Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"This One Will Kill You" ("Death Writes the Answer")

John D MacDonald's short story "This One Will Kill You" originally appeared in the May 1950 issue of New Detective Magazine. One of 20 stories that were published in that monthly over the years, it's a type of mystery known generally as a "perfect murder" story. We could, I suppose, narrow that definition to a more specific type, the "how to murder your wife" subset. This kind of mystery has a long tradition, with such well-known tales as AA Milne's "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater," Stanley Ellin's "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," and John Collier's "Anniversary Gift" and, most famously, his "Back for Christmas."

These stories usually feature mousy, fastidious husbands, the kind who enjoy a good crossword puzzle, or their butterfly collections, but are either henpecked or mothered to death by domineering wives. They reach a point -- always on their own -- where they have had enough, and envision a perfect little world, if only the old bag wasn't around any more. These couples are always childless and the reader is usually left wondering at the outset, just how this guy managed to get married in the first place. The stories are typically puzzles in themselves, as we observe the main character devise a plot, set it up and (usually) carry it out. The story is not done correctly without some sort of twist or instant karma at the end that leaves the husband worse off than he was before.

Peter Kallon is one of those men who likes puzzles and contests, and the opening of "This One Will Kill You" finds him sitting in his efficiency apartment pretending to read a magazine, surreptitiously looking over at his wife Myra: "For the moment the excitement, the carefully concealed anticipation of the past month faded, and he wondered, quite blankly, why he was going to kill his wife." Six months ago his plot had begun as an intellectual game, but now he was more than ready to put it into action. Myra is not a nag, or domineering, but, for the "very tidy" Peter, she simply won't do any more:

"Eight years had thickened her figure, put a roll of soft tissue under her chin, but the years had done nothing to alter that basic untidiness which he had once found so charming ... Myra, even though childless, seemed to find it impossible to handle the housekeeping details of an efficiency apartment ... eight years of litter had worn away his quite impressive patience with the monotony of water dripping on sandstone... Murder became a puzzle."
Peter's plan begins by tricking the unsuspecting Myra into writing out her own suicide note, making her think she is helping him compose a letter to one of his clients. With that in hand, he devises a series of events that will keep the chronically fatigued Myra awake for long periods of time, leaving her enervated and hopelessly sleepy on the fateful day. Then there are the four strings connected to the gas stove...

Poor Myra is depicted as a hapless victim, deserving of nothing more than a good cleaning up, but for her husband, every little action of hers evokes disgust. MacDonald drops these little descriptions with delightful frequency:

"A strand of graying brown hair hung down her cheek. She sat with one leg tucked under her, an unlaced shoe on the swinging foot. She was reading a novel, and as she came to the end of each page she licked the middle finger of her right hand before turning the next page... Long ago he had given up trying to read any book Myra had finished."
She "scuffed her way into the kitchenette," poured herself a glass of water, drank it and returned, "wiping her mouth with the back of her right hand." She falls asleep reading, breathing "audibly through her open mouth." She can't tune a radio properly, writes in a "childish scrawl," her words "slanted uphill to the right edge of the paper," and she "was never on time, never able to move fast."

Monstrous! Well, to Peter it is, and his plan is meticulous, but you know it's not going to end the way he intended.

Like many of his early pulp submissions, "This One Will Kill You" bore a different title when MacDonald wrote it. He called it "Death Writes the Answer" and changed it back to that title when it was included in the first edition of The Good Old Stuff in 1982.

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