Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"There Hangs Death!"

"There Hangs Death!" is a short story that originally appeared in the June 4, 1955 edition of This Week. It is one of John D MacDonald's "howdunits," those little mystery tales concerned less with who committed a crime than with how the crime was pulled off so that it implicated someone other than the real killer. I've already discussed some of these works, including "The Bullets Lied," and "Who's the Blonde?" and have noted the fact that these kinds of stories are typically short on characterization and ripe with the nuts and bolts of the machinery of crime. Some are good, some so-so: it all depends on the method, how it is discovered and how ingenious it turns out to be. "There Hangs Death!" is one of the "so-so" stories, a tale completely devoid of any interesting character, be they police or suspect, and the criminal method involved has to be one of the most outlandish MacDonald ever contrived.

A man is lying dead, face down at the bottom of a large stairwell in an old Victorian house. He is Dr. Hilber, a retired archeology professor, and he has a large, ornate broadsword sticking out of his back and pinning him to the floor. Howard Riggs, a professor of psychology, is brought in to the home by police and is questioned. Riggs is engaged to Angela Manley, Hilber's niece who also lives in the large home, and the cops want to know all of the usual details. Angela, who is being held in another room, was Dr. Hilber's only heir and stood to inherit a large life insurance policy once her uncle died. As best the cops can determine, the sword was thrown or dropped from the top of the stairs, impaling Dr. Hilber and killing him. There are two holes in the floor, indicating that the killer performed a practice run before actually committing the deed, and there has been a half-hearted attempt to make it appear that the house has been rummaged and robbed.

The forensics doctor has determined that the victim was lying face down when the sword hit him, as if he were knocked out first, but there is no sign of any other trauma beside the sword wound. Angela claims she was out for a walk, came home and discovered the body. The police figure that she would just about be able to lift the heavy sword and drop it from the top of the stairs on her uncle below. They arrest her on suspicion of murder.

Riggs, of course, doesn't believe it and begins thinking. Dr. Hilber was a classical scholar. He was elderly, frail and was suffering from an illness that was bleeding him financially. All he had to leave Angela was the life insurance proceeds, but there was a suicide clause in the policy. And this whole setup sure seemed familiar, like the legend of Damocles, a legend a classical scholar would know intimately...

The reader can always hear the gears working with a story like this. Sometimes they hum so quietly -- like in "The Homesick Buick" -- that you barely notice them. Other times they clank and growl, and are so obviously the backwards workings of a plot built around a method that it reads like an outline. "There Hangs Death!" isn't that bad, but it is inferior MacDonald. There's nothing one can point to and say "there's where he screwed up," but sometimes JDM is too much in love with his ideas to realize that they are too crazy for even a fictional character to successfully pull off. For an author who stopped writing science fiction because "one must one must be able to sustain one's own belief in order to write believable fiction," this particular story is about as unbelievable as they come. That's something that could have been overcome with an interesting character or two, but there are none in "There Hangs Death!" JDM did come up with a nifty title, though.

The story has been anthologized at least twice, first in a 1957 collection titled This Week's Stories of Mystery and Suspense, edited by Stewart Beach, and again in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories To Be Read With the Door Locked, published in 1975. That second collection appeared in paperback two years later as Alfred Hitchcock Presents: I Want My Mummy.

Any reader with internet access can read it for free, as it was originally published in This Week, by clicking here. Due to the way the original magazine was scanned, however, it's going to require a bit of computer dexterity to read it from beginning to end.

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