Friday, May 28, 2010

"Hit and Run" (1961)

"Hit and Run" is the only short story title John D MacDonald ever used twice. Back in 1952 it was the title of his first contribution to Good Housekeeping, a better-than-average police drama about a state trooper's long, lonely search for the killer of a pedestrian that was really a subliminal means to impress and woo the victim's widow. When the title graced JDM's entry in the September 16, 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post it used the same basic plot but jettisoned the love angle and focused on the dogged determination of the cop hunting the killer. It's probably a better-written tale and equally satisfying, yet on a completely different level. Gone is the attempt to create a character with a troubled past, replaced by one of MacDonald's quintessential ultimate professionals, whose long hours on the job are tolerated and understood by a supportive spouse.

Both tales center around a cop who is investigating a pedestrian fatality, but unlike Trooper Del Carney in the original story, Walter Post is a specialist, a special investigator for the Traffic Division of an unnamed Utica-sized city in an unnamed state. The case he's working on is the hit-and-run death of Mary Berris, a wife and young mother of two and which took place in front of her home on Harding Place.

"It was an old street of big elms and frame houses. It ran north and south. Residents in the new suburban areas south of the city used Harding Avenue in preference to Wright Boulevard when they drove to the center of the city. Harding Avenue had been resurfaced a year ago. There were few traffic lights. The people who lived on Harding Avenue had complained about fast traffic before Mary Berris was killed."

It was a rainy morning and Mrs. Berris was crossing the street, apparently to see a neighbor. The road was momentarily free of traffic when she attempted to cross. A car traveling at a high rate of speed heading into the city came up on her as she entered the road, startling her. She made an attempt to return to the curb, an action Post believes caused the driver to brake and skid, hitting her with a glancing blow with the car's right-front fender, throwing her twenty feet into the air before landing back down onto the curb. The driver corrected the skid and accelerated, leaving the scene to only one living witness, a thirteen-year-old girl.

Mary Berris lived for nearly seventy hours with "serious brain injuries, ugly contusions and abrasions, and a fractured hip." She developed a significant bruise that confirmed the way she had been hit and the doctors removed from her shattered headlamp glass that was later narrowed down to only three possible makes of automobiles. The young witness was able to remember that the car was "pale" and that the last two numbers on the license plate were "fat numbers... like sixes and eights and nines." Mary Berris never regained consciousness before dying.

During the first two weeks of the investigation Post enjoyed the full manpower of the police force in checking all the repair shops in the city, and the local press cooperated in keeping the public on the lookout for the death car.

"But as in so many other instances, the car seemed to disappear without a trace. Walter Post was finally left alone to continue the investigation, in addition to his other duties."

Like Del Carney in the previous story, the investigation becomes a one-man affair, a personal challenge where the work is done in the off hours and during rare spare time. Del did it for the beautiful widow Linda Fairliss and Post's motivations are somewhat similar but not specifically voiced:

"This time he devoted more time to it than he had planned. It seemed more personal. This was not a case of one walking drunk lurching into the night path of a driving drunk. This was a case of a young, pretty housewife -- very pretty, according to the picture of her he had seen -- mortally injured on a rainy Tuesday by somebody who had been in a hurry, somebody too callous to stop and clever enough to hide... the broken husband... the small, puzzled kids... the child witness [who said], 'It made a terrible noise...' This was his work, and he knew the cost of it and realized his own emotional involvement made him better at what he did... He knew there would be no joy in solving the case because he would find at the end of his search not some monster, some symbol of evil, but merely another victim, a trembling human animal."

He narrows down the section of the city he believes the car came from, then compiles a "discouragingly long list of all medium and low-priced sedans" with the license plates ending in "fat numbers." It was twenty-eight days after Mary Berris died when he hit pay dirt. At the home of Mr. Wade Adams he knocked on the door and spoke with Mrs. Adams. Pretending to be doing a survey for the "automotive industry," Post asks about the cars the family owns. The family has two and the second, smaller car matches the description the young witness gave. Mrs. Adams, a "pleasant and confident" woman, volunteers that it's hard to keep a car in the garage, what with a working husband and a newly-licensed teenager, not to mention a daughter who is nearly ready to drive. When Post asks where the smaller car is that day, she tells him that her husband, a VP with an insurance company, drove it to work.

Relying on a strong hunch, Post heads for the insurance company headquarters. His training tells him that Mrs. Adams couldn't have been responsible -- "He had seen too many of the guilty ones react. They had been living in terror. When questioned, they broke quickly and completely" -- but the car, the family, the location of the home all added up to something he could feel in his gut. When he arrives at Adams' workplace, the first thing he does is locate the car in question. To the naked eye the fender looks fine, but upon closer inspection Post spies the telltale signs of new bodywork: slight paint smears on the chrome, a too-new look to the headlight lens, a hammered-out feel to the undercoating.

It was time to head in and pay a visit to Wade Adams.

Only that's not then end of the story, it's only about halfway done. The tale takes an abrupt turn with a moving scene in a high school, and in the end Walter Post has found his driver, but it is someone only the most astute reader would ever even think of. Yet if one takes the time to go back and re-read the story, the clues are there, hiding in plain sight. MacDonald has said that with a mystery story, he as a reader always wanted some chance, no matter how small, of "beating the hero to the punch line." He wrote his own mysteries that way and it was one of the reasons he disliked what he called the British "puzzle mysteries," where the means to solve a mystery are so esoteric that they are beyond the knowledge of 99% of the readership. And while acknowledging that there were many readers who were perfectly happy to be dazzled by the incredible genius of a protagonist -- see Sherlock Holmes, who MacDonald wasn't fond of -- he was not one of them and he didn't write his own stories that way. What he did like was spelled out in a 1980 piece in Clues: A Journal of Detection, where he wrote, "I am more strongly attracted by the why-done-it and the how-done-it than by the who-done-it, by a gritty realism than by formal gardens... "

Unlike the first "Hit and Run," the 1961 story bearing that title has been anthologized since its original publication in several collections, many of which are readily available from used book sources. These include A Treasury of Modern Mysteries (1973) edited by Marie R. Reno, Rogues' Gallery: A Variety of Mystery Stories (1969) edited by Walter Gibson, and 52 Miles to Terror (1966) edited by Ruth C. and G. Robert Carlsen. There are at least four other early collections and perhaps a few more modern ones I don't know about.

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