Monday, January 15, 2018

"Eyewitness" (1964 and 1979)

Argosy holds the historical distinction of being the very first pulp magazine ever, the creator of the mold that everyone else followed. Begun as a children’s weekly called The Golden Argosy by Frank Munsey in 1882, it went on -- in a variety of formats -- for nearly 100 years before finally folding. It was Munsey’s idea to convert the weekly to an all-fiction magazine, his idea to print it on the cheapest paper available (pulpwood) and his idea to load it with as many stories as the binding could hold. Its nearly 200 pages -- no illustrations -- held stories of infinite variety, especially after he merged Argosy with another creation of his, All-Story, and gradually the stories took on the various elements of what we now call pulp fiction: strong, identifiable lead characters with an inner, personal morality, often working in exotic locales, in tales written in bright, clear prose, strong plots and, of course with a bit of violence and romance. Argosy plied this format until 1943, when it was converted to a slick and began printing non-fiction articles. As the 1940’s moved into the 1950’s non-fiction took a greater and greater portion of the magazine’s contents, and it eventually morphed into a “men’s magazine,” with articles about hunting and guns, and featuring “true” stories about dangerous safaris in Africa, sports, real police procedurals, and war stories. Fiction took a definite back seat to the articles.

John D MacDonald never wrote for Argosy the pulp magazine -- it converted to a slick three years before he began writing -- but he was well represented in its men’s magazine form, publishing ten original short stories there and one excerpt from a novel (The Last One Left in the July 1967 issue). His work for Argosy was uniformly excellent, with top-of-the-line entries like “A Young Man’s Game,” “Jail Bait,” “Cop Probe,” “Long Shot” (chosen for inclusion in the author’s 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories), and the unheralded gem of the pack, “Built for Speed,” published in the magazine’s June 1954 issue. His story “Eyewitness” appeared in the September 1964 issue and it is also a quality entry, revolving around an investigation of a hit and run accident. In fact, it was so good that MacDonald used it again 14 years later, in another format and with another protagonist.

Of course MacDonald had used hit and run accidents before, in two different but identically titled stories written nine years apart (“Hit and Run” in 1952 and “Hit and Run” in 1961), but both of those tales featured policemen as the seekers of the identities of the drivers. In “Eyewitness” MacDonald goes back to the Cliff Bartells model he used in his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, and uses an insurance claims adjuster as the protagonist. Carl Beldon is a man-with-a-past, although the author never explains exactly what has happened to him, hinting at it only at the beginning and the very ending of the story. He arrives in the beach town of Stoney Cove, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean shore (probably Florida, but never explicitly identified), has a cup of coffee at a local diner, and is observed by the young, “burly and cheerful” waitress:

He had an ironic objectivity about what she was seeing, a young-old man, with a chronic tiredness around the eyes, with that look of having been savaged a few times by life and then released, free to assemble a new set of adjustments and compromises.

Beldon works for Guarantee Mutual Liability, an insurance company that holds the auto-fleet policy for a company called Swain Electronics, headquartered in Charles City, a much larger community located about 20 miles north of Stoney Cove. One of those cars was driven by Swain Electronics co-owner Mercer Swain, who was down in Stoney Cove having dinner with a Swain secretary named Joanne Treiber. After a long afternoon of drinking and dinner, Swain rents a room at the local Tahiti Motor Inn and suggests that he and Joanne shack up for the night. She is having none of that and takes the car to drive back to Charles City, leaving the inebriated Mercer to take a cab home the next morning. On the way home, while still in Stoney Cove, she takes a notorious curve way too fast and hits a young girl on her way home from a babysitting job. The car was traveling at full speed and the victim was killed instantly. The car made no effort to stop and Joanne drove on home to her apartment, where she fell asleep as if nothing had happened.

But Joanne claims she never hit anyone. An anonymous caller got in touch with the police stating that he witnessed the accident and described the driver right down to the color of Joanne's hair, her dress and her purse. He also gave the license plate number, which led to Mercer, which eventually led to Joanne, who was roused from sleep by the police the next morning. Joanne’s story is different and, after talking with the local police and inspecting the car, Beldon heads up to Charles City to interview the accused.

