Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Who's the Blonde?"

"Who's the Blonde?" was originally published in the August 9, 1952 issue of Collier's. Running 5,000 words, it's a typical John D MacDonald "howdunit," although this time we also have a rare MacDonald whodunit. And like every good whodunit, there are clues scattered in the early text that reveal the bad guy for anyone with a careful eye. It's a fun, interesting story, one where the "how" is more of a surprise than the "who," and one where MacDonald's typically-impeccable research shows up in lots of nice little details.

The story takes place in a bank. Teller Tom Weldon's drawer has come up short, to the tune of $4,000, which was real money back in 1952. After much research and going over tapes, chief teller Vic Reisher concludes that this is not an error, and that the money must have walked out the door. He calls the police and the local bank examiners, who arrive and grill Tom for hours. When they finally allow him to call his wife to explain why he hasn't come home yet, he learns that there are two detectives rummaging through his house. The cops obviously think that Tom took the money. Their suspicions center around a strange customer who came to Tom's window that afternoon, a blonde bombshell, one who waited in Tom's line even though there were other tellers available. She leaned over, addressed Tom by his first name and whispered something to him. Tom counted out some bills and gave them to her, whereupon she quickly walked out of the bank as someone wolf-whistled behind her. The police clearly believe that Tom and the blonde were in on something together.

"A dish like that, people notice her. A real blondie. One of those tight-skirt, go-to-hell blondies... What does she have on you, boy?"

Tom explains that all she wanted was change for a $50 bill, that she did address him as "Tom" because his nameplate is in front of his teller cage, and that he had to lean forward because she spoke in a voice so low he couldn't hear her. But the cops clearly are not buying it:

"The starting place is for you to come clean, boy... A lot of nice guys get taken over the jumps by a blondie. Come on, boy. What's she got on you?"

The fact that Tom has recently been fighting with his wife and was seen in a local bar talking with two women he can't identify doesn't help matters, but the cops eventually let him return home. Once there his wife Helen listens sympathetically, demanding to hear all of the details. If Tom didn't give the money to the blonde, it had to have gone somewhere, she reasons. When all the other possibilities have been eliminated, it leaves only one improbable conclusion. Tom calls the police and asks to reenact the scene, the thief is caught and Helen gets her husband back...

"Who's the Blonde?" is an enjoyable tale, one the those stories where even though you can see the gears turning -- JDM obviously came up with a method then wrote the story around it -- it still entertains. All the minute details of the inner-workings of a bank are carefully explained, and Tom's teller cage is described in meticulous fashion, right down to the size of the holes in the wire mesh. I have to say, however, that a lot of this story was over-the-top for me. As someone who spent 30 years as a banker, and who started out as a teller, the thought of calling the police and a bank examiner for a teller shortage made me laugh out loud when I re-read it. A police detective at the bank, two detectives at Tom's house, and later on the FBI threatening to get involved seems completely unrealistic to me. If my head teller had called the police every time I had a shortage in my drawer, I'd either be in jail today or an emotional wreck! Or both! Still, in order to make the plot work, MacDonald had to bring in the police.

"Who's the Blonde?" was one of the few MacDonald stories that eventually made its way to television, as an episode of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. It was broadcast on April 26, 1955 and starred Don Taylor as Tom Weldon, Maxine Cooper as Helen, and Joi Lansing as "the blonde." The story was reprinted in the May 1957 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and most recently was included in the mystery anthology Ellery Queen's Bad Scenes: Stories from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, edited by Eleanor Sullivan in 1989. That collection is easily obtainable as a used book.

Finally, John D MacDonald fan Jimmy Buffett co-wrote and recorded a song titled "Who's the Blonde Stranger?" in 1984, but it has no relation to this story.

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