In 1977 John D MacDonald went from being a fairly well known writer of crime and suspense novels to a Big Deal. In March of that year his massive novel Condominium was published in hardcover by Lippincott to fairly universal acclaim and major sales. Only the year before the author’s sixteenth volume in the very successful Travis McGee series had been published and accounted for JDM’s first ever appearance on the New York Times Best Seller List, peaking at Number 3. With Condominium he again made it to that then-sacrosanct listing, where it sat for a full 27 weeks, peaking (again) at number 3.
Although the author had pretty much given up on writing short stories at this point in his career, this particular year saw the publication of three such works, all of them unusual to some extent. In the spring his “Wedding Present” appeared in the literary journal Antaeus, his first and only work for that title. It’s an ingenious and fairly typical JDM crime story centered around a particular method for committing that crime. It reads, however, like a much older work, and I’m betting that it was something the author had done years before and perhaps had it rejected by his first choice of publishers. In October New York magazine published the first Travis McGee “short story,” a monograph really, titled “Terminal Cases.” It’s basically McGee and Meyer conversing about a particular societal problem and is a precursor to the posthumously published Reading for Survival, a work we typically classify as a book rather than a short story.
But in May of ‘77, a month after the publication of Condominium, one of MacDonald’s more unusual efforts appeared, not just in one periodical but in many dozen across the country. The Field Newspaper Syndicate, an organization owned by the Chicago Sun-Times, contracted with MacDonald to publish a JDM novella he called “Finding Anne Farley,” to be serialized in five parts, with installments published weekly. The serial would appear in the syndicate’s flagship publication (in the paper’s Sunday magazine supplement) and be offered to the scores of regional papers that were members of the syndicate. To make things interesting, the editors at Field came up with the idea of delaying the story’s final installment so that readers could write and submit their own conclusion to the tale. A winner would be chosen by each member newspaper and a prize of $100 awarded. In addition, the Field editors offered its members the option of publishing the story under an alternate title, “Ring My Love With Diamonds,” and nearly all of the papers that picked up the serial did so using the second title.
For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career in creating a subject remarkably similar to Cliff Bartells, the hero of JDM’s first book, The Brass Cupcake. Oliver “Duke” Rhoades is an insurance investigator, especially adept at recovering stolen goods. Rhoades’ nickname is derived from his facial similarity to John Wayne, but he is not especially tall, and any other similarities to MacDonald’s other famous protagonist ends there. Rhodes, once employed by Equity Protection Insurance, is now a private “consultant” and hires out to whoever is paying. In “Finding Anne Farley” Equity is grudgingly using him as an independent for the first time.
The company has paid a huge settlement after a large amount of diamonds were stolen from an Atlanta jewelry story. Thirty-two items worth $600,000 was taken over a weekend from Westcott and Sons and replaced with professionally made but worthless copies. The initial investigation resulted in the conclusion that a long-time, trusted employee named Anne Farley was the thief. Using the opportunity of a weekend when the store’s manager was out of town at an auction, Farley apparently made her way into the store’s vault on a Friday and took the items, all of them worth in excess of $300, and replaced them with the phonies. After a pre-arranged weekend vacation, Monday rolled around and Farley didn’t come in to work. She hasn’t been seen since.
Duke’s first stop in his investigation is to a diamond broker in New York City named Wally Marks. Looking over the store’s reference photographs of the stolen items, Marks concludes that the pieces in question were selected not only for their value but for their anonymity: diamonds that could be sold with little effort and funneled back onto the market.
“Somebody had a channel to feed this stuff right back into the industry. Somebody had a lot of time in the vault to select these items and leave the fancy cuts behind. There’s no junk here. All these stones are salable, and probably already sold.”
The conclusion is that Anne Farley sneaked the photos of the items out over time and used them to have the phonies made, then waited until the Friday the manager was away to switch them and take off.
Duke then makes his way to Atlanta and Wescott and Sons. He interviews the store’s manager, one J. Trevor Laneer, who he finds is less than interested in reviving the case.
“Five different people -- two of them from Equity Protection -- questioned me at great length over a period of many weeks, you know. They extracted every scrap of information from me. Surely all that material is on record, and if you have a legitimate purpose in all this, surely it will be available to you. Frankly, I am sick unto death of it. I was deceived by a person I trusted. It took far too long to get the insurance settlement. I feel I was treated badly.”
But Duke hangs around the store afterward and meets one of the saleswomen, Libby Franklin, the only member of the sales staff who doesn’t appear “demure and bloodless.” Libby agrees to meet at a local bar after work to answer Duke’s questions. They eventually end up back at Libby’s apartment and order Chinese carryout. Duke learns that Anne Farley was a dedicated and severe assistant to a severe and authoritarian Laneer. The two of them were the only members of the staff with access to the vault. Farley, referred to by Libby as the “head vestal virgin” of the all-female staff, had no real personal life, had lived with her mother until she passed away, and had resided in a residential hotel until a week before the theft, when she moved to a motel near the Atlanta airport.
