The Shadow: A Detective Magazine became an instant success, so much so that after only a year of publication the publisher Street and Smith switched it from a monthly to a twice monthly schedule to satisfy demand. It also spawned numerous imitators, first by Street and Smith themselves, later by other publishers. If the names of some of these now-forgotten titles sound like the names of comic books -- The Avenger, The Spider, Nick Carter, The Phantom Detective and, of course. Doc Savage -- it is probably no coincidence, as many literary historians have labeled these character pulps the direct ancestors to comic book super heroes.
By the time John D MacDonald began his writing career in 1946, the popularity of pulps in general were waning, and only a few of the character pulps were still around. Among those were The Shadow and Doc Savage, which would both cease publication in the summer of 1949. During MacDonald's first two years of writing, these two Street and Smith magazines were run by the same editor, a diminutive, insightful woman with a dry sense of humor named Babette Rosmond. She was one of the earliest editors to spot MacDonald's talent, even before he was able to produce stories worthy of publication, and she continued to encourage him even as she rejected his submissions. (An amusing example can be seen here.) The author's second story to appear in a mass market publication was in a Rosmond-edited magazine, and over her tenure as editor she purchased 34 stories from him. She was one of his early guides in the world of popular writing, famously directing him at one point to "take off [his] pith helmet" when she sensed him becoming too comfortable writing stories set in the Burmese theater of war.
"The Anonymous Letter" appeared in the February-March 1947 issue of The Shadow (then called Shadow Mystery) and its publication is notable not for the quality of the writing (it's good, not great) but because of the laudatory introduction she wrote as a preface to the story. It's a testimony to the respect MacDonald garnered even at the beginning of his career and it is prophetic in its predictions:
"When an author turns out several stories a month -- and they're all first-rate, which is unusual -- you'd think, rightly, that he'd been in the game a long time. But that's not the case with John D. MacDonald. Even though he falls into the first category, he definitely doesn't fall into the second, because he's only been writing about a year. Never even wanted to be a writer.
"However, while he was overseas in the O.S.S., he wrote a letter home to his wife... and she thought it was so good that she had it published... sold it to a national magazine, practically verbatim. And that's how MacDonald got his start. Where he'll wind up is fairly easy to foresee, because he has hit the jackpot with the tremendous volume of work he's turned out! He's sold to more magazines than can be listed here -- and we're very glad that we were in on MacDonald from the beginning.
"The Anonymous Letter" was written during MacDonald's "pith helmet period," as the setting for much of the story takes place in North India during World War II. The protagonist -- now stateside and referred to only as Bob -- recalls this period of his life after bumping into an old Army acquaintance named Dick Reals. Bob recalls when Reals first came up from Calcutta to replace one of the many servicemen working for the Quartermaster's unit who had come down with malaria. He was a likeable guy, a big, cheerful, open-faced kid who got along with everyone and who earned the respect of both his officers and his fellow grunts. But he was a bit different from the other truck drivers and lugs in the outfit in that he was married, and whenever the men of his "basha" lay around talking about their girls back home, Reals would launch into "a monologue that was as sincere a hymn of praise as any of the passages in Omar Khayyam."
"We would kid him about it. He would say, 'You unmarried guys have it tough. I got hitched to Margaret before I left. We had a week together on the Cape. I wish you could see her. The pictures I got don't do a thing for her. She's a little blonde, about five two and weighs a hundred and two. But she's not skinny. Every bit of her is soft and curved and sweet. I was almost afraid to touch her at first, but she's a husky kid for all her littleness. We have fun together. She writes every day. I can shut my eyes and remember just how she looks, her blonde hair all ruffled, looking up at me out of those dark eyes, with her lips moist and kind of half open...'
"Then one of the other guys would tell him to lay off, he was driving us all nuts, and we would all be quiet for a time, pawing through the lonesome thoughts that men must have when they're fourteen thousand miles from home."
But things change suddenly and dramatically when Reals receives a letter, an anonymous letter telling him that Margaret has been unfaithful to him.
The once good-natured kid instantly becomes a different person.
"When [he] changed, we thought the heat had him. The captain figured it might be cerebral malaria and had the laboratory at the station hospital take a slide. He was okay in his body. It was his mind that had changed. He got sullen and violent and disagreeable. The captain couldn't trust him on lone runs into Chabua and up to Ledo. He could only send him out in convoy."
His fellow bunkmates gradually figure out what is wrong when they begin seeing the unopened letters from Margaret piling up next to Reals' bedside, "... the ink address smearing into the fibers of the paper made damp by the humidity." His demeanor gradually begins to affect his unit, and after about a month of it they are ready to take any excuse "to beat the hell out of him." After he nearly kicks a "wog" to death he is transferred out of the Quartermasters' Unit to parts unknown. Glad to see the back of him, Bob figured he would never lay eyes on him again.
But as the story opens, the two men bump into each other in postwar America. It takes Bob a few minutes to realize who it is, and he then becomes slightly unnerved by Reals' appearance.
"His mouth looked slack instead of firm the way it had been, and his lips looked too damp. He had lost weight and his too gay suit hung on him. Maybe it was his eyes. He held them open very wide and as he talked to me I got the impression that he was looking beyond me, looking at something suspended in the air beyond my shoulder."
Against his better judgment he takes Reals up on an offer to talk over a few drinks in a nearby dingy bar. He knows that at some point he's going to want to satisfy his curiosity about Reals' wife Margaret...
"The Anonymous Letter" is a neat little tale, nothing special, but enjoyable if somewhat predictable. It only runs 1,500 words yet manages to paint a vivid picture of wartime India: the heat, the boredom, the constant danger of disease. And Reals is a pretty interesting character, in whom the student of MacDonald can see the building blocks for many subsequent damaged people. It's a quintessential example of the author's early period and proves that even early on, JDM "had it."
Rosmond's little preface mentions MacDonald's prodigious output, and it must a bit of a private joke to both editor and author to know that the story that followed "The Anonymous Letter" in this particular issue of Shadow Mystery -- "Backlash" by Peter Reed -- was, in fact, another MacDonald story appearing under a house name.