Monday, January 4, 2016

No Girl in the Plain Brown Grave

Last week’s posting discussed John D MacDonald’s 1948 novella “No Grave Has My Love,” which originally appeared in the December 1948 issue of Dime Detective and was later reprinted in the British edition of Black Mask. I focused mainly on the history of overseas versions of pulp titles, outlined the plot of “No Grave Has My Love,” and offered a brief opinion on the quality of the story. What I didn’t do, because it didn’t occur to me until after I wrote the article, was to reveal the fact that the novella was the origin of part of the plot of a later JDM novel, a Travis McGee title no less. I happened to be listening to the latest audio book version of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (expertly read by Robert Petkoff) and suddenly I recognized several of the plot points of “No Grave Has My Love,” updated with 1968 scientific advancements. I don’t know why this didn’t ring a bell with me, considering how many times I’ve read Brown.

Recall that in “No Grave Has My Love,” Dr. Andre Spence is a renowned surgeon who has developed a means of treating psychosis through a unique method of performing a lobectomy. This technique not only cures the mental malady, it erases recent memory. Spence is trapped in a loveless marriage, to a “mountainous” woman who is bedridden. He has fallen in love with one of his nurses and comes up with a plan to kill off the wife by substituting water for morphine in the ampules the nurse draws from and administers. He is successful in killing the wife but is undone when the nurse begins suspecting something fishy after Spence reacts to her offer to return the unused ampules to the dispensary. Spence’s intention was to drop them in some inconspicuous place and “crush them with his heel.” He decides to perform his surgery on the nurse so she will forget everything about the dead wife and her illness.

(I can’t imagine there’s anyone reading this blog who hasn’t already read The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, but if you haven’t I’m about to spoil the plot.)

Twenty years later MacDonald brushed off this means-to-an-end, updated the science, and reused it for different characters in different situations. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper Travis McGee is fulfilling the request of a recently dead paramour by checking up on her married daughter, one Maureen Pike. Following a second miscarriage Maureen has descended into a strange kind of childlike psychosis and had made several attempts at suicide. She also disappears for long periods and returns with no memory of where she was or what she did. It develops that her husband, Tom Pike, is dosing her with a substance called puromycin, which makes her lose memory of recent events. His ultimate goal is to kill off Maureen by making it look like suicide and marry her sister for what will be a very large estate.

Pike has obtained the puromycin from a local doctor named Stewart Sherman who he was blackmailing after he learned of the doctor’s murder of his wife. A police detective named Stanger, talking with McGee, goes into the very familiar details:

"Nobody is ever going to prove anything on him, and it wouldn't do much good now anyway. But let me tell you something. I have lived a long time and I have seen a lot of things and I have seen a lot of women, but I never saw a worse woman in my life than Joan Sherman. Honest to Christ, she was a horror. She made every day of that doctor's life pure hell on earth. Damn voice onto her like a blue heron. She was the drill instructor and he was the buckass private. Treated him like he was a moron. One of those great big loud virtuous churchgoing ladies with a disposition like a pit viper. Full of good works. She was a diabetic. Had it pretty bad too but kept in balance. I forget how many units of insulin she had to shoot herself with in the morning. Wouldn't let the doctor shoot her. Said he was too damned clumsy with a needle. Three years ago she went into diabetic coma and died."

"He arrange it?"

Stanger shrugged. "If he did, he took such a long time to figure it out, he didn't miss a trick."

"Want me to beg? Okay. I'm begging."

"Back then the Shermans lived about six miles out, pretty nice house right in the middle of ten acres of groveland. We were having a telephone strike and things got pretty nasty. They were cutting underground cables and so on. She'd had her car picked up on a Friday to be serviced, and they were going to bring it back Monday. Because of the phones out that way being out, he thought he'd better drive in Sunday morning and see to some patients he had in the hospital. Besides, he had to pick up some insulin for her, he told us later, because she used the last ampule she had that morning. He'd pick up a month's supply at a time for her. He made his rounds and then he went to his office and worked awhile. Nobody would think that was strange. He stayed away from her as much as he dared and nobody blamed him. He said he was supposed to get back by five because a couple was coming for drinks and dinner. But he lost track of the time. The couple came and rang the bell and the woman went and looked in the window and saw her on the couch. She looked funny, the woman said. The husband broke in. No phone working. They put her in the car and headed for the hospital. They met Doc Sherman on his way out and honked and waved him down. She was DOA. They say he was a mighty upset man. There was a fresh needlemark in her thigh from her morning shot, so she hadn't forgotten. He said she never forgot. They did an autopsy, but there wasn't much point in it. I don't remember the biochemistry of it, but there just aren't any tests that will show whether you did or did not take insulin. It breaks down or disappears or something. County law checked the house. The needle had been rinsed and put in the sterilizer. The ampule was in the bathroom wastebasket. There was a drop or so left in it. That tested out full strength. The doctors decided there had been a sudden change in her condition and so the dose she was used to taking just wasn't enough. Also, they'd had pancakes and maple syrup and sweet rolls for breakfast. He said she kept to her diet pretty well, but Sunday breakfast was her single exception all week. Now, tell me how he did it. That is, if he did it."

After a few minutes of thought, I had a solution, but I had been smartass too often with Stanger, so I gave up.

It pleased him. "He brought home an identical ampule of distilled water, maybe making the switch of the contents in his office. Gets up in the night and switches the water for the insulin. She gets up in the morning and shoots water into her leg. Before he goes to the hospital, he goes into the bathroom, fishes the water ampule out of the wastebasket, takes the needle out of the sterilizer, draws the insulin out of the one he filched and shoots it down the sink, puts the genuine ampule in the wastebasket, rinses the needle and syringe, and puts it back into the sterilizer. On the way into town he could have stopped, crushed the ampule under his heel, and kicked the powdered glass into the dirt if he wanted to be real careful. I think he was careful, and patient. I think maybe he waited for a lot of years until the situation was just exactly right. I mean maybe you could stand living with a terrible old broad like that if you knew that someday, somehow, you were going to do it just right. Nice?"

MacDonald reused lots of business from his early years into his later novels (like jewels in a wax-filled canteen), but this is one where a novel’s entire plot turns on not one but two inventions from the same early story. I wonder how many more are out there?


  1. I gifted Deep Blue to a friend for Christmas and of course that got me reading it again. Then I downloaded the entire run and have them waiting for me on my iPad. What is it about these books that keeps us coming back to them again and again? ;-)

    1. The perfect storm of great writing and a timeless character.

    2. They are old friends. They beg you to come visit them pretty often.

  2. I read Brown not too long ago and did not notice the similarity when I read your last blog. Good find. I have not read many of his short stories but you can bet he used some of the same ideas more than once.

    1. Frank, I've always wondered if one of the reasons that JDM was reluctant to have his pulp stories republished was that he was afraid the sources of many of his later novels would be revealed.