Monday, January 19, 2015

"Murder in Mind"

John D MacDonald once claimed that he had never written about a place that he had not once lived in or visited. Science fiction stories notwithstanding, this would -- if true -- cover a lot of ground. The careful student of the author’s work and biography can see through a lot of the fictional towns, cities and rural locals as matching places where he grew up, lived, fought and vacationed. There are the rust belt cities of the northeast that are featured in many of his early novels, all stand-ins for Utica, Rochester, Fayetteville, Albany or Syracuse, New York. There’s Mexico, of The Damned, The Empty Trap and “Border Town Girl.” And of course there’s Florida, with several thinly disguised versions of Sarasota (April Evil) and Clearwater (The Brass Cupcake).

But if one remembers that the MacDonald family owned lakeside property in a very remote section of the Adirondacks along the shores of Piseco Lake, another vast set of locales is added to the mix. Purchased in 1944 by Dorothy MacDonald, using funds husband John won in a poker game while stationed in Ceylon during the war, an actual residence wasn’t built on the property until 1951. From that year on the MacDonald family spent nearly every summer in their Piseco Lake “camp,” and every winter in Florida.

So its no surprise that remote lake house locales figure heavily in the JDM grabbag of settings. I’ve written about this before. They are featured importantly in novels such as Cancel All Our Vows, All These Condemned, You Live Once and Judge Me Not. Lake houses are a place of intrigue in “Betrayed,” murder scenes in “I Always Get the Cuties,” and redemption in “Forever Yours.” From a literary point of view lakes can be idyllically peaceful and reaffirming or menacingly isolated from civilization. In 1948 MacDonald wrote a beautifully conceived set piece that took place entirely in a lakefront setting, one nearly identical to the MacDonald Piesco camp. It was called “Murder in Mind” and it was published in the Winter issue of Mystery Book magazine, a pulp with a somewhat interesting history.

“Murder in Mind” can be classified as one of MacDonald’s “howdunits,” although it also works as a rare JDM whodunit. Howdunits  typically involve a crime committed in a way that either defies explanation or seems cut-and-dried, but is in fact an elaborately designed masterplan created to make discovery impossible. Impossible, that is, until one of MacDonald’s typically bright and driven protagonists comes along and solves the puzzle.

The relatively brief short story is told in first person by a police detective the reader knows only as Joe. Joe is a county cop and works out of the village of Hoffwalker (a stand-in for Speculator, the county seat of Hamilton County, which contains Piseco Lake.) His senior partner is detective Burt Stanleyson, who has just been called by a man vacationing at a camp on Lake Odega, telling him that his wife has just been killed by a stray shot from a hunter coming from the opposite shore of the lake.

It is late autumn and trees around the lake are “stripped naked.” The camps that dot the shore of Lake Odega are mostly vacant now and the only activity that brings people up here at this time of the year is hunting. That is what brought Ralph Bennison and his now-dead wife Alice to the lake, to rent the Tyler camp for a week and to try out Ralph’s new Remington. When the cops and Ralph arrive they find Alice lying where she fell, dead on her back in the middle of a trail.

There were streaks of drying mud on the right sleeve of her pale yellow sweater. There was more mud on her freckled right arm. Death had flattened her body to the ground. Her tweed skirt was pushed up halfway between knee and hip. Her heels rested in the mud and her brown sandals toed in… The chill wind off the lake hurried the dry brown leaves across the trail. A leaf had stuck to her hair over the right temple, where the hair was sticky with new blood.

As Ralph Bennison sits on a log with his face in his hands, Burt Stanleyson stands over the body while Joe observes the two men. He notices their similarities -- both are big men -- but contrasts Burt’s wrinkled gray suit and manner of confidence in a wooded setting to Ralph’s department store wool hunting shirt and his matching breeches and high shoes. “He had the city label on him, all the way from his big shiny fingernails to the bright new leather of his knife sheath.”

When Ralph asks bitterly why the two cops aren't on the other side of the lake looking for the hunter who fired the shot, Burt says nothing and leans down to look closely at the bullet wound. He also lowers the skirt to cover Alice's knees. Ralph continues, explaining in detail how everything happened.

"Look here," he said. "Alice and I were walking down the trail with the lake at our right. She was ahead of me. The trail is muddy and uneven, and I was watching my feet, like I told you. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her fall on her face. I jumped toward her, thinking that she had tripped. As I jumped, I heard a distant noise like a shot. I rolled her over and held her head in my arms. I saw she was dead, and realized that she had been killed by a stray shot. Then I came after you. Why aren't you after those people across the lake?"

Burt patiently explains that it is late in the day and that trying to round up two dozen hunters at that hour would be nearly impossible. Besides, nobody would admit to firing across the lake. Then there’s the time and expense of doing ballistics testing on all of their rifles. Burt thinks that the best thing to do is to play up the publicity and hope that “some man’s conscience will punish him.”

He asks Ralph about the reason for their trip to Lake Odega and asks, since they were up here to hunt, if they brought two guns. No, answers Ralph, only the one. Why then, wonders Burt, does Alice have a bruise under her eye, as if a gun stock had hit her there on recoil. Ralph tells Burt that she did some target practice behind the cabin and pulls back her sweater to show the cops a purple bruise on her right shoulder. By this time Joe is completely confused as to Burt’s demeanor and line of questioning. If the senior cop was inferring that Ralph may have shot his own wife, that would seem impossible, as the wound indicated that the shot came from a great distance. Burt then asks some personal questions.

Burt: “What’s your business?”

Ralph: “Well… nothing at the moment. I used to be in the investment business.”

Burt: “Married a gal with money, hey?”

Ralph: “Look here, Stanleyson, I resent this questioning. What’s that got to do with finding out which one of the hunters across the lake shot her?”

Burt: “Then she did have money?”

Ralph: “Suppose she did? We both had money.”

Burt sighs and looks up at a tree, then walks down to the shore of the lake and stares “moodily at the water.”

OK, this is not really much of a whodunit. With the fact that there are only three living characters in the story, and two of them are policemen, the title alone (remarkably it’s MacDonald’s original) should give things away. And beware of a MacDonald character who is unemployed and living off his wife’s money! I suppose the question was never intended to be about guilt but about the way things were planned. The story ends with two full pages of Burt and Joe chatting over a couple of glasses of bourbon, with Joe asking questions and Burt explaining things. Everything makes perfect sense when coming out of the mouth of the older cop, and when one goes back to reread the story, obvious clues are found in abundance.

MacDonald wrote lots of stories just like “Murder in Mind,” tales of involved crimes and their unwinding. They include “The Bullets Lied,” “I Always Get the Cuties,” “There Hangs Death!,” “Black Cat in the Snow,” and best of all, “The Homesick Buick.” “Black Cat in the Snow” even uses a nearly identical setting as “Murder in Mind.” Many of the solutions involve ballistics, not surprising coming from the son of an executive of an arms manufacturer. And many others use the framing device of the junior, observing narrator and the wiser senior partner who acts in a placid, confusing manner, only to be proven the wise man in the end. Not uniquely MacDonald, to be sure, but one he loved to use and reuse. “Murder in Mind” is one of the earliest example of all of these literary “types.”

The story was anthologized in MacDonald’s first mystery pulp collection, The Good Old Stuff, which is available used nearly anywhere one looks for used books, and is now for sale as an eBook. Thankfully there was nothing to “update” in this particular story, so one can read it and picture an upstate wilderness in 1948, not 1982.

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