HOW THE STORY CAME TO BE WRITTEN:
Like most intelligent men and women, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoys a good detective or mystery story. But good ones are hard to find and no one knows this better than the President.
I remember that we talked of mystery stories some years ago at the Executive Mansion in Albany when Roosevelt was Governor of New York.
"A good detective story," he remarked at that time, is the answer to Lowell's question, 'What is so rare as a day in June?' Hundreds of such novels are published every year, but only a few are really worth the time and attention of intelligent readers. Even in the good ones there is often a sameness. Some one finds the corpse and then the detective tracks down the murderer. I do not believe that such stories have to follow an inevitable pattern or formula."
More than once in the years that followed, the President and I talked about detective stories, talked enthusiastically but critically, as only addicts can discuss a favorite weakness. We were agreed that in their best form they appealed to the detective instinct in us all: they were a literary game, an intellectual recreation less purely intellectual than chess but more dramatic and exciting.
One day, when President Roosevelt had again voiced his opinion about the lack of novelty in mystery stories, I asked him if he had ever thought of writing one himself. He chuckled and smiled with a slight trace of embarrassment.
"To tell you the truth," he confessed, "I have often thought about it. In fact I have carried the plot for a mystery in my mind for years."
"Then why haven't you written it?" was my natural question. "You seem to find the time for everything else."
"Well, I haven't had the time for that," he protested. "But there's another and even more important reason — I can't find the solution to my own plot! And I've never found any one else who could solve it, either."
"I'd like to hear it," I said rashly.
His look and his grin were challenging, daring me in advance.
"All right!" he exclaimed. "You brought it on yourself. Here in a nutshell is the idea. The principal character in my story is a man of considerable wealth. Perhaps he has six or seven million dollars tied up, as such fortunes naturally are, in a variety of investments — stocks, bonds, and real estate. My millionaire is not an old man — just over forty and wise enough to feel that his life is only beginning. But he's tired, fed up with his surroundings and habits. Perhaps, too, the sameness of his middle-aged routine has begun to wear him down. Furthermore, he is disheartened at the hollowness of all the superficial friendship surrounding him. The men at the club smile and slap him on the back but they go away to do him in the eye. Finally he has an ambition, a dream.
"So, in the trite old expression of another generation, he would like 'to get away from it all.'
"Only in this case there is a difference — he would like also to get away with it all.
"Yes, my man plans to disappear. His purpose in vanishing from the scene in which he has played an important and successful part is twofold. First, he wants to find a new world for himself, one in which he will no longer be bored. He wants to start life afresh — he's finished with his present career because he feels he has exhausted its possibilities. Second, and equally important, that dream he has — he would like to make a certain experiment in some small city where, in his new identity, he will not be recognized. To carry out this laboratory experiment, which if successful would become nation-wide and benefit all the people, he will need five million dollars. The dream will cost money, you see, and moreover he feels that he has a right to live well and enjoy, in his new environment, the fruits of his labors in the old. In other words, he wants to vanish — but he wants his money with him when he goes.
"Now, this man has an estate of six or seven million dollars. If he leaves a million or so behind him he will have made ample provision for his wife and the others dependent on him. That ought to be easy. But it's not — the problem is not so simple as it seems.
"How can a man disappear with five million dollars in any negotiable form and not be traced?
"For years I have tried to find the answer to that problem. In every method suggested I have been able to find a flaw. The more you consider the question, the more difficult it becomes. Now — can you tell me how it can be done?"
At first I, too, thought it would be easy. I suggested one plan and the President dismissed it. I advanced another; he punctured it. I tried a third and he dynamited it. It was not until some time afterward that I hit upon the plan which Liberty herewith offers its readers.
"Suppose," said to the President one evening, "that we were to ask several leading story writers of the United Stales to solve this problem — S. S. Van Dine, Rupert Hughes, and other names of equal distinction. Why could they not all collaborate on a mystery story in which your problem is dramatized in the person of a man faced with this predicament? I believe that the problem could be solved. I believe these men and women are smart enough to solve it. And even if they can't, I believe the readers of Liberty can."
The President's famous joyous laugh resounded. "That would be fun!" he exclaimed. "Go ahead. The idea is yours — and theirs. See what you can all do with it."
What I did was to prepare an elaborate synopsis of the idea, building on that central theme. This synopsis was not shown to the President. I then took this outline to six successful American authors and asked them, if they cared to tackle it. With one exception, they were not told that President Roosevelt was in any way connected with it. Most of them will not know it until they see a copy of this issue of Liberty. They attacked the subject professionally, dealing with a story plot with no concern as to its origin. The fact that they all liked the story at once is a tribute to the vitality and appeal of the President's basic idea.
What these leading mystery and detective and other story writers of the United States have done with it begins in Liberty today. Here is the first thrilling installment, written by Rupert Hughes; and next week you will find the exciting story carried on by Samuel Hopkins Adams. In the four issues that follow, Anthony Abbot, Rita Weiman, S. S. Van Dine, and John Erskine will continue the President's plot through to a brilliant conclusion.
Watch and decide for yourself if you think it is a successful conclusion.
If you feel they have failed, there is still a chance for you to try. For we are inviting you, too, to join in this fascinating mystery. Every man, woman, and child is urged to try to solve this problem. If you had five million dollars and wanted to disappear and take your money with you so that no one could ever trace you, how would you do it?
For the best solution of this problem Liberty will award a prize of $500; $250 for the second best; and five prizes of $100 each for the five next best.
The judges will be the editorial staff of the magazine. Their decisions will be final.
And finally, in appreciation of the fact that we are using without recompense a plot which was originated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we are, without the knowledge or consent of the President, turning over any or all moving-picture and book-publication rights to the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, Inc., to help carry on the great work inaugurated by the President for the alleviation of infantile paralysis.
FULTON OURSLER, Editor of Liberty
PART ONE — ILKA, THE TEMPTRESS
By RUPERT HUGHES
A huge Atlantic roller bore Jim Blake far up on the beach that windy morning. On the sand it spilled and maltreated him until, panting and snorting, he thwarted its attempts to drag him back for another bout and floundered into safety. He loved this tussle with the ocean. It helped to keep his body firm and hard in spite of good living and his forty-three years. As he rubbed himself red with the towel which was his sole equipment, he stared up at the great house overlooking the Southampton cliff. His home! How much would he really care, he reflected, if the sand upon which it was built sifted away and brought it down in ruins? His whole life, he had begun to suspect, was built upon sands, to be sure; seven million dollars' worth.After a sleepless night Jim was still trying to decide with himself what he must do about his wife. At any cost, he privately resolved not to have another quarrel with her — not even though Ilka had been out all night, was not home yet, and would likely reappear any minute now.
In a lofty Russian temper, Ilka had left Blaketon on the previous evening, after one of those family rows which were becoming more and more frequent between them, saying that she might be home for breakfast or she might not, as there was a round of parties to be concluded with an early morning "skullbuster" at the Kitsons'.
Their marriage was going from bad to worse.
Publication Date: November 15, 1935