A romantic relationship eventually develops between Duke and Libby, but it is never directly referenced and doesn’t becomes part of the main plot.
Duke manages to track down a travel agency where Anne paid for a trip to Cancún, presumably to disappear. It is a plot development that bears remarkable resemblance to MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel The Empty Copper Sea, which he was presumably in the process of writing when “Finding Anne Farley” was published. But unlike McGee in Copper, Duke actually makes the trip to Cancún and to the hotel where Farley had reservations. Eventually he deduces that although Anne had a reservation and had paid for her room, she never actually arrived there.
Things get more complicated when Duke learns some additional facts about Laneer. The store manager’s older wife comes from big Atlanta money and the store is owned by a trust set up by her father. She suffered a paralyzing stroke several years ago and is completely incapacitated, able only to sit in a chair and look out the window onto an expansive rock garden that Laneer has lovingly built for her with his own hands.
“Finding Anne Farley” is a straightforward tale of investigation, clues and the solving of a meticulously planned crime. It has little characterization outside of MacDonald’s trademark economic descriptions and does not contain a single wasted word. The author didn’t write a lot of what could be classified as whodunits, but this story definitely fits that bill. It seems to have been fairly successful, with a number of papers around the country picking up the option to run it, from big city dailies such as The San Francisco Examiner and the Miami Herald to smaller publications like the Van Nuys Valley News and the Oil City (Pennsylvania) Derrick. It was successful enough for the Field syndicate to do it again the following year, with a serial titled “Friend of the Family.” The year after they published a third and final serial called “Eyewitness.”
I’m unsure if Duke Rhoades repeated his role as protagonist in the subsequent serials, as I don’t own copies and have never read them. If that was the case, and it seems likely, then we can add Rhoades to the list of JDM series characters that began with Benton Walters back in 1946. I can say that the third series, “Eyewitness,” was an adaption and expansion of an early JDM short story of the same name that was published in the September 1964 issue of Argosy. Although the protagonist of that earlier tale isn’t named Duke Rhoades, he is an insurance investigator, so it seems likely to me that these three serials all feature that particular character. “Eyewitness” (the serial version) appeared in very few newspapers -- in fact, according to Walter Shine, it didn’t even make it to the Sun Times -- so it has been hard for me to find out exactly who is in the new tale.
“Finding Anne Farley” was reprinted once, in the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology for 1978, edited by Edward D Hoch. There one can read it as a unified piece without the installment interruptions. Used copies of this book occasionally turn up online. If you have access to a newspaper database, either at home or at your local library, you may be able to find it in its five parts, including perhaps the winning entries in the reader contest for the ending. If you can get into the archives of the San Antonio Express-News, you will find not only MacDonald’s own ending, but the winning reader’s ending and a handful of runner-up entries. One of them, written by Phillip D. Tritchler, has got to be one of the funniest and most outrageous bits of reader participation ever. Believe me, I’m giving nothing away from MacDonald’s own ending by printing Tritchler’s wacko conclusion below.
After his return to Atlanta from Mexico, Duke Rhoades talks again with each of the key figures in the case, looking for some unusual occurrence in the jewelry store's routine over the past year or in Anne Farley's woefully sterile life.
One of Anne's fellow sales clerks mentions the name of Travis McGee as the only man she's known Anne to show an interest in.
Duke finds that McGee was a highly successful salvage operator of sorts, recovering lost, stolen or swindled valuables for friends, usually for a fee of half the sum recovered.
It was on just such a case, involving precious gems, that McGee visited Atlanta and met Anne Farley.
What serves to whet Rhodes' curiosity even more is that McGee, in his last "salvage" operation, departed from his usual pattern and, weighing friendship and honesty in balance with greed, kept the entire bundle for himself.
Could he have done it again?
Following this trail, Rhodes goes to Florida to talk with McGee. But McGee's houseboat, "The Busted Flush," departed its usual moorings one day after Laneer's diamonds disappeared in Atlanta.
There was also, McGee's neighbors reveal, an attractive blonde on the houseboat. Anne Farley?
After weeks of searching the Caribbean, Rhoades finds the “Flush” anchored in an isolated bay near Bimini in the Bahamas and confronts both McGee and Farley.
After a brief but violent confrontation, McGee collapses with a fatal coronary. Turning to Anne, Rhoades notices that all those months of leisure in the sun have had their effect on her as well.
The mousy, shy clerk has blossomed into a woman worth second and third glances. Farley confesses the plot including the false Mexico leads was McGee's idea [sic] and produces the diamonds.
The catch in the caper, she said, came when her love for McGee turned to hate during the months of isolation.
Rhodes, staring at the beautiful blue-white diamonds and glancing at Anne, thinks of the return to Atlanta and comes to a decision.
With a smile and a gesture toward the houseboat controls, he asks her, "Can this thing get us to Brazil?"
It’s been a long time since I’ve wiped tears of laughter from my eyes after reading something.