Jack Finney’s third story to see print in 1956 was the outstanding suspense tale, ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ which appeared in the October 26, 1956 issue of Collier’s. This was to be Jack Finney’s last story in Collier’s, where his first published work had appeared in 1947. The magazine, which had been founded in 1888 and had reached a circulation of 2,500,000 during World War Two, had begun to decrease in popularity after the war and ceased publishing on December 16, 1956, less than two months after ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ was published (‘‘Collier’s Weekly’’ and ‘‘Crowell-Collier’’).
Unlike ‘‘Second Chance,’’ ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ is narrated by a third person, omniscient narrator, who tells the story of Tom Benecke, a resident of an apartment on the eleventh floor of a building in New York City. His wife Clare leaves to go to the movies by herself as he stays home to type a memo for his job. A sheet of paper suddenly flies out the window and sticks onto the wall by the ledge outside. On the sheet is all of the research that Tom has done to support ‘‘his idea for a new grocery store display method’’; Tom thinks, ‘‘of all the papers on his desk, why did it have to be this one in particular!’’
Suspense begins to build as Tom climbs out onto the narrow ledge to retrieve the sheet of paper. He slides along, eleven stories above Lexington Avenue, panics when he looks down, and nearly falls, his body swaying ‘‘outward to the knife edge of balance.’’ After being frozen with fear, he begins to edge back along the ledge to his apartment window, but in the process of breaking another near fall he accidentally shuts the window.
Unable to break the glass and terrified by the knowledge that his wife will not be home for hours, he tries to send signals by dropping first flaming letters and then coins to the street below, but his attempts go unnoticed on the busy streets of New York. Finally, the only thing left in his pockets is the sheet of paper he had climbed out on the ledge to retrieve. He thinks of falling to his death and ‘‘[a]ll they’d find in his pockets would be the yellow sheet. Contents of the dead man’s pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations— incomprehensible.’’
Tom thus comes to realize that he has put his life in jeopardy for something worthless. He laments his wasted life, regretting all of the nights he stayed home working while his wife went out and all of the hours he’d spent alone. He resolves to make one final attempt to break the glass, knowing that if he fails the strength of the blow will cause him to fall to his death. As he puts his all into the blow, he speaks his wife’s name and feels himself falling through the broken window into the safety of his apartment.
He puts the sheet of paper on his desk and opens the front door ‘‘to go find his wife.’’ Blown by a draft from the hallway, the sheet flies out of the window again, but this time, ‘‘Tom Benecke burst into laughter and then closed the door behind him.’’ The door that closes at the end of ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ is clearly both a literal and a figurative one, representing the end of a wasted life and the beginning of one that promises to have more meaning. One can read into this a parallel to Jack Finney’s decision in the late 1940s to leave behind his life as an advertising man in New York City and move to California to devote his time to writing.
Stephen King allegedly wrote his story ‘‘The Ledge’’ as an homage to Finney’s ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ (Newman 197–98), and the latter stands as one of Jack Finney’s most suspenseful short stories.
Jack Finney also published a one-act play in 1956 entitled Telephone Roulette, which is discussed in chapter seventeen.
Three short stories were published in Good Housekeeping in 1957; two were romantic comedies and none were chosen to be reprinted in either of Jack Finney’s subsequent short story collections. . . .
Between 1947 and 1957, Jack Finney published thirty-eight short stories, two serialized novels that were later expanded into book form, and a novella. It was clearly time for some of his best stories to be collected in book form and, in 1957, his first collection of short stories, The Third Level, was published. It collected eleven stories that had been published before and added ‘‘A Dash of Spring,’’ for which no prior publication source has been found.
The stories chosen for this collection were ‘‘The Third Level,’’ ‘‘Such Interesting Neighbors,’’ ‘‘I’m Scared,’’ ‘‘Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar,’’ ‘‘Of Missing Persons,’’ ‘‘Something in a Cloud,’’ ‘‘There Is a Tide,’’ ‘‘Behind the News,’’ ‘‘Quit Zoomin’ Those Hands Through the Air,’’ ‘‘A Dash of Spring,’’ ‘‘Second Chance,’’ and ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket.’’ The back cover copy on the 1959 paperback edition of The Third Level sets forth the collection’s theme: ‘‘Their subject is time . . . But time on a new level, a diverting, sometimes frightening level, where the Past, the Present, and the Future are all joined. . . . ’’ While not exactly true of all of the stories in The Third Level, this blurb shows that time travel tales were becoming a hallmark of Jack Finney’s fiction. . . .
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Jack Seabrook, ‘‘More Short Stories and the Third Level,’’ in Stealing Through Time on the Writings of Jack Finney, McFarland & Company, 2006, pp. 45–8