Pistorius and Hemingway’s Great Murder Mystery: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

The tragic shooting under murky circumstances of Reeva Steenkamp, the beautiful girlfriend of Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, brings to mind another famous shooting that also bore claims of both accident and murder: the killing on safari of Francis Macomber.

When one thinks of Ernest Hemingway, one rarely, if ever, thinks of him as a mystery writer.  Hem eschewed genre fiction, at least as a writer, although he was a great lover of the hardboiled detective story and enjoyed reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and the Black Mask mystery magazine. Ernesy Hemingway-Africa2    

Yet Hem wrote one the best mystery short stories ever written; a story in which the killing takes place at the very end of the plot instead of the beginning.  The story I am speaking about is “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  A story in which Macomber is shot to death by his wife during a hunting safari on the African veldt and in which the manner of his death is not in dispute.   Margot Macomber blew her husband’s head off with a Mannlicher 6.5mm hunting rifle while he was being charged by a wounded and maddened bull buffalo.  

Hemingway on safari with a lion he just brought down

Hemingway on safari with a lion he just brought down

In 1936, Hem’s marriage to his second wife, Pauline, was on the rocks and he was suffering from frequent bouts of insomnia and depression.  He spent his mornings locked away in his writing room in the house on Whitehead Street in Key West, getting rid of things by writing.  Out of this period came a series of short stories, with “The Short Happy Life” written in tandem with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”  Like “Snows,” which was a series of unwritten short stories about a dying writer, “A Short Happy Life” wraps its mystery inside the classic Hemingway tale of bravery, cowardice, lover, betrayal and death.  And as in all Hemingway stories, the dramatis personae are few in number. 

In “A Short Happy Life,” the main characters are three, a sordid triangle in sordid word and sordid deed:  Francis Macomber, a young and somewhat handsome wealthy American who has brought his wife on an African safari; Margot Macomber, Francis’s very beautiful and very promiscuous wife who has never hesitated to flaunt her extra-marital amusements before her husband, and Robert Wilson, the professional hunter, who “hunts for a certain clientele, the international, fast sporting set, where the women did not feel they were getting their money’s worth unless they shared their cot with the white hunter;” Wilson, who always carried a double cot on safari to accommodate any “windfalls” he might receive. 

The essential facts of the case are as follows: 1. Francis Macomber, an unhappy member of the idle rich has brought his unfaithful wife of eleven years, Margot, on an African safari in hopes that the trip will repair their marriage.  They have engaged professional hunter Wilson to guide them.  2. While hunting a lion, a nervous Macomber only wounds the beast and he and Wilson must go into the bush and finish the wounded animal off.  Macomber is afraid and when the lion suddenly springs up out of the grass, he panics and runs, saved only by a quick shot by Wilson.  3.  Margot is disgusted by her husband’s cowardice and on the way back to camp she gives Wilson a sensuous kiss in front of Macomber.  4.  Late that night, Margot leaves her husband’s tent and goes off to sleep with Wilson, returning later, telling her husband she was too tired to talk. 5.  The next morning Macomber is angry with both his wife and Wilson, but all three go off to hunt water buffalo.  A change overcomes Macomber, perhaps a reaction from the shame of the previous day, perhaps from the rage he feels within him.  His fear dissipates and he shoots three of the buffalo.  6.  One of the buffalo, a large bull, is wounded and highly dangerous but Macomber, no longer afraid, is anxious to finish the job.  7.  Leaving Margot in the car with one of the rifles, a Mannlicher 6.5, Wilson and Macomber go off to kill the wounded bull.  8.  When the wounded bull suddenly springs out of the bush to charge Macomber he stands his ground and aims for the kill but never gets the shot off because 9.  Margot, in what at first seems to be an attempt to protect her husband, grabs the Mannlicher and shoots at the charging buffalo, only to blow her husband’s head off.

