Regular readers will perhaps know that I am not the world’s greatest fan of Gardner and his famous lawyer/sleuth Perry Mason. However, I decided to return to him when I came across this novel in my local Oxfam for a mere 99p. This book is the first novel in Gardner’s Gramps Wiggins series and Wiggins is an unconventional amateur sleuth, who is certainly a handful for his granddaughter and her husband, a district attorney.
But before I get onto the story itself I found the foreword to this book quite intriguing, with Gardner discussing the writing aims he had for the story:
‘As one who has had intimate contact with several murders, who has also done some writing and some reading, I tried to find out’ why in the case of real life murders ‘that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but is much more exciting.’
Consequently he tried to construct his story with a greater sense of verisimilitude. He goes on to write that:
‘Our so-called ‘murder mysteries’ are escape fiction, and have become highly standardised through too much usage. Attempts to ‘create suspense,’ ‘plant’ clues, and above all, to ‘surprise the reader,’ have robbed the reader of far more than they have given him in return. In this book events are permitted to stream across the page in just about the way they would have happened in real life. Such clues as the reader will find are the ones that are there naturally. And if the reader isn’t ‘surprised’ in the conventional manner by having the characters who seem painted the blackest with the brush of guilt turn out to be the most innocent, while the real murderer is the one who has seemed ‘as pure as the driven snow,’ I hope he will at least be entertained.’
I think a key consequence of this writing aim is that in the first 90 pages of the book, there is far less police interviewing, with the district attorney, Frank Duryea appearing very briefly. Instead we get to see what the suspect characters are up to and how they are responding to the double murder. The investigation is much more prominent in the second half of the book, though thankfully there is not much of a legal milieu.
Back to the story though. Ted Shale a travelling paper salesman keen to do business with Adison Stearne, plans to introduce himself when Stearne disembarks from his yacht. However a woman collapsing over the side of said yacht soon changes his ideas, as he and another woman off a nearby yacht come to the rescue. On searching the yacht Ted makes the unpleasant discovery of a double murder; the victims being Addison Stearne and his ex-secretary Arthur Right. Frank gets called into investigate the case, being lumbered with a less than active sheriff. Seeing events from the suspect characters viewpoints first, gives the story a more natural feel to and it also means we get to witness the subsequent suspicious activity they get up to. The woman who was rescued for instance seems awfully keen to make friends with her rescuers, even commandeering the other woman’s yacht. Yet even her rescuers are not all they seem to be. To make the case even more complicated there is the issue of the will, with it becoming crucial to figure out who died first and there is also a business deal which several characters are keen to take advantage of.
Unlike other Gardner novels I have read, this was one I definitely liked and could engage with. The pace is well achieved and the reader does not get bogged down in lengthy trials. The central crime is a tricky puzzle, with new evidence coming in gradually but consistently. After all it doesn’t help when so many characters have their own agendas and are not above manufacturing evidence. Of course Gramps Wiggins is a key reason for me enjoying this book. Wiggins is not the easiest of relations, insisting on sleeping in his scruffy trailer on the driveway of the Duryea house. He is a force of nature, totally unpredictable and also a mystery addict. More importantly for the reader perhaps he provides an essential note of comedy to the story as a whole and his incurable enthusiasm for sleuthing is endearing. I think in this story I could also appreciate Gardner’s style more as there are a number of good one liners. This sentence in particular stood out for from Frank’s wife: ‘I’m all dressed up. My nose is powdered, my lipstick applied carefully, and I’m wearing a hat that looks like a cross between last year’s bird nest and a flower pot that’s been stepped on by an elephant.’ However I will warn readers of a sensitive disposition that the ending does include the disturbing mental image of an elderly man in a lady’s swimming costume. I’ll say no more…
Mental afflictions aside this is a strong opening novel in the Wiggins series and I feel I could definitely read more of them. Alas there is only one more in the series: The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943), which Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has recently reviewed.