Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"The Bullets Lied"

In keeping with the This Week theme this week, we jump to January 6, 1957 and the publication of John D MacDonald's "The Bullets Lied." I've talked about how This Week was one of the primary outlets for MacDonald's "mainstream" fiction, but it should be noted that along side stories with titles like "She Tried To Make Her Man Behave" and "The Giant Who Came To Our House," a few real mystery and crime stories appeared there. "The Bullets Lied" is one of those stories.

The typically brief tale -- as were all of MacDonald's submissions to this magazine -- falls into the "forensics" category of JDM's mystery fiction, the kind which "The Homesick Buick" is the best example. A crime is committed, the police are stumped, but eventually through a unique and unorthodox method of deduction, the mystery is solved. Police Lieutenant John Darmondy is the stumped cop here, and it's not for want of evidence, motive, or even a prime suspect. A wealthy business owner has been found shot dead in his office, and his daughter's boyfriend is the killer. He's got to be: he had motive because the daughter was set to inherit the business, and he is implicated by the evidence because the two bullets found in the victim were shot from a gun he owned. Since the suspect had no alibi (he was home alone) it should be an open-and-shut case, but Darmondy doesn't think so:

"He's a bright kid. He's been around. He reacts all right. He didn't believe what I was telling him. I took him to the lab and let him take a look for himself. Ever since then he's been acting as if somebody hit him on the head. He said he has the only key to the gun case. It's a good lock. He says he didn't go to bed until midnight. Nobody could have taken the gun. He says he didn't use it."

Darmondy goes to his friend, the unnamed narrator of the tale, who happens to be a middle aged logician. The two are friends, have solved cases together before, and Darmondy is hoping for a fresh perspective. The narrator listens patiently and, being the logician he is, comes up with a "rough symbolic equation. The bullets had come from the gun and the gun had not been used in the murder."

Unlike many of MacDonald's forensic stories, this one is obviously drawn from the solution, in that the author came up with a method, then wrote his story around it. That's not to say he didn't use this writing method before -- I'm sure it was also how he wrote "The Homesick Buick" -- but here it's really obvious. It must have been made more so by anyone who bothered to read the two-sentence author bio on the story's first page, where the solution to the tale is revealed! It's an interesting bit of trivia about MacDonald, but really, what was the editor thinking?

This is an average effort by MacDonald. The plot is clever, but no attempt is made at characterization and, as I said above, it's all so obvious. David C. Cook, however, didn't think so. He included the story in his anthology Best Detective Stories of the Year (13th Edition). Shows how much I know.

At the end of the story there are references to other cases that have been solved by this improbable duo, complete with "macabre souvenirs" from the crimes, kept by the narrator on a shelf in his study. It makes me wonder if there are other tales out there featuring this pair. If I come across any I will report them.


  1. From your plot synopsis, this story sounds A LOT like Cornell Woolrich's "I'll Take Balistics." Perhaps it was a homage.

  2. Doug, I assume you meant "You Take Ballistics," which is the title of the Woolrich story. You might be right, but only as far as using the same method for tricking ballistics. MacDonald's story has a different plot and a different murderer.

    Yes, I meant "You Take Ballistics." You mean it's the same gimmick:using cigarette rolling papers to fire a bullet from a higher calliber gun?

    You are correct, sir, although not specifically cigarette papers. The big difference is the basic plot: In "Ballistics" you have a suspect who the police believe (correctly) committed the crime -- same gun, different bullets. In "Bullets Lied" you have a suspect the police believe (again, correctly) didn't do it -- different gun, same bullets.