Until now, analysis of the case has centered on the motivation of Mrs. Macomber.  Did she accidently shoot her husband in a sudden, desperate attempt to save his life, as the narrator of the story states?  Or did she suddenly realize that her psychological hold over her husband had dissipated and her marriage would soon follow and deciding that the status of rich widow was more to her liking than that of a moderately well off divorcee was more to her liking, pick up the rifle and kill him “by mistake on purpose,” as Prof. Philip Young, the chief prosecutor of this theory, once remarked?  This was the argument of the main witness, professional hunter Wilson, who asks the accused afterward, “Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.” 

From further facts in the story, here is what we know about the psychological framework of Margot leading up to the shooting of her wealthy husband.  The morning after her moonlight coupling with Wilson, she and her husband have a row over breakfast and her husband tells her that he knows she will never leave him.  She admits this and then tells him to behave himself, which further infuriates Macomber.  Later that morning, while out on the hunt, after her husband and Wilson chase down the buffalo and her husband shoots three of the animals, she sits in the car “white-faced.”

 Wilson then comments that one of the buffalo, a large bull, is still wounded and that he and Macomber will have to go into the bush to kill it.  “Then it’s going to be just like the lion,” said Margot, full of anticipation.  Anticipation of what, members of the jury?  That her husband would shoot the animal and finish the job?  That he would cut and run?  Or that the maddened buffalo would kill him, leaving her a wealthy widow?  That is for you to decide, ladies and gentleman.  As Macomber becomes more excited and happy about the day’s hunt, Margot turns morose. “I hated it,” she said bitterly. “I loathed it.” 

Macomber continues on in his joy, telling his wife that something happened to him and “I feel absolutely different.”  His wife said nothing and eyed him strangely.  That is what the narrator tells us had occurred, members of the jury.  She saw the change in Francis Macomber now.  She tries to regain the psychological upper hand over him when he keeps talking but fails. “You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,” his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure.  She was very afraid of something. 

When Macomber replies that he has, in fact, become so, she tries once more to challenge him, spitting out, “Isn’t is sort of late?” 

 “Not for me,” Macomber simply says, and in doing so, saying it all about himself, Margot and their marriage. 

As they close in on the wounded animal, Macomber and Wilson go off into the grass to kill it while Margot remains in the car with the Mannlicher, which Wilson had left behind, saying it was unnecessary because the two hunters each had their own rifle.  Macomber, looking back at the car, saw his wife, with the rifle by her side, looking at him.  He waved at her but she did not wave back.  As the wounded buffalo charges Macomber, he stands his ground, firing two shots at the beast’s nose but only shattering his horns.   As he aimed again, Margot fired the Mannlicher.  We know from the meticulous detail of the narrator that the bullet hit her husband “about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.” 

Even Wilson was impressed with the shot.  “That was a pretty thing to do,” he said to her in a toneless voice.  “He would have left you too.”  She does not deny the accusation. 

Thus, we have the theory that Margot deliberately killed her husband because she could no longer control him.  He was a new man, he had learned the code of the Hemingway hero and turned his cowardice into bravery and his new found knowledge turned him into a murder victim.  

This theory is also backed up by the conscious level of the Hemingway psyche.  When he finished the story, he drew up a list of sixteen possible titles, among them The End of a Marriage, Marriage is a Dangerous Game, and A Marriage Has Been Terminated.[i] 

But was this the real mystery in the story?  Accidental shooting or deliberate murder?  For argument’s sake we shall presume it was a murder.  Why?  Young pointed out that as far as he was concerned, the motivation was clear:  Francis Macomber, under the tutelage of Wilson, learns courage and honor and embraces the hero’s code, thereby attaining manhood.  And in attaining manhood, he regains the ithyphallic authority he had lost “and his wife, now panicky herself in her new role, must literally destroy him.”[ii] 

The deputy prosecutor of the case against Margot Macomber was the Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, who did not go as far as Young in arguing for the conviction of the widow, merely commenting that Margot shot her husband while “ostensibly” trying to keep him from being gored.[iii]  Baker also tells us that the early title Hemingway chose for the story was “The Happy Ending.” 

