Any fan of hard-boiled mystery writing has to sit up and take notice at a title like "I Always Get the Cuties." The wonderful wise guy sound of it rings in the ear and jumps off of the page. I remember how disappointed I was back in 1981 when I learned that it was not John D MacDonald's original title for this 1954 short story. He wanted to call it "Confront," and since I hadn't read it at the time I assumed this was another case of an editor screwing with the author's intent. When I did finally find a copy and read it, I was pleased to see that the phrase was MacDonald's and that he used it repeatedly throughout the story. And, it was a good choice, better than the author's, since nearly the entire text consists of a cop regaling a listener with the story of how he caught a murderer. The story originally appeared in the November 1954 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and comes in at tight 5,000 words.
MacDonald uses an interesting narrative method here. It is told in the first person, but by the protagonist's listener, so even though we are given his point of view, nearly every paragraph consists of another character's words. At the end, the reader understands why...
Our first person is someone addressed as "Doc," and we assume he is a medical doctor, although it soon becomes unimportant. The setting is Omaha and the first sentence reads beautifully and sets the stage:
"Keegan came into my apartment, frosted with winter, topcoat open, hat jammed on the back of his hard skull, bringing a noisy smell of the dark city night."
Keegan is a police detective and "Doc" is an acquaintance. Keegan has solved a case, a tough one, and he wants to brag. With a house full of teenage daughters at home, Doc has become Keegan's "sounding board" whenever he wants to talk about a case. So Doc breaks out the brandy and they sit together by the fire as Keegan begins talking:
"Ever try to haggle with a car dealer, Doc? ... I tried once. Know what he told me? He said, 'Lieutenant, you try to make a car deal maybe once every two years. I make ten a day. So what chance have you got?' ... It's the same with the cuties, Doc -- the amateurs who think they can bring off one nice clean safe murder. Give me a cutie every time. I eat 'em alive. The pros are trouble. The cuties leave holes you can drive diesels through."
He asks if Doc recalls a recent murder, one that happened months ago out at a lake house. Doc vaguely remembers it. A woman was found strangled, discovered by her husband who had been away on a lengthy business trip in California. She had been dead for weeks, and the house was secluded, so there were no witnesses. The marriage was a bit unusual, in that the wife was several years older than the husband, she had money and he was a medical school dropout. Also, there were reports from the neighbors near their house in town that they had been fighting recently. None of this is enough to cause suspicion of the husband, until he is brought in for questioning. Since he was in California he has an alibi. Then he puts his foot in it, although he doesn't know it. Keegan relates:
"I tell him he is a nice suspect. He already knows that. He says he didn't kill her. Then he adds one thing too many. He says he couldn't have killed her. That's all he will say. Playing it cute. You understand. I eat cuties alive."
Keegan investigates, travels to California to check out the husband's alibi, finds another woman there and a few interesting holes in the story. Once he has an idea of how the crime was committed he works backward, checking for evidence and eventually tripping up the husband. Case closed.
When I first started re-reading "I Always Get the Cuties" I thought I had found an early version of MacDonald's 1957 short story "The Bullets Lied." There we have a similar setup, with a police detective and a professorial friend discussing and working on a case, with the friend providing direction to the detective's case. That turns out not to be the case here, as Doc does nothing but sit back, listen attentively and refill the brandy glasses. There is a twist at the end, one I never see coming, but there are a few very well-hidden clues given in the early text that won't exactly make you slap your head at your own stupidity, but will cause you to admire the author's skill.
The setting is unusual for MacDonald, although Omaha has nothing to do with the story and it could have taken place anywhere. The lake house is a familiar one, used many, many times by the author and obviously modeled after his summer home on Lake Piseco in upstate New York.
But the setting did provide an excuse for later editors to include it in a 1998 mystery anthology titled The Fifth Grave and Other Terrifying Tales of Homicide in the Heartland. Edited by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin H. Greenberg, it is a nice collection of stories that all take place in the American Midwest, and includes authors such as Ed Gorman, Jack Ritchie and Edward D, Hoch. Before that it was part of a 1989 collection edited by David Willis McCullough called City Sleuths and Tough Guys: Crime Stories from Poe to the Present, and before that it was included in Joe Gores and Bill Pronzini's Tricks and Treats: An Anthology of Mystery Stories by the Mystery Writers of America, published in 1976. There are also three earlier anthologies where the tale appeared, but that should give the curious reader plenty of opportunity to find and read this fine short story.