Monday, March 29, 2010

"Mr. Killer"

I've written in a previous posting about Cavalier magazine, and about how surprised I was to learn that it began as a fiction magazine before morphing into a second-tier version of Playboy. Cavalier was published by Fawcett and was produced to showcase the works of the authors the publisher had under book contract. You probably didn't know that Cavalier had a "sister" magazine, called Today's Women, also published by Fawcett, that began life in November 1945 and which lasted nearly ten years before folding. It was the publisher's attempt to join the ranks of the woman's slicks and they did a fairly good job of it while they were around. By 1952 they had over a million readers each month.

Today's Woman did all of the things that the other woman's glossies did, but their focus was fiction, primarily the fiction of new authors. From 1947 to 1951 they published more short stories that later found their way to the Best American Short Stories list than any other popular woman's magazine. And while most of their authors were first-time female writers, males were allowed on board, especially males who were under book contract with Fawcett. John D MacDonald, who began his Fawcett association with his first novel in 1950, published two stories in Today's Women: the first in 1949 and the second -- "Mr. Killer" -- in January 1952.

"Mr. Killer" is an odd little tale that begins like one of MacDonald's domestic-misunderstanding-in-suburbia stories and ends up in the land of Alfred Hitchcock. With many echoes of that director's 1941 film Suspicion, it's a story of an isolated housewife who inadvertently discovers that her husband means to do her harm. Told in the third person from the woman's point of view, "Mr. Killer" slowly builds from discovery to doubt to investigation to explosive climax in the well-written space of 7,500 words.

Fan Lowndes is a young suburban housewife, a sensitive, emotional, some-would-say odd little woman, somewhat guileless and not at all self-aware. She is married to Jamie, a big, gruff, serious man who runs a car dealership in town. Fan's father has passed on and has left her enough money to live the rest of her life without ever having to work, and she is smart enough to know how to manage her finances without the help of her husband. When she and Jamie married he insisted that they move to another town, "because he didn't want to be around a lot of people who knew about the money." 
Also, he didn't like any of her friends and refuses to let her even write to them. Jamie always thinks "too much about the money," and Fan has used some of it to purchase his dealership for him. It's a money-losing operation but it keeps him busy and Fan secretly pumps additional funds into its accounts to keep it afloat.

Fan loves Jamie and respects him as a husband, but the sexual side of the marriage has never really been good for her. She started out afraid and for a long time there was no pleasure in it for her, but because she loved him "she had changed." But "she thought there would be tenderness and gentleness, and there wasn't..."

As the story opens Fan is paying an insurance bill and can't find her policy number to write on the check. The policy is locked away in Jamie's little tin box, and Jamie is at work, so Fan thinks nothing of opening it with a bent paperclip in order to obtain the number. Inside the box she finds the insurance paperwork along with a large manila folder simply labeled "Fan." She looks inside and discovers page after page of Jamie's "tight little writing," all in "funny outline form." It's a series of diary-like entries, all recounting episodes in the couple's marriage depicting Fan in a strange light. The first recalls their honeymoon when Fan insisted on wearing an old sweatshirt with a big O on it, something she likes to put on "when she feels like nothing at all." It has never been laundered because Fan felt it would wash all of the luck out of it. The next entry recalls Fan inspecting a neighbor's new fur coat by taking off her shoes and stockings and walking on it barefoot. The most recent entry describes an episode a few nights ago where Jamie was sharpening the kitchen knives, and Fan took the sharpened carving knife and "held it so tightly that her knuckles were white, [saying] 'This is my pet. I call this one Mr. Killer.'"

The journal ends with this ominous summation:

"Since I married this woman I have grown increasingly convinced that she is dangerously unstable. I have attempted in every way to get at the roots of her instability, hoping thereby to help her achieve integration. But it would appear that there is a deep-rooted cause that will defeat any amateur efforts. Therefore I am submitting this report to the institution in the hope that it will enable..."
The last few words were crossed out. It had to be a joke, Fan reasons. That evening when Jamie comes home she suddenly sees all sorts of seemingly-odd behavior, things she never noticed before, things that make her worried. Genuinely uncertain of her own sanity, she makes an appointment with a psychiatrist the following day and brings along the journal. She explains that "she does a lot of dumb things" but that Jamie has it all wrong about her. When she asks how an individual becomes institutionalized, the doctor explains that a "health officer" makes the decision, and that he just happens to be such an official. Fan then shows him the journal and the doctor becomes serious. He orders his secretary to cancel the rest of his appointments for the day and tells Fan, "You need help, Mrs. Lowndes."

MacDonald does a masterful job of scattering clues throughout the story, dropping conflicting and opposing hints about the true nature of Fan's mental health. Is she really nuts? Is her husband another version of Johnnie Aysgarth, out to take over her fortune? Or is the psychiatrist part of a plot to lock Fan up forever? Well, the title -- MacDonald's own, for once -- probably gives away the ending. Still, it's an engaging read featuring a nicely-realized heroine, a suspenseful plot and a violent ending, complete with a surprise straight out of left field. If you read it a second time, however, you come to realize that nothing comes out of left field, that the author sets up everything for the reader to see and never plays games or tricks. I find that this is true of all of JDM's mysteries, that he always plays fair yet demands your full attention.

"Mr. Killer" has never been anthologized and copies of the magazine are quite rare. As you can see below, it featured a terrific illustration by Al Moore, an artist known mainly for his pin-up work.

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