Young is correct in concluding that motivation, while not an element of the crime, is certainly the key to the mystery.  But just whose motivation?  For when one looks at the story through the eyes of an experienced prosecutor one sees other motives and another killer.  The motives being fear and lust.  Fear of blackmail and lust for the beautiful client.  What am I talking about?  Well, let us look at the facts through the eyes of Robert Wilson instead of Margot Macomber.  Wilson, the professional hunter who knows all about guns and who is the third corner of this sordid triangle.  Wilson who services his client’s wife for two hours while his humiliated client lies awake in an adjoining tent.   Members of the jury, let us look at his motivation to kill Francis Macomber. 

By the next morning, Macomber’s humiliation has turned into hatred and Wilson realizes that he has a big problem on his hands.    As he surveys Macomber “with cold flat eyes,” he is inclined to say “the hell with it” but they are his paying clients.  Later that morning as they drive out onto the veldt with Macomber sitting behind him in the car, he worries that Macomber might “take a notion to blow the back of my head off.” 

After they chase down three bull buffalos, allowing Macomber to get close enough to get out and shoot them, he notices the steadiness in the man as Macomber aims carefully and hits all three.  Wilson even compliments his client, telling him that it was “nice work,” obviously trying to make some amends for bedding Margot.  But now, Macomber’s hatred for him is not his only problem. 

For Wilson also has Margot to contend with.  Margot, ladies and gentlemen, who has sensed there was something wrong in using the car to chase down the buffalos before killing them. 

 “What would happen if they heard about it in Nairobi?” she asks Wilson. 

“I’d lose my licence for one thing.  Other unpleasantness,” Wilson said, taking a drink from the flask.  “I’d be out of business.”  After listening to this exchange, Macomber chimes in, telling Wilson that Margot has “something on you.”  Now on guard, Wilson eyes the couple very carefully.  And as Macomber expresses his eagerness to go into the bush after the wounded buffalo, Wilson looks at him “appraisingly.”  We can hear the bells and whistles going off inside the professional hunter’s mind as the  refusal to pay his fee, reports to the colonial game commissioners, a high-profile, messy divorce, and  being named co-respondent all parade around his head.  Something has to be done…and quickly, members of the jury, if Wilson is to prevent himself from ending up in disgrace and with no profession to fall back on.  He knows he is, as the French say, dans le merde and deep. 

Wilson, who I submit is as much a suspect as Margot Macomber, is listening very carefully as the Macombers converse with each other.  When Margot asks her husband if it isn’t a little too late to be brave and Macomber answers back not for him, Wilson knows that there is only one way he can extricate himself from the hole he has dug.   He must somehow turn the tables on them.  He sees the shock on Margot’s face as she hears Macomber’s retort about suddenly becoming brave and he knows that in her own way she is in as much trouble as he is.   He picks up the scent of fear, the scent of panic in her, just as he would pick up the spoor of a wounded and frightened animal.  An animal that will strike out in desperation to save itself.

 And what of the murder weapon? TheMannlicher 6.5 mm hunting rifle?  How did Margot Macomber come to use it to kill her husband? 

Wilson tells Macomber to use the Springfield 30-06 because he was used to it.[iv]  They’ll leave the Mannlicher in the car with Margot, he says.  Members of the jury, the prosecution will no doubt argue that this was too convoluted, too complicated and chancy, it would have been far easier for Wilson to incorrectly instruct Macomber and let the buffalo charge and gore him and be done with it.  But this would not have gotten Wilson out of the soup.  It still left Margot as a loose cannon, a wealthy loose cannon.  Wilson, who always carries a double cot with him, certainly knew the type.  An inquest would be held and the story would get out about the illegal chasing of the game by car and how the buffalo managed to kill his client with him right there.  He would be ruined anyway.  No, while Macomber was a lost cause, he had to make sure that he maintained a hold over Margot.  So with all the cunning of his profession, he just left the Mannlicher where she could pick it up and use it. 

