Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Funny the Way Things Work Out"

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was published in the April 1963 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Of all the purely fiction-based magazines where John D MacDonald's stories were published, EQMM is one of only three still extant (the other two are The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction & Fact). Begun all the way back in 1941, the mystery digest is the longest running such periodical in existence.

Ellery Queen is, of course, the pseudonym of two writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who began writing mystery fiction together in 1929. Dannay served as editor of the magazine, which was created to publish mystery fiction of a more traditional nature, as opposed to the hardboiled variety so popular in the pulps of the day . It was also differentiated by its smaller digest size and far more sedate cover art (when they used cover art). MacDonald published only four original stories in the digest, but permitted reprints of seven older tales, culled from magazines as varied as Black Mask, Collier's and This Week. EQMM also published several foreign language editions and, as such, provided JDM a readership in countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain.

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was one of only three short stories JDM had published in 1963. It's an expertly told and entirely unpredictable tale of an old man who reaches his tipping point and gives up on years of subterfuge, with unexpected results. Will Garlan is "a big mild man in his middle sixties, his body thickened and slow, his face deeply tanned." He lives in what is probably Florida (it's never made clear), having moved down there from up north after his first wife died twenty-four years ago. Retired (at age 40) he built a house and married 20-year old Sue Purdley, a hot young thing who had already seen her share of trouble. Now Sue is anything but hot. Will is out trimming the hedges when he hears Sue's shrill voice, a sound that can only mean bad news.

Sue, as described by the author, sounds like a mess:

"He watch[ed] his wife striding toward him, her thin face dull-red with anger, her features pinched into an ugliness of hate. She was a lean woman... [and] wore frayed yellow shorts, too large for her, and a grimy white halter. She had fierce gray eyes and a sallowness the sun never touched. Her black hair looked lifeless in the morning sunlight."

Will has committed the unpardonable sin of leaving his pipe in the bedroom. As he tries to apologize, Sue "drew her wiry arm back and hurled the pipe at him with startling force," hitting him under the eye before storming back toward the house. It is then that "the thing that he had to do came back into his mind."

But this is not the typical perfect-murder-by-henpecked-husband story. Will gets in the car and nearly runs Sue over as he heads into town and into the Palm County Court House. There he hunts down Sheriff Wade Illigan and asks if he can bend his ear for an hour or so. He confesses to thinking about killing Sue, which Illigan assures him is not a crime, and then begins to tell the sheriff about his very interesting past, and about things he did before moving down to Palm County. He also mentions some very valuable items hidden in his house, things Sue would love to get her hands on.

I can almost guarantee you you'll never guess how the story ends.

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" contains some characteristically beautiful writing, none more so than the paragraph that follows the pipe-throwing incident:

"Suddenly he imagined himself grasping the handles of the wooden clippers, hurling it at her, saw it turn once, slowly, glinting in the sun, and chunk into her naked sallow back, points first, exactly between the bony ridges of her shoulder blades... He felt sweaty and cold in the sunlight. The screen door slammed."

By 1963 MacDonald was putting together words such as these in his sleep. This was the year he was struggling to come up with a workable series character who eventually became Travis McGee, writing three versions of The Deep Blue Good-By before arriving at a hero he was satisfied with. It was also the year he wrote the sublime short story "End of the Tiger."

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine was similar to the mystery fiction pulps in one respect: they didn't like MacDonald's titles. He originally called this story "No Heart For the Law." EQMM even changed the titles of the previously published stories they reprinted. Thus we have a story MacDonald called "Secret Stain" changed in 1949 by Black Mask to "Heritage of Hate," reprinted by EQMM in 1954 as "Triple Cross." No wonder no one can say with any precision exactly how many short stories John D MacDonald wrote!

"Funny the Way Things Work Out" was anthologized at least twice, originally in Ellery Queen's Double Dozen (1964) and again in Joan Kahn's Hanging By a Thread in 1969.

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