John D MacDonald fans will surely smile at the introduction of Joanne Treiber. From the author’s description we know instantly that she is not only not guilty, but that romantic sparks are soon to fly. She’s “tall,” “blonde,” “slender,” and “red-bronze from recent exposure to the sun.” She is, understandably, in bad shape, facing felony manslaughter charges, but she is adamant that she did not hit anyone. When Beldon reminds her that she was drinking the whole afternoon, she responds by making one of the “drinks” for him: a wine spritzer -- only an ounce of Rhine wine mixed with soda. She relates her own side of the story: after refusing Mercer Swain’s advances, she took the keys to the company car and headed home. Before she made it out of the area she pulled over onto a deserted stretch of beach and walked about a mile down the shore to clear her mind. She got back in the car afterword and drove home, “very carefully,” as she was unused to the size and weight of the car. She didn’t realize anything was amiss until the next morning when she was awakened by the police.

Beldon reminds her that that was the car that hit the babysitter -- spectrometer analysis of the paint proves it. Joanne acknowledges that she is in “a horrible mess” but sticks to her story. Then time stops:

Looking at her, he knew the rare thing had happened. He could conduct fifty investigations and aside from a feeling of pity or distaste, feel no involvement with the people concerned. They were factors in a violent human equation. He could imitate empathy when it seemed the only way to open someone up, but he always felt shabby about doing it. In the fifty-first case, he would find someone who suddenly involved him in a personal way, tapping a hidden well of genuine concern. He did not want it to happen, ever. Because these things often came out very badly. And there were enough old scars to live with. Here it was again, where he had least expected it, and least wanted it -- with this doomed girl.

As Beldon compares Joanne’s timeline with that of the police, and once he decides to believe her protestations of innocence, he comes to the only conclusion he can: someone else took the car when Joanne was walking on the beach, hit the babysitter and returned the vehicle to where they found it. Thus it was probably the person who made the anonymous call to the police with the detailed description of the driver. Now it’s a case of trying to smoke the person out, and Beldon has an idea…

“Eyewitness” is an engaging, entertaining story, even with some of its obvious plot points and inevitable romance, and it is certainly worthy company to his other Argosy stories. So it’s no surprise to learn that when MacDonald wrote three serialized stories about an insurance claims adjuster in the late 1970’s, he borrowed “Eyewitness” for the third and final entry in that series. Indeed, this story seems to have been the template for the idea. Duke Rhoades, the protagonist of all three stories, began life in May 1977 with the five-part “Finding Anne Farley,” published by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Field Newspaper Syndicate in scores of newspapers around the country, both large and small. There was a gimmick involved with these stories, one that would hopefully inspire readers to study the plots and characters more closely: the final installment of each tale was withheld for a week so that readers could write their own endings, pick their own perpetrators from the cast of suspects, submit that ending to the local paper and possibly win a prize for best submission. Their ending would be printed alongside MacDonald’s own.

The second story, “Friend of the Family,” was published the following year, although fewer papers picked it up, and by the time MacDonald submitted the third and final story, the whole idea seems to have run out of gas. The contest idea was thrown out the window and the story presented as a simple four-part serialization. MacDonald himself didn’t even bother writing an original story: he rewrote “Eyewitness,” with the new protagonist and hewed to the original plot as closely as he possibly could. In fact, a comparison of the two stories reveals that he did almost no rewriting at all. Most of the characters names are the same and every detail from the original story is included, save the paragraph about the protagonist being “savaged by life.” Duke Rhoades is a much less complicated character. The final paragraph of the original story (which I won’t reveal here) is a wonderful ending, beautifully and concisely written, but it is ruined in the rewrite, replaced by a few banal sentences. One tends to think of writers getting better as they age, learning their craft as they go along, and MacDonald certainly thought that of himself, but when he tried to re-do his older material he almost always ended up destroying the pace, grace and sense of magic in the prose. Think The Good Old Stuff. In fact, if you ever want a perfect example of what I am talking about, read my piece on his Crack Detective Stories tale “You Remember Jeanie” and its rewrite in More Good Old Stuff.

“Eyewitness” was the end of the line for Duke Rhoades. So unenthusiastic were the members of the Field Newspaper Syndicate over the story that few picked it up, with only one major metropolitan daily (the San Diego Union-Tribune) doing so. I managed to find my copy of it in the September 30, October 7, 14 and 21st editions of Florida Today, a Gannett publication. A rather ignominious ending for a character who is part of a special and unique group of fictional protagonists, including Benton Walters, Shane Brent, Park Falkner and Travis McGee.


  1. I'd love to see a companion piece to MacDonald's other short fiction collections that captured the good stuff--like the original Eyewitness--that he didn't actually seem to think worth preserving. I think reading the introduction to The Good Old Stuff shows that, when it came to this sort of intended-to-be-disposable story, ultimately he was no judge of the quality of his own material.

    1. No, he wasn't, Keith -- I think he was actually ashamed of a lot of it. There are so many gems buried in those old magazines... bringing them to light is the reason I started this blog.