If we continue with the premise that Wilson deliberately left the Mannlicher with the memsahib, knowing that Macomber now would never tolerate the white hunter bedding his wife, the story turns horribly diabolical.  Just look at the evidence: Wilson “did want to worry Macomber.” “they shook hands, grinning at each other.” “and he (Macomber) did not see Wilson now.” “he felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head.”  Then Wilson gets a gunbearer to witness the death scene as if it was an accident; “that was a pretty thing to do,” he said tonelessly; and then the last sentence, “That’s better,” Wilson said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.” He has her now, all to himself, for a few more days of passion, before they get fly to Nairobi. 

And at the same time Wilson has disposed of the blackmail threat by Mrs. Macomber over the chasing of the buffalo in the car. Remember what she said, members of the jury?  “What would happen if they hear about it in Nairobi?” she asks Wilson. “I’d lose my license for one thing. Other unpleasantness,” he admits to her. 

“Now she has something on you,” Macomber tells him, smiling.  

What a deliciously diabolical setup by Wilson. To the reader, leaving the Mannlicher in the car seems like an innocent act until you add up the facts backwards and forewards.  The shooting removes the threat to Wilson and gives him a few more bouts of hot sex, while poor Francis Macomber bloats up in the heat of the African plain. 

For this is now the internal Hemingway working it out and not even knowing it.  With recurrent thoughts and comments about suicide and with his marriage to Pauline just about over, he was working it out all right.  Getting Pauline to deliberately shoot him.  For unlike Young, who compared Hemingway to Macomber, the internal Hemingway was comparing himself to the professional hunter Wilson and diabolically creating a method of disposing of himself while not suffering the opprobrium of being a suicide, a coward, as he felt his own father to be. So Hemingway-Wilson got Pauline-Margot to do the job for him. 

And she did.  Yes, members of the jury, the facts of the case can lead you to only one conclusion: Margot Macomber intentionally shot her husband.  But at the subtle instigation of Wilson who had as much to lose, if not more, than she did.  And who is just as guilty of murder. 

The only question left is when the intent to kill Francis Macomber formed in Wilson’s mind.  For the purpose of establishing the elements of the crime, it does not matter, members of the jury.  The judge will instruct you that intention to commit a crime, any crime, including murder, may be formed a second before the act is committed.  But as readers, don’t you also want to know when?  Was it when he decided to leave the Mannlicher rifle with Margot?  Or before, as they drove back toward the spot of bush where the buffalo was hiding?  Or even earlier as the import of Margot’s threat settled in?  That is only something you can decide, members of the jury.  I have given you the true killer of Francis Macomber, but only you can discern when he formed his murderous scheme.


 

[i] Item 692, Hemingway collection, JFK Library, Harvard; cited in Hemingway in the 1930’s by Michael Reynolds, P. 223.

[ii] In his discussion, of the Hemingway hero and Macomber, Young drew on the work of DH Lawrence, who in an essay on The Scarlet Letter, argued that the American male lost his “ithyphallic authority” over the American female.  Ernest Hemingway, A Reconsideration, Harcourt, Brace, 1966, P. 70

[iii] Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker, Avon Book, 1980, P.363.

[iv] This was the rifle that Hemingway used in his 1934 safari and with which he killed a buffalo, Letter to Arnold Gingrich of Esquire Magazine, dated 18 January 1934 and reprinted in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, edited by Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981, P. 402-03.   Baker believed that wealthy sportsman Alfred Vanderbilt served as the model for Francis Macomber but Michael Reynolds, the definitive biographer of the writer, maintains that the Macombers were modeled after a Key West couple that were friends of the Hemingways.

