Monday, March 5, 2018

"Fatal Accident"

John D MacDonald wrote 14 short stories for the pulp magazine The Shadow, beginning in 1946 and ending in 1948. The Shadow was the first “hero pulp,” a fiction magazine built around a single character who was the star of a 60,000 to 70,000-word novel that led off each installment of the pulp. The balance of the issue was given over to unrelated shorter stories by pulp authors of the day, and it was here where MacDonald’s stories appeared. (Every Shadow novel was the work of author Walter Gibson, who wrote under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant.) During the postwar period the magazine was one of two Street and Smith publications edited by Babette Rosmond -- the other being Doc Savage -- whose interest in and mentoring of MacDonald during his early days as a writer was instrumental in getting his career off the ground. Between both Rosmond-edited magazines MacDonald’s work appeared 34 times.

Begun in 1931 in response to the popularity of a character on a Street and Smith radio show -- this “character” simply read stories straight out of one of Street and Smith’s pulps -- The Shadow began as a quarterly, switched to a monthly, then to a bi-weekly, then back to monthly, then bi-monthly and finally back to quarterly. The magazine’s name also underwent periodic changes, with titles including The Shadow, The Shadow Detective Monthly, The Shadow Magazine and Shadow Mystery. The magazine also changed sizes, starting out as a standard pulp, then switching to a digest in 1943, then back to a pulp for its final four issues.

MacDonald’s output for the magazine consists mainly of short stories, but he supplied at least two novellas: the 40,000-word “Never Marry Murder” and “You’ve Got to Be Cold,” which the author thought good enough to include in his second pulp anthology, More Good Old Stuff, appearing under his original title “The Night is Over.” Five of those 14 entries were published under a pseudonym, either Peter Reed or Robert Henry, both house names Street and Smith used frequently (and not only for MacDonald.)

“Fatal Accident” was MacDonald’s last story for The Shadow, and it appeared in the Fall 1948 issue, one of those final four pulp-sized entries. It’s a nifty little 3,700-word howdunit that is brought up a level by the author’s development of the protagonist, a Philadelphia police detective suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome after investigating the aftermath of a multiple murder. And although that really has nothing to do with the plot itself -- how a guy murdered his wife by crashing their car while he was driving -- it gives the story an extra layer of substance that makes the rather creaky dénouement easier to swallow.

Told in the first person by the detective referred to only as “Tom,” we open with him on the road, a few miles north of Williamsport, following a Buick in a dense Pennsylvania fog. Tom is heading to a remote cabin in the woods, owned by a fellow officer, for a two-week vacation forced on him by his boss. His plan to "sleep twenty hours a day and eat like a horse" is really a means of recovery, of getting away from ten years of police work that has hardened him, although “you never manage to get tough enough to keep things from getting to you, from getting down through your thickened hide and stinging the few soft parts you had left.” The most recent case was the cause of the forced sabbatical.

I thought of the Miller kid and of the hammer murders in the shanty down by the river, and the gray, bloated look of the bodies that came out of the river. Violence. Diseases of the mind. Shifty eyes. A thousand lineups. You walk into small, dingy sitting rooms and you can smell the blood in the air and hear a woman moaning. It's a dirty business. Thankless.

The Buick in front of him slows, then runs off the shoulder and smashes into a mammoth tree, making a sound “like a million bricks falling into a greenhouse.” Tom quickly pulls over and runs to the overturned car, finding a man on the driver’s side and a woman in the front passenger seat. He quickly sees that the woman’s head is smashed in and that she is beyond help, but the man is alive and moaning, his mouth full of blood. He pulls them both out and hails a passing car, instructing the driver to phone for the police. When they arrive the man and woman are taken away in an ambulance and Tom is asked to come down to the barracks to make a formal statement. Once the patrolmen discover that he is a fellow cop, they have a drink and trade stories, and Tom, too tired to continue on, spends the night on a cot in the barracks.

Before morning one of the troopers returns from the hospital to write his report. The driver claimed that he fell asleep at the wheel, and when he was told about his wife's death "he cried like a baby." The couple were from Upper Darby, on their way to visit a relative in Elmira. Oh, and in his injured state the driver insisted that his car not be touched.

Tom says his farewells and resumes his trip to the cabin, where he spends two weeks eating, resting, chopping firewood and getting a tan. On his way home he stops by the barracks to ask about the accident. He learns that the driver stayed in the hospital for two days and then headed back home with his wife's body. The car was a total loss and was sold for scrap. "The thing was open and shut. A simple, tragic accident."

And yet, somehow, it bothered me. Curiosity is an occupational disease with a cop, I suppose. I still couldn't figure out why [he] had slowed down before hitting the tree, why the jar of going off the pavement hadn't awakened him, and why he was so insistent on the car not being touched.

And so begins the investigation, on his own time, into the background of of the driver. It’s a situation very familiar readers of MacDonald’s short fiction (we few, we happy few…), recalling similar JDM policemen in stories such as “Hit and Run,” “The Rabbit Gets a Gun,” and “I Always Get the Cuties.”

“Fatal Accident” has never been anthologized but it was reprinted, once, in the April 1966 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In the American edition of the magazine the story was retitled “Never Quite Tough Enough,” but in their British and Australian editions they retained the original title. I can’t quite fathom why this was done -- “Fatal Accident” was MacDonald’s original title, so it wasn’t as if he dictated the change -- but it certainly leads to confusion. It’s cases like these that probably led to the oft-repeated claim that JDM published over 500 short stories during his career, when the actual number is closer to 400.

I don’t own a copy of the original issue of The Shadow -- one can purchase it on eBay for a mere $149 -- but I do have the EQMM reprint. I can only assume that it was a straight reprint and not a doctored “improvement” like those perpetrated on the Good Old Stuff stories.


  1. Hi Steve! It's been a while! Great to see your excellent JDM blog active again! :)

    I just wanted to add that "Fatal Accident" was anthologized in The Arbor House Treasury of Detective & Mystery Stories From The Great Pulps (1983 by Bill Pronzini). It features a nice intro from Pronzini, where he mentions Babette Rosmond and this interesting line: "It (Fatal Accident) is also distinguished as the first piece of fiction to use a form of a certain well-known (nowadays) piece of automotive equipment." He also mentions that the story is "an excellent example both of the type of stories Rosmond published and the type MacDonald wrote: lean prose, excellent characterization, a tightly knit, nonformula plot (and, as a bonus, a decidedly unsterotypical portrait of a working policeman)." :)

    1. Great to hear from you JJ! Thanks for the information... I though I had tracked down all of the JDM stories anthologized by others... obviously not.

  2. No worries, man! The same anthology also features another great JDM short story, "Crime of Omission". As Pronzini says, ... "impeccable characterization and his knack for creating suspense, it outclasses the vast majority of longer, more complex pulp fiction." You gotta love Pronzini. I just love his "Nameless Dectective" stories! :)