Back in February of last year when I wrote a piece on John D MacDonald's 1954 short story "I Always Get the Cuties," I based my posting on a version of the story that had been included in a 1998 mystery anthology edited by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin H. Greenberg titled The Fifth Grave. I recently dug out my copy of the November issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine where the story was originally published and was delighted to find a couple of things I had completely forgotten about.
First, this was one of EQMM's "prize" issues, an annual event where the editors (read: Frederic Dannay) awarded three stories special honors, usually first, second and third place, along with some sort of monetary award. Back in 1950 MacDonald's supremely excellent "The Homesick Buick" won EQMM's third prize and the author received $300. In this 1954 issue there is no mention of any money passing hands, and the prize levels are somewhat confusing. The issue leads off with Harry Miner's "Due Process," and this story is headlined "Winner of a Third Prize." It is followed three stories later by Peter Godfrey's "Hail and Farwell," announced as a "Prize-Winning Story." Second place, first place, fourth? It is not clear. Finally, the eleventh story in the issue is "I Always Get the Cuties" and in addition to being designated the issue's only entry in the digest's "Black Mask Department," it is also given the headline "Prize-Winning Story." One would assume that MacDonald's tale came in first, based on its placement in the issue, or perhaps it tied with "Hale and Farewell." Who knows and, really, who cares? Like MacDonald's other three EQMM originals ("Buick,' "Funny the Way Things Work Out" and "He Was Always Such a Nice Boy") it represent JDM at his crime-writing best, each story expertly structured, using an economy of words and each containing a terrific surprise at the end.
But the best thing about unearthing the original magazine was discovering two paragraphs of introduction to the story, presumably written by Dannay, essaying a brief background of the tale.
Here is a story that John D. MacDonald (remember his earlier prizewinner, the wonderful tale of "The Homesick Buick"?) really wanted to write. He knew that at best it had a limited market -- he told us that if EQMM did not happen to like it, he would not even know where else to send it. (This is a fine compliment to EQMM's constant search for the unusual, but it is also an underestimation of the story's appeal.) In any event, Mr. MacDonald felt he simply had to write this story -- and any time an author feels that way, we want to see that story! The tales that lie dormant in writers' minds for years and years, that never die or even fade away, that keep nagging for recognition and birth -- those are the stories that so often have power, impact, and an unforgettable quality.
When Mr. MacDonald submitted "I Always Get the Cuties" to last year's contest, he wrote: "I suspect that it is probably as unpleasant a little yarn as you will receive for this particular sweepstakes." No, we have had much more unpleasant entries. True, we don't buy stories that carry unpleasantness too far -- there are limits to what can reasonably be called entertainment and escape; and there is never any excuse for sensationalism, sex, and sadism merely for their own sake. As we have so often said, the only taboo is that of bad taste. But while Mr. MacDonald's story concerns a particularly gruesome murder plan -- and the author reminds us that "murder is something that should not be prettified" -- it is interestingly written, original in its conception, and from a technical standpoint, most artfully done. And perhaps we should warn you: it packs a wallop...
You can read my original posting on "I Always Get the Cuties" here.