When one thinks of Ernest Hemingway, one rarely, if ever, thinks of him as a mystery writer.  Hem eschewed genre fiction, at least as a writer, although he was a great lover of the hardboiled detective story and enjoyed reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and the Black Mask mystery magazine.

Yet Hem wrote one the best mystery short stories ever written; a story in which the killing takes place at the very end of the plot instead of the beginning.  The story I am speaking about is “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  A story in which Macomber is shot to death by his wife during a hunting safari on the African veldt and in which the manner of his death is not in dispute.   Margot Macomber blew her husband’s head off with a Mannlicher 6.5mm hunting rifle while he was being charged by a wounded and maddened bull buffalo. 

In 1936, Hem’s marriage to his second wife, Pauline, was on the rocks and he was suffering from frequent bouts of insomnia and depression.  He spent his mornings locked away in his writing room in the house on Whitehead Street in Key West, getting rid of things by writing.  Out of this period came a series of short stories, with “The Short Happy Life” written in tandem with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”  Like “Snows,” which was a series of unwritten short stories about a dying writer, “A Short Happy Life” wraps its mystery inside the classic Hemingway tale of bravery, cowardice, lover, betrayal and death.  And as in all Hemingway stories, the dramatis personae are few in number.

In “A Short Happy Life,” the main characters are three, a sordid triangle in sordid word and sordid deed:  Francis Macomber, a young and somewhat handsome wealthy American who has brought his wife on an African safari; Margot Macomber, Francis’s very beautiful and very promiscuous wife who has never hesitated to flaunt her extra-marital amusements before her husband, and Robert Wilson, the professional hunter, who “hunts for a certain clientele, the international, fast sporting set, where the women did not feel they were getting their money’s worth unless they shared their cot with the white hunter;” Wilson, who always carried a double cot on safari to accommodate any “windfalls” he might receive.

The essential facts of the case are as follows: 1. Francis Macomber, an unhappy member of the idle rich has brought his unfaithful wife of eleven years, Margot, on an African safari in hopes that the trip will repair their marriage.  They have engaged professional hunter Wilson to guide them.  2. While hunting a lion, a nervous Macomber only wounds the beast and he and Wilson must go into the bush and finish the wounded animal off.  Macomber is afraid and when the lion suddenly springs up out of the grass, he panics and runs, saved only by a quick shot by Wilson.  3.  Margot is disgusted by her husband’s cowardice and on the way back to camp she gives Wilson a sensuous kiss in front of Macomber.  4.  Late that night, Margot leaves her husband’s tent and goes off to sleep with Wilson, returning later, telling her husband she was too tired to talk. 5.  The next morning Macomber is angry with both his wife and Wilson, but all three go off to hunt water buffalo.  A change overcomes Macomber, perhaps a reaction from the shame of the previous day, perhaps from the rage he feels within him.  His fear dissipates and he shoots three of the buffalo.  6.  One of the buffalo, a large bull, is wounded and highly dangerous but Macomber, no longer afraid, is anxious to finish the job.  7.  Leaving Margot in the car with one of the rifles, a Mannlicher 6.5, Wilson and Macomber go off to kill the wounded bull.  8.  When the wounded bull suddenly springs out of the bush to charge Macomber he stands his ground and aims for the kill but never gets the shot off because 9.  Margot, in what at first seems to be an attempt to protect her husband, grabs the Mannlicher and shoots at the charging buffalo, only to blow her husband’s head off.

Until now, analysis of the case has centered on the motivation of Mrs. Macomber.  Did she accidently shoot her husband in a sudden, desperate attempt to save his life, as the narrator of the story states?  Or did she suddenly realize that her psychological hold over her husband had dissipated and her marriage would soon follow and deciding that the status of rich widow was more to her liking than that of a moderately well off divorcee was more to her liking, pick up the rifle and kill him “by mistake on purpose,” as Prof. Philip Young, the chief prosecutor of this theory, once remarked?  This was the argument of the main witness, professional hunter Wilson, who asks the accused afterward, “Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what they do in England.”

