Originally published in 1953
The Lane Fleming collection of early pistols and revolvers was one of the best in the country. When Fleming was found dead on the floor of his locked gunroom, a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver in his hand, the coroner’s verdict was “death by accident.” But Gladys Fleming had her doubts. Enough at any rate to engage Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand—better known just as Jeff—private detective and a pistol-collector himself, to catalogue, appraise, and negotiate the sale of her late husband’s collection.
There were a number of people who had wanted the collection. The question was: had anyone wanted it badly enough to kill Fleming? And if so, how had he done it?
Earlier this week I found myself caught in a tricky situation where I found myself with time to read but without any of the books I was working on to hand. This problem called for a quick and fast read and so I turned to Project Gutenberg to find something I could devour in a couple of hours to take my mind off other things. This was the book I stumbled upon.
Murder in the Gunroom is apparently the only mystery novel by H. Beam Piper, a writer best known as an author of science fiction. Blending detective fiction structure with a pulpy style (including its resolution), the book opens with Colonel Jefferson Davis Rand, a private detective, being approached by a widow who is seeking assistance in valuing her husband’s enormous collection of antique pistols and revolvers for sale. What he is not commissioned to do directly, yet clearly underlies the request, is to discretely look into the strange circumstances of her husband’s death.
Lane Fleming was found dead in his gunroom having apparently accidentally discharged a loaded antique pistol while cleaning it. It seems inconceivable that a man who was an authority on firearms could have failed to notice that the weapon was loaded making the coroner’s verdict of accidental death highly suspect. Either it was suicide, though there seems to have been no cause for that, or else it was murder.
Given that many of the reviews of this book that I have read hinge on the author’s enthusiasm for firearms and the passages in the book that discuss them I feel that I ought to start by commenting on this aspect of the book. I am not in any way a gun enthusiast so I can understand finding this material unappealing. I would point out though that the reader does not need to have any knowledge of guns whatsoever to understand the key points in this mystery. That material really only serves as background, mostly consisting of name checks for particular items within the collection. The mystery itself requires no technical knowledge of firearms at all and I found that my lack of interest in guns was no more of an impediment to enjoying this book than my lack of interest in bridge is to Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table (which is a far more technically-demanding work).
Piper’s decision to open with the conversation in which Rand is hired is a solid one, in part because it enables him to condense a lot of the key points of interest into just a short conversation. More importantly though it provides us with opportunities to see Rand’s perception and reasoning at work. Take the indirect way he is hired to work this case: there is never any conversation in which the widow expresses any doubt that the death was an accident but Rand’s reasoning that she must intend for him to look into it is clear and logical. Similarly in some of the early conversations he has with the family’s lawyer and members of the household we see how he uses tact and cunning to provide exactly the right arguments that will gain him the access he needs while minimizing their suspicions about his activities.
Rand is a clever and insightful detective but there are also certainly some pulpy elements to his characterization. I was particularly struck by the statement in his initial description where we are told ‘women instinctively suspected that he would make a most satisfying lover’ and while we don’t see much more of that side of the character in this book, there are a couple of action scenes including a shootout near the end that emphasize his toughness and own skill with a firearm.
Before we can get to that shootout however Rand will need to conduct an investigation and question both members of the deceased’s household and several prominent people within the local community. I did find it interesting, given that this first murder was not a crime that required any great deal of physical strength, that the women in the household never come under any scrutiny as possible killers although they do feature frequently in the story. Instead Rand settles on two possible areas for a motive – either something to do with his business or his gun collection.
While it may appear to be limiting to restrict the investigation to just two broad areas of motive, there are several distinct angles within each of those ideas, several of which I found quite interesting. Further interest and complications are added with the introduction of a second and much clearer case of murder that takes place relatively early in the novel.
In terms of the characterizations of the suspects, each have distinct personalities and roles within the story which makes it easy to tell them apart. Piper does a solid job of setting up several credible alternative murderers for the reader to consider and while I think the puzzle is not the most complex I have ever encountered, I think the solution is fair and clued effectively.
Overall I enjoyed Murder in the Gunroom more than I think I would have expected had you described the book’s central elements to me. It is not particularly challenging, nor does it have many standout features but nor does it possess any significant flaws. It is simply a pretty solid detective story and, in these stressful times, that was exactly what I wanted.
The Verdict: No standout elements but no significant flaws either. A competent, pulpy detective story.