Monday, November 16, 2009


"Betrayed," a rare John D MacDonald espionage story, originally appeared in the March 1952 issue of The American Magazine. It has been reprinted and anthologized several times, and was adapted for television back in 1953 as an episode of Robert Montgomery Presents.

The heroine of the story is Francie Aintrell, a recent Korean War widow who works for the US Government. Upon receipt of a "We regret to inform you..." telegram, she experiences a "hurt so sharp and wild that it was like a kind of insanity..." and requests a reassignment out of the Pentagon to somewhere that won't constantly remind her of her late husband Bob. With a "Class A" security clearance, she is assigned to "Unit 30," a top secret weapons lab located in the wilds of the Adirondacks. There she works directly under handsome, likeable-yet-eminently-capable Clinton Reese, compiling the notes of three teams of scientists working on a missile defense system. "Clint" is put in charge of getting her established and finds her living quarters in a remote cabin, five miles from the lab, along the shores of Lake Arthur, a summer vacation spot. It's fall now and the lake area is fairly deserted. Her cover story, in case she talks with anyone asking, is that Unit 30 is a weather research facility.

Of course she does meet someone. After about a month of hard but satisfying work, Francie is at home, sitting on her porch overlooking the lake when a young couple out fishing in a small rowboat come floating by. They are Stewart and Betty Jackson and they are living year-round in a cabin a seven "camps" down from Francie. Although the Jacksons are a bit older than Francie, she is eager for company and they become friends. Stewart is "semi-retired " designing and selling fishing lures. At least that what he claims...

During a picnic in a remote spot along the lake a few weeks later, the Jacksons reveal themselves to be Commie rats! And guess what? They want Francie to smuggle out research notes from Unit 30. Their leverage is the revelation, in the form of a recent letter, that Francie's husband Bob is actually alive and being held behind enemy lines in China, wounded and in need of better medical care, which he will get if Francie cooperates. What's a girl to do?

The 4,000 word story is typically MacDonald, in that the reader is hooked after the first page, the story is well constructed and races along at blinding speed, and the resolution is happy but bittersweet. The location is obviously based on Piseco Lake, the MacDonald's summer home from 1949-on. Francie Aintrell is the quintessential MacDonald female heroine: smart, pretty, eats "like a wolf," efficient and moral, yet damaged in some small way that can usually be repaired by finding the right man (after "a time of healing"). There are a couple of passages where the reader smiles at an out-of-date reference or attitude. When Francie sees Betty for the second time she realizes that "she was older than she looked in the distance. There were fine lines near her eyes, a bit of gray in the blonde temples. Late twenties, possibly." (I guess life spans were really shorter back in the 50's!) And there's one somewhat contrived scene where Francie is feeding the Jacksons false information and, when their suspicions are aroused, are convinced when Francie explains "it is the sort of thing a woman has to talk about," and Betty, that trained Commie spy, is instantly convinced. Still, it's a fun story and well worth seeking out.

"Betrayed" was republished in 1964 in Mike Shane Mystery Magazine. It has been anthologized in Great Spy Novels and Stories (1965), Women on the Edge (1992) and Death By Espionage (1999). I've never seen the television adaptation, but according to the IMDb, Joanne Dru played Francie and Jayne Wyatt portrayed Betty Jackson. The show was broadcast live, so unless there's a kinescope lying around somewhere, we'll never get to see it. I wonder how Wyatt, who got into trouble as a result of her outspoken opposition to Joseph McCarthy, felt about playing a communist spy...

No comments:

Post a Comment