From further facts in the story, here is what we know about the psychological framework of Margot leading up to the shooting of her wealthy husband.  The morning after her moonlight coupling with Wilson, she and her husband have a row over breakfast and her husband tells her that he knows she will never leave him.  She admits this and then tells him to behave himself, which further infuriates Macomber.  Later that morning, while out on the hunt, after her husband and Wilson chase down the buffalo and her husband shoots three of the animals, she sits in the car “white-faced.”

Wilson then comments that one of the buffalo, a large bull, is still wounded and that he and Macomber will have to go into the bush to kill it.  “Then it’s going to be just like the lion,” said Margot, full of anticipation.  Anticipation of what, members of the jury?  That her husband would shoot the animal and finish the job?  That he would cut and run?  Or that the maddened buffalo would kill him, leaving her a wealthy widow?  That is for you to decide, ladies and gentleman.  As Macomber becomes more excited and happy about the day’s hunt, Margot turns morose. “I hated it,” she said bitterly. “I loathed it.”

Macomber continues on in his joy, telling his wife that something happened to him and “I feel absolutely different.”  His wife said nothing and eyed him strangely.  That is what the narrator tells us had occurred, members of the jury.  She saw the change in Francis Macomber now.  She tries to regain the psychological upper hand over him when he keeps talking but fails. “You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly,” his wife said contemptuously, but her contempt was not secure.  She was very afraid of something.

When Macomber replies that he has, in fact, become so, she tries once more to challenge him, spitting out, “Isn’t is sort of late?”

 “Not for me,” Macomber simply says, and in doing so, saying it all about himself, Margot and their marriage.

As they close in on the wounded animal, Macomber and Wilson go off into the grass to kill it while Margot remains in the car with the Mannlicher, which Wilson had left behind, saying it was unnecessary because the two hunters each had their own rifle.  Macomber, looking back at the car, saw his wife, with the rifle by her side, looking at him.  He waved at her but she did not wave back.  As the wounded buffalo charges Macomber, he stands his ground, firing two shots at the beast’s nose but only shattering his horns.   As he aimed again, Margot fired the Mannlicher.  We know from the meticulous detail of the narrator that the bullet hit her husband “about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull.”

Even Wilson was impressed with the shot.  “That was a pretty thing to do,” he said to her in a toneless voice.  “He would have left you too.”  She does not deny the accusation.

Thus, we have the theory that Margot deliberately killed her husband because she could no longer control him.  He was a new man, he had learned the code of the Hemingway hero and turned his cowardice into bravery and his new found knowledge turned him into a murder victim.

This theory is also backed up by the conscious level of the Hemingway psyche.  When he finished the story, he drew up a list of sixteen possible titles, among them The End of a Marriage, Marriage is a Dangerous Game, and A Marriage Has Been Terminated.[i]

But was this the real mystery in the story?  Accidental shooting or deliberate murder?  For argument’s sake we shall presume it was a murder.  Why?  Young pointed out that as far as he was concerned, the motivation was clear:  Francis Macomber, under the tutelage of Wilson, learns courage and honor and embraces the hero’s code, thereby attaining manhood.  And in attaining manhood, he regains the ithyphallic authority he had lost “and his wife, now panicky herself in her new role, must literally destroy him.”[ii]

The deputy prosecutor of the case against Margot Macomber was the Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, who did not go as far as Young in arguing for the conviction of the widow, merely commenting that Margot shot her husband while “ostensibly” trying to keep him from being gored.[iii]  Baker also tells us that the early title Hemingway chose for the story was “The Happy Ending.”

