Saturday, November 21, 2009

"The Homesick Buick"

"The Homesick Buick" was originally published in the September 1950 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and won Third Prize in the magazine's Best Mystery Story of the Year contest. A 5,000 word short story about a bank robbery in a remote Texas town, "Buick" has become one of the most anthologized of all John D MacDonald's works, appearing in at least ten different collections. It was adapted for television in 1958 as an episode of an anthology series called Heinz Studio 57 under the title "Getaway Car," and featured Mike Connors and Wallace Ford in the cast.

Leeman, Texas is located about 30 miles south of Beaumont and is a typical, remote Texan town. It consists of little more than a main drag, "six gas stations, two theaters, Willows' Hardware Store, the Leeman National Bank... a supermarket and four drug stores." On a day in early October 1949, a man named Stanley Woods arrives by bus, radiating "quiet confidence and the smell of money." Representing the Grotson Precision Tool Company of Atlanta, he's in town "nosing around to find a good location for a small plant. Decentralization, you know." His first act is to deposit a $1,200 check into a new account at the Leeman Bank. He spends two weeks looking around, then leaves "under unusual circumstances."

On October 17, several out-of-town cars pull into town, including an old Buick sedan. The cars parked on the main street and did some funny jockeying as two men entered the bank. They held up the place, shot and killed the head teller and left with the monetary contents of nearly the entire bank, the alarm finally sounding as they exited the building. Across the street, Henry Willows, a man close to seventy, was in the hardware store and he ran when he heard the commotion. Grabbing his .22 rifle, he shot the driver of the Buick in the temple, killing him instantly. The other two cars sped off in a hail of gunfire, and in one of them sat Stanley Woods. Attempts to call the Texas Rangers were unsuccessful, because someone had cut all of the phone lines going out of town. Efforts to try and raise outside help on the radio were fruitless, because "some sharpshooter with a high-powered rifle had gone to work on the towers of station WLEE and had put the station out of business." And the attempts to catch the robbers by car were thwarted by the liberal sprinkling of sharp metal jacks across the road. "No matter how a tire hit one, it was sure to be punctured." The jacks cause the deaths of two deputized twins, their car rolling over an estimated ten times, "killing them outright."

The FBI is brought in, but the two agents assigned to the case are frustrated in their attempts to learn anything from the citizens of Leeman. Their descriptions of Stanley Woods (not his real name -- surprise!) are vague and conflicting, and the robbery happened too fast for anyone to remember any useful detail. All they have to go on is the Buick and its dead driver. Methodically going over each clue, they are able to determine that the driver's suit was purchased in Chicago and that the car had been stolen from a town in North Carolina. There are no other clues that lead anywhere and the FBI is at a dead end.

Then Pink Dee has an idea. A fourteen-year-old town misfit ("...milk-blue skin, dead-white hair, little reddish weak eyes, pipe-cleaner bones, narrow forehead, no chin, beaver teeth, a voice like an unoiled hinge..."), he sneaks into the garage, gathers a bit of information and goes to work. To reveal the ending would be cruel, but suffice it to say that he shows up the Feds.

"The Homesick Buick" races along at breakneck speed. The story is told methodically and dispassionately, without really delving into the heads of any of the characters, almost like a police report or a newspaper article. The descriptions of the methods used to try and track down the killers are fascinating and prove that police work wasn't completely primitive before the era of CSIs. The means with which Dee discovers the killers' whereabouts is so ingenious it will make you stop and think every time you get in your car.

Some of the anthologies that include this story are Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (1971), Masterpieces of Mystery and Detection (1965), Best Detective Stories 2 (1964), The Delights of Detection (1961) and World-Famous Great Mystery Stories (1960). The most recent anthology I've been able to find containing it is The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (2000).


  1. I was reading through an article over on The Mystery File and I saw that The Homesick Buick was allegedly the basis for a failed TV pilot named "Roadblock" back in '58.

    1. Wow, great discovery Keith! I subscribe to that blog but hadn't gotten around to reading the post. I've written about this episode before
      ( but didn't know the full details. If I'm reading the progression correctly, "The Homesick Buick" was adapted as a pilot for a proposed series called Roadblock. When it failed to sell, it was used as an episode of Studio 57 and retitled "Getaway Car."

      Unfortunately the blogger was correct in his assessment of the show. It's terrible. MacDonald's original story is essentially over with by the first and only commercial break. And the great charm of the short story -- a fourteen year old radio geek named Pink outsmarting the best and brightest of law enforcement -- is jettisoned and our dull, dull hero Mike Connors gets the honors of solving the riddle of "The Homesick Buick."