Thursday, December 10, 2009

"The Accomplice"

John D MacDonald wrote short fiction mainly for magazines, which were the primary market for that product in the 40's and 50's. On at least three occasions, however, he was asked to contribute an original work to an anthology of short stories that would appear in book form. In 1952 his previously-unpublished science fiction tale "Incubation" appeared in Kendell Foster Crossen's anthology Future Tense. In 1968 "The Reference Room" appeared for the first time in the Mystery Writers of America 1968 collection With Malice Toward All. And in 1980 MacDonald's "The Accomplice" was included in the odd little anthology, Who Done It? edited by Alice Laurence and Isaac Asimov.

Who Done It? contains 17 short mysteries by writers such as Robert Bloch, Edward D Hoch and Ruth Rendell, and it plays a little game with the reader by not revealing the authors of the specific stories included. Instead, each entry features a byline in code, and the hope of the editors is that the reader will be able to guess the author by recognizing their unique writing styles. MacDonald's entry is kind of obvious, since it takes place in Florida, but his style is indeed recognizable to dedicated readers of his work. And if you're still clueless as to who wrote what, there is a code breaker page in the back of the book. There you can learn that "MBVSBODFBMJDKPIOENBDEPOBME" reads "John D MacDonald."

"The Accomplice" takes only seven pages to tell, and there's really no mystery to it, at least not one any 12-year old couldn't figure out. Jimmy Garfield is a 23-year old management trainee working in a supermarket in Clearwater (never specified, but easily deduced). A new shopper has started to frequent the store, the beautiful Mrs. Julie Ennis, who gives Jimmy a "look" every time she comes in to shop. Her description is pure MacDonald: "... pale hair long and thick and glossy, wearing one of those bright beach coats of hers, and sandals, her legs bare and sturdy and a deeper golden brown each day..." Her smile was like "a sharing of secrets when there were none to share." One day she's in the store and approaches Jimmy looking hurt, asking him why he ignored her when she passed his beach house the previous evening. Jimmy confesses he spends a lot of time studying (Supermarket 101) and was probably lost in thought. She promises him that he will get another chance to say hello.

Now Jimmy can't concentrate on his books, and finds himself looking up frequently while on his porch, hoping for a visit from the beautiful Mrs. Ennis. She appears, he invites her in for a beer, and they talk for hours. She's vacationing in Florida alone, having left her much older husband back in Detroit to have some "alone time" in order to try and figure out if the May/December marriage was a good idea or not. They have dinner in town, arrive back at her place very late, and one thing leads to another...

If the reader couldn't tell this was a John D MacDonald story by the setting, they certainly could tell by the characteristic economic writing style. And the author obviously knew a bit about the supermarket business, as it is described in detail and with confidence. MacDonald had a Harvard MBA, after all. It's a satisfying read that will take no more than ten minutes of the reader's time.

I wonder about the true age of this story. As I wrote previously about "The Reference Room," it has a sound and a feel of a much older piece of writing. When the MacDonalds first moved to Florida in 1949 they lived in Clearwater, and many of his stories of the time, including his first novel The Brass Cupcake, take place there, or in a thinly-disguised version of the town. "The Accomplice" doesn't state where the action takes place, but when Jimmy and Mrs. Ennis go out to dinner, they head to Tampa across the Courtney Campbell Causeway, which connects Clearwater to Tampa. Also, Jimmy lives in a little beach cottage, the kind that were ubiquitous in the early 1950's but whose time is long past, having been high-rised out of existence. There is a reference to "disco," but that could have been added or changed to modernize the story for the readers of 1980.

Who knows... someone with access to the JDM Collection in Gainesville could probably find out by looking at the original manuscript.

Who Done It?, long out of print, is readily available as a used book on Amazon.

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