Monday, May 10, 2010

"Tune in on Station Homicide" ("A Time for Dying")

"Tune in on Station Homicide" originally appeared in the September 1948 issue of New Detective Magazine and was published under the pseudonym "Peter Reed," a house name necessitated by the fact that John D MacDonald had three stories in that particular issue and only one of them could bear his real name. It's a story about a love triangle and the attempt of one member to murder another, featuring elaborately-laid plots, split-second timing and improbable devices that would only be considered in pulp fiction. It takes place in the world of entertainment and features a very early version -- perhaps the first -- of MacDonald's "comic monster," a crazy, unpredictable and wildly popular comedian who is not really so funny off-screen, and who is driven by demons known only to himself. MacDonald used this character type in his 1954 novel All These Condemned and was still exploring it in 1966 in his short story "Funnyman." In "Tune in on Station Homicide" that character's demons are reduced to one: the overpowering, all-encompassing desire to possess the wife of another man.

Jimmy Hake has made it. A wildly-popular comedian and the star of his own radio show, Jimmy is a "round and comical man... [an] owl-faced, elfin, blundering character in whom every man saw a part of his own image." Jimmy came up the hard way, beginning as "a baggy-pants specialist in the burlesque circuit," later moving up to the clubs "for years and years... Rough. Rough all the way."

"Then one day you hit the top and what have you got? Weariness that feels like you have putty instead of marrow in your bones. High blood pressure. Shortness of breath. Dyspnea, to be exact. Technically you are forty-eight, but you feel seventy-eight... You have everything except the one thing in the world that you want. Anna."

Anna is the wife of Jimmy's head writer Bob Morrit, and her description could come from virtually any MacDonald work written over his 40-year career: "Silver-blonde hair and sea-gray eyes and a face that would be beautiful at sixty. That sort of face. You could tell by the line of temple and jaw, the set of the eyes." Jimmy has lusted after Anna for three years now and he once made a clumsy attempt at telling her how he felt. It was quickly and definitively rebuffed. He has lived with torment and desire for too long now and decides that there is only one way to have the woman of his dreams: murder her husband.

But it has to be done in a way that won't implicate him and cause any estrangement from Anna. The method he comes up with is one of those wildly-improbably JDM devices that seems logical on the surface but could really only work in the world of fiction. Jimmy has acquired a small amount of curare, the tropical, vegetable-based poison that causes instant paralysis of the lungs and quick death. Bob just happens to own a Swiss silent alarm wristwatch, the kind where instead of an audible alarm, a small mechanical plunger emerges from the watch and jabs the wearer in the wrist. Jimmy manages to get hold of the watch while Bob is taking a post-swimming shower and he files down the plunger to a point, applies the curare to the now-sharp device and quickly returns it to Bob's locker. Now all he has to do is wait for Bob to set the alarm.

The following day is the debut of Jimmy's new show, presented live, and Bob is absent. It is all that Jimmy can do to keep his concentration during the run-through, anticipating how he will react when someone comes in with the bad news -- and how he will console the grief-stricken Anna. He makes it through rehearsal and is awaiting the start of the show when he sees someone standing near the stage. It's Bob, who grins at Jimmy and asks, "About ready to roll?"

The twist in the story is fairly predictable, yet what makes "Tune in on Station Homicide" a superior work of mystery fiction is the third-person interior voice of Jimmy Hake. The prose MacDonald employs is pulp-poetic and evocative of his early influence, Cornell Woolrich. Some examples:

"Jimmy Hake needed all his acting talents to keep his voice and manner relaxed. Murder makes the breath short, makes the palms sweat, the voice tremble, the neck muscles bind... Murder is something that had been two-years a-growing. Murder is the answer to a question that couldn't otherwise be answered."

"There is no way out. No answer. There can be no deviation in her loyalty -- except if there is no longer anyone to whom she could be loyal... And like the simplest equation written on a school blackboard, the answer becomes... murder."

"At night Jimmy Hake would awaken, cold sweat oily on his body, his fists tightly clenched. Then, in the silence of the night, he would think of Bob Morrit... Not of Anna. Of Bob and of death."

MacDonald included "Tune in on Station Homicide" in his first Good Old Stuff collection in 1982 and, as he did for all of the stories anthologized there, restored his original title, "A Time for Dying." The story was also the victim of the author's needless "updating," and he changed Jimmy's radio show to a television show and changed the names of a couple of popular radio stars to "Merv and Johnny." Yet in order to do so he had to make a big deal about the show's debut being broadcast live, a common practice in 1948 radio, but rare in 1982. He also goofed at one point and failed to update a request for Anna to go home and "listen to" the television show's debut.

If the device of a Swiss silent alarm wristwatch seems a familiar one, it is. MacDonald reused it 25 years later in his novel The Scarlet Ruse. There it was owned by Travis McGee and was a gift from his friend Meyer, who gave it to Trav "because it amused him." Needless to say, Meyer did not poison the plunger. A similar but slightly different watch was owned by secret agent Derek Flint in the 1966 film Our Man Flint. There it served to awaken Flint from a deep Eastern meditation that mimicked death by temporarily stopping his heart.

It kind of makes Jimmy Hake's murder scheme a bit less fanciful somehow...

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