Young is correct in concluding that motivation, while not an element of the crime, is certainly the key to the mystery.  But just whose motivation?  For when one looks at the story through the eyes of an experienced prosecutor one sees other motives and another killer.  The motives being fear and lust.  Fear of blackmail and lust for the beautiful client.  What am I talking about?  Well, let us look at the facts through the eyes of Robert Wilson instead of Margot Macomber.  Wilson, the professional hunter who knows all about guns and who is the third corner of this sordid triangle.  Wilson who services his client’s wife for two hours while his humiliated client lies awake in an adjoining tent.   Members of the jury, let us look at his motivation to kill Francis Macomber.

By the next morning, Macomber’s humiliation has turned into hatred and Wilson realizes that he has a big problem on his hands.    As he surveys Macomber “with cold flat eyes,” he is inclined to say “the hell with it” but they are his paying clients.  Later that morning as they drive out onto the veldt with Macomber sitting behind him in the car, he worries that Macomber might “take a notion to blow the back of my head off.”

After they chase down three bull buffalos, allowing Macomber to get close enough to get out and shoot them, he notices the steadiness in the man as Macomber aims carefully and hits all three.  Wilson even compliments his client, telling him that it was “nice work,” obviously trying to make some amends for bedding Margot.  But now, Macomber’s hatred for him is not his only problem.

For Wilson also has Margot to contend with.  Margot, ladies and gentlemen, who has sensed there was something wrong in using the car to chase down the buffalos before killing them.

             “What would happen if they heard about it in Nairobi?” she asks Wilson.

“I’d lose my licence for one thing.  Other unpleasantness,” Wilson said, taking a drink from the flask.  “I’d be out of business.”  After listening to this exchange, Macomber chimes in, telling Wilson that Margot has “something on you.”  Now on guard, Wilson eyes the couple very carefully.  And as Macomber expresses his eagerness to go into the bush after the wounded buffalo, Wilson looks at him “appraisingly.”  We can hear the bells and whistles going off inside the professional hunter’s mind as the  refusal to pay his fee, reports to the colonial game commissioners, a high-profile, messy divorce, and  being named co-respondent all parade around his head.  Something has to be done…and quickly, members of the jury, if Wilson is to prevent himself from ending up in disgrace and with no profession to fall back on.  He knows he is, as the French say, dans le merde and deep.

Wilson, who I submit is as much a suspect as Margot Macomber, is listening very carefully as the Macombers converse with each other.  When Margot asks her husband if it isn’t a little too late to be brave and Macomber answers back not for him, Wilson knows that there is only one way he can extricate himself from the hole he has dug.   He must somehow turn the tables on them.  He sees the shock on Margot’s face as she hears Macomber’s retort about suddenly becoming brave and he knows that in her own way she is in as much trouble as he is.   He picks up the scent of fear, the scent of panic in her, just as he would pick up the spoor of a wounded and frightened animal.  An animal that will strike out in desperation to save itself.

And what of the murder weapon? TheMannlicher 6.5 mm hunting rifle?  How did Margot Macomber come to use it to kill her husband?

Wilson tells Macomber to use the Springfield 30-06 because he was used to it.[iv]  They’ll leave the Mannlicher in the car with Margot, he says.  Members of the jury, the prosecution will no doubt argue that this was too convoluted, too complicated and chancy, it would have been far easier for Wilson to incorrectly instruct Macomber and let the buffalo charge and gore him and be done with it.  But this would not have gotten Wilson out of the soup.  It still left Margot as a loose cannon, a wealthy loose cannon.  Wilson, who always carries a double cot with him, certainly knew the type.  An inquest would be held and the story would get out about the illegal chasing of the game by car and how the buffalo managed to kill his client with him right there.  He would be ruined anyway.  No, while Macomber was a lost cause, he had to make sure that he maintained a hold over Margot.  So with all the cunning of his profession, he just left the Mannlicher where she could pick it up and use it.

