example, both characters want the approval of their fathers but for different reasons. Luisa wants to be like her father and Frobisher wishes for his father’s attention. Luisa views the comet shaped birthmark that they both share as further proof of their association yet the strongest connection between them is Sixsmith, the only character that physically appears in more than one section. His instant connection with Luisa and his subsequent death motivates her to take action against Seaboard Inc.
Deception, another main theme in the text, is apparent on several levels in Half Lives. Seaboard Inc has not only deceived the people of Buenas Yerbas into believing their reactor is safe but also the U.S. Government which supports the construction of the HYDRA-Zero reactor. The corrupt company is run by a group of con-artists including the power hungry Grimaldi, the disloyal Fay Li, the apathetic Joe Napier, and the ruthless Bill Smoke. Sixsmith’s report would cripple the company but he feels an obligation to tell the truth and expose the cover up. Luisa takes up Sixsmith’s personal crusade after he is killed by Bill Smoke. Like her friend, Luisa feels obligated to pursue the truth at all costs but in order to do so she needs to locate a copy of Sixsmith’s report.
The author uses Sixsmith’s missing report as a plot device to set Luisa and her adversaries against one another. The “lost object” plot device is very common in the pulp fiction genre on which Half Lives is based. Alfred Hitchcock (who the author mentions briefly in the beginning of the section) termed the plot device a “MacGuffin” which refers to an important object that the characters must locate. The “MacGuffin” serves to motivate the characters from one scene to the next. Note how each character’s motivation for finding the report differs. For example, Grimali wants it destroyed, Fay Li wants the report for herself, and Luisa wants to use it to expose the corruption at Seaboard. As the novel progresses the report’s shifting location intensifies the plot’s drama and moves the characters from scene to scene.
The shift between scenes also correlates in a shift of narration. Third person perspective is the most common narrative used in fiction, including pulp fiction. The shifting narratives within in Half Lives gives the reader a better understanding of the full scope of the plot. For instance, the death of Sixsmith shifts between three narrations. Sixsmith’s last moments are seen through his point of view as he rereads Frobisher’s letters and evaluates his travel plans. The narration switches to Bill Smoke, who has been lying in wait in the hotel room, when kills Sixsmith. Luisa picks up the narration the next day after she learns of Sixsmith’s death and goes to the hotel and finds Frobisher’s letters. Of all of the sections within Cloud Atlas, Half Lives is written in the most traditional format for fiction and follows a set pattern of revealing enough information for the reader to anticipate rising moments in the plot while leading up to the climatic plunge of Luisa’s car into the waters of Swannekke Island.
The cliffhanger non-ending is a common and popular plot device used to entice the imagination of the reader in the hopes that they will read the novel’s second half. Mitchell’s use of the cliffhanger segways nicely into the next section of the novel, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish where Half Lives makes a brief but memorable appearance as a manuscript up for publication by Cavendish, the main character.