Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Reference Room"

"The Reference Room" is a 1968 short story that holds the distinction of being either the last or the next-to-last science fiction tale John D MacDonald ever penned. It never appeared in a periodical, but was instead submitted for a Mystery Writers of America anthology titled With Malice Toward All, edited by Robert L Fish. Why a science fiction story appears in a mystery anthology is nowhere explained, although the main character does seem to have led a life of violence. A brief tale of 1,800 words, it fills only five pages in the faded paperback I own.

Mr. Wilson, our "hero," is either a soldier of fortune or a paid assassin, it's not clear which. As the story opens, he receives a call from someone he believes to be a new client, yet "he wouldn't tell me who had put him on to me." He doesn't like it. "All my warning devices, the nameless things that ring bells in the back of your head, that touch your spine gingerly with ice, they were working." He agrees to meet in a cafe he has carefully picked out, waits hidden outside, and finally enters after he is sure this "client" has come alone and is unarmed. With a concealed knife in hand in case he has been set up, he sits down opposite a strange-looking old man, wonderfully described by MacDonald: "He had the damnedest face. Take a big monkey and starve it to death. Then take a black mask and paint it silver. And fill the eye sockets with flat black lusterless paint."

Much to Wilson's shock and surprise, the client begins reciting the names of his prior aliases, then the locations and dates of prior jobs he has performed. "I had not known," Wilson tells the reader, "of a living soul who could link some of those names together." When Wilson asks the client what he wants of him, he replies:

"A most interesting life you've had, Mr. Wilson. Always standing in the alley, within earshot, while history was being made, and helping it along, for pay, with gun and knife, with stealth. And you have a most retentive mind, Mr. Wilson. It was a good life, wasn't it?"

This is a really short story, so revealing any more would ruin it. Recall that this is a science fiction tale, and think The Twilight Zone. "The Reference Room" is a tight, well-written story told with MacDonald's characteristic economy and eye for detail. It could have been written especially for the anthology, or it could have been an old manuscript lying around that JDM never sold. He occasionally dug into his files for old, unused works for publication in the JDM Bibliophile, so it's possible he could have done so here. The names and dates of Wilson's prior jobs -- "1932 Berlin. 1934 Vienna. 1938 Munich. 1939 Warsaw. 1941 Portugal and Tokyo. 1942 Moscow and Chungking. 1943 Argentina." -- seem to indicate a much earlier origin for this story. Perhaps it was one of the old rejects, although it's beyond me why anyone would reject such a well-told tale.

Who knows, maybe it was really his first science fiction story!


  1. Finally got this one read, thanks to you cluing me in that it was a science fiction story. Although I suspect the story might work slightly better if you don't know going in that it is- which most readers wouldn't have known when the collection was new. Still a neat little piece that I'm glad to know about and have added to the collection. Even if I can't really add anything without spoiling it given how short it is.

    I think you're right that it's an earlier story, though, for several reasons. For one, it seems much more of a piece with his earlier SF stories than with "The Annex". And if it was written in 1968 or thereabouts, its omission from the list in Other Times Other Worlds is even more baffling. I can understand how "Hole in None" and "Nicky and the Tin Finger" got missed on the list, as they are both borderline SF. But this is flat out, no question, Science Fiction. If it's a story from the late 40's- early 50's that was pulled out of the file, I can see it being forgotten a decade later when the OTOW list was put together. But if it's one of only four times JDW wrote SF past the early 50's, I would have though it would have stood out in memory.

    Side note: I have this as the US hardcover, with a different cover, if you wanted a scan. The story itself is unillustrated, though.

    1. Martin H Greenberg was the premier editor of popular fiction anthologies in the Twentieth Century, but even he needs to be forgiven for a couple of oversights on his OTHER TIMES, OTHER WORLDS short story list. The three missing entries all appeared in non-science fiction publications, and in the case of "The Reference Room," its inclusion in a mystery anthology would definitely confuse matters.

      I would love a scan of the hardcover WITH MALICE TOWARD ALL! Thank you for the offer, Eric.