Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Homicidal Hiccup"

"Homicidal Hiccup" is an exceptionally delightful John D MacDonald crime story, written in the early years before he began doing novels. It was published in the June 1948 issue of Detective Tales, a middle-of-the-pack pulp magazine that had been around since 1935 and had published works by writers such as Louis L'Amour, Ray Bradbury and, especially, Day Keene, who seemingly appeared in nearly every issue from 1941 on. 

MacDonald had 26 stories published in the magazine, including a few that were included in his Good Old Stuff anthologies, and his work last appeared within its pages in April 1952, a little over a year before Detective Tales folded for good.

The story is told in a breezy, irreverent first-person by an unnamed newspaper reporter for the Baker City Journal. The first few sentences expertly set the scene and promise a story you know you'll want to finish:

"You say you've been reading the series if articles in the Baker City Journal about how Mayor Willison cleaned up the city?

"Brother, those articles are written for the sucker trade -- meaning no offense, you understand.

"Oh, I'll admit that the city is clean now -- but not because of Willison. Willison is a cloth-head. He doesn't even know how Baker City got cleaned up. Being a politician, he's glad to jump in and take credit, naturally.

"That's right, I know exactly how it happened, and it isn't going to be printed in any newspaper, even if I am a reporter. You spring for a few rounds of bourbon and I'll give it to you -- just the way it happened."

Baker City is a mid-sized somewhere-city (Utica?) that is run by a ruthless crime lord, Johnny Howard. Johnny came into town one day a few years ago and began working for one of the then-two competing crime bosses, until one of them -- the one he worked for -- drove off a cliff in his car. Johnny quickly takes over. The competing boss tries to muscle in, but Johnny "turned his face into hamburger" with a broken beer bottle and assumed supreme control of the city. He expertly brought in out-of-town syndicates to back his rule, which he now enjoys with his girlfriend Bonny Powers: "Five-foot-two on tiptoe with ocean-color eyes, dark red hair, and a build you wanted to tack on the wall over your bed. Twenty-three or so, and looked sixteen."

Things are going swimmingly for Johnny until Satch Connel retires and sells his local drug store to Walter Maybree, an out-of-town family man. The drug store is located next door to the city high school, and Satch had allowed Johnny and his boys to "keep him supplied with slot machines for the back room, reefers for the kids, dirty pictures and books... stuff like that." Everything a healthy high school boy needs! Well, Maybree tosses all that stuff out, along with a couple of Johnny's enforcers (he's a "fairly husky" guy), and if Johnny doesn't push back, the appearance of weakness will prove his undoing.

The courage of Walter Maybree inspires a few of the once-timid townsfolk to rally to his defense. They convince him he is in real trouble and get him to temporarily move his family out of town. After an attempt to bomb the store goes awry, some of the citizens begin to do armed "guard duty" in front of the store, leaving Johnny with few options. The bombing mishap has made him look bad, and "everybody in the know laughed at him because a punk running a soda shop was bluffing him to a standstill." After a couple of day thinking it over, Johnny comes up with a plan, only it will require the services of his girl Bonny.

"Homicidal Hiccup" is a remarkably enjoyable read, not only because of the extremely satisfying story it tells, but because of the way it is told in first-person, in an almost light, conversational tone, yet unmistakably the voice of MacDonald. It's the voice Geoffrey O'Brien described as "seem[ing] to spring out of some long, hot American afternoon ... a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal... pausing, digressing, joking, all the while drawing you into the yarn." MacDonald had only been writing for two year in 1948, yet already he was this good.

The original title of "Homicidal Hiccup" was "Drugstore Murder," a less evocative but better title, as readers will discover about ten paragraphs from the end of the story. MacDonald was certainly used to having his titles changed -- it happened with "Interlude in India," his first sale -- but he still must have been amazed at the editors of Detective Tales in 1953 when he published his last story there. Of the 26 stories sold to the pulp, they had changed the titles on 23 of them, leaving only "Scene of the Crime," "His Own Funeral" and "The Paw of the Cat" untouched.

"Homicidal Hiccup" has been anthologized at least three times that I am aware of. In 1956 it was included in Eat, Drink and Be Buried, edited by Rex Stout, and in 1979 it appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Master's Choice. Finally, in 1986 it was one of 101 Mystery Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and, yes, Martin H. Greenberg.

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