If we continue with the premise that Wilson deliberately left the Mannlicher with the memsahib, knowing that Macomber now would never tolerate the white hunter bedding his wife, the story turns horribly diabolical.  Just look at the evidence: Wilson “did want to worry Macomber.” “they shook hands, grinning at each other.” “and he (Macomber) did not see Wilson now.” “he felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head.”  Then Wilson gets a gunbearer to witness the death scene as if it was an accident; “that was a pretty thing to do,” he said tonelessly; and then the last sentence, “That’s better,” Wilson said. “Please is much better. Now I’ll stop.” He has her now, all to himself, for a few more days of passion, before they get fly to Nairobi.

And at the same time Wilson has disposed of the blackmail threat by Mrs. Macomber over the chasing of the buffalo in the car. Remember what she said, members of the jury?  “What would happen if they hear about it in Nairobi?” she asks Wilson. “I’d lose my license for one thing. Other unpleasantness,” he admits to her.

“Now she has something on you,” Macomber tells him, smiling.

What a deliciously diabolical setup by Wilson. To the reader, leaving the Mannlicher in the car seems like an innocent act until you add up the facts backwards and forewards.  The shooting removes the threat to Wilson and gives him a few more bouts of hot sex, while poor Francis Macomber bloats up in the heat of the African plain.

For this is now the internal Hemingway working it out and not even knowing it.  With recurrent thoughts and comments about suicide and with his marriage to Pauline just about over, he was working it out all right.  Getting Pauline to deliberately shoot him.  For unlike Young, who compared Hemingway to Macomber, the internal Hemingway was comparing himself to the professional hunter Wilson and diabolically creating a method of disposing of himself while not suffering the opprobrium of being a suicide, a coward, as he felt his own father to be. So Hemingway-Wilson got Pauline-Margot to do the job for him.

And she did.  Yes, members of the jury, the facts of the case can lead you to only one conclusion: Margot Macomber intentionally shot her husband.  But at the subtle instigation of Wilson who had as much to lose, if not more, than she did.  And who is just as guilty of murder.

The  only question left is when the intent to kill Francis Macomber formed in Wilson’s mind.  For the purpose of establishing the elements of the crime, it does not matter, members of the jury.  The judge will instruct you that intention to commit a crime, any crime, including murder, may be formed a second before the act is committed.  But as readers, don’t you also want to know when?  Was it when he decided to leave the Mannlicher rifle with Margot?  Or before, as they drove back toward the spot of bush where the buffalo was hiding?  Or even earlier as the import of Margot’s threat settled in?  That is only something you can decide, members of the jury.  I have given you the true killer of Francis Macomber, but only you can discern when he formed his murderous scheme.



[i] Item 692, Hemingway collection, JFK Library, Harvard; cited in Hemingway in the 1930’s by Michael Reynolds, P. 223.

[ii] In his discussion, of the Hemingway hero and Macomber, Young drew on the work of DH Lawrence, who in an essay on The Scarlet Letter, argued that the American male lost his “ithyphallic authority” over the American female.  Ernest Hemingway, A Reconsideration, Harcourt, Brace, 1966, P. 70

[iii] Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker, Avon Book, 1980, P.363.

[iv] This was the rifle that Hemingway used in his 1934 safari and with which he killed a buffalo, Letter to Arnold Gingrich of Esquire Magazine, dated 18 January 1934 and reprinted in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters, edited by Carlos Baker, Granada, 1981, P. 402-03.   Baker believed that wealthy sportsman Alfred Vanderbilt served as the model for Francis Macomber but Michael Reynolds, the definitive biographer of the writer, maintains that the Macombers were modeled after a Key West couple that were friends of the Hemingways.

 

Comments

  1. richard wilburn says

    I wrote a paper on this 45 years ago, and I thought it was about a woman with multiple personal disorder.

  2. richard wilburn says

    45 years ago I wrote a paper that the woman who her husband had multiple personality comlex. As to the woman, being referred to , Mrs. Macomber, Margot, or Margaret. Guess I missed the theme.

  3. Very nice analysis!

Speak Your Mind

*