Friday, September 30, 2016
Murder in the Gunroom by H. Beam Piper
For the ballistically inclined
From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, H. Beam Piper was a prolific author of science fiction. Among his dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas of time travel and space politics, Piper wrote one mystery novel, Murder in the Gunroom, published in 1953. Piper was a firearms enthusiast, and he uses the mystery format to indulge his interest in that area. As such, the book will primarily appeal to those who share his fascination with the history of guns, but even those who can’t tell a butt from a barrel will still recognize this as a competently written and suitably perplexing murder mystery.
Lane Fleming, founder and president of the Premix Foods corporation, has died of a gunshot wound. Fleming was a collector of historic firearms who amassed one of the best collections in the nation. One night in his gunroom, while cleaning one of his newly acquired weapons, Fleming gets a bullet in the forehead. The shooting is judged to be an accident, but would a firearms expert make such a fatal mistake? Some speculate that the death was a suicide, but such rumors are hushed in order to keep the company stock from falling. Concerned about the distribution of her husband’s estate, the widowed Mrs. Fleming hires Jefferson Davis Rand to assess the value of her husband’s firearms and negotiate a sale of the gun collection that will be advantageous to his heirs. In addition to being a gun expert, Rand is also a private detective, and although he was not hired in the capacity of sleuth, he can’t help noticing indications that Mr. Fleming’s death may have been a murder.
Piper skillfully constructs this mystery narrative with plenty of twists and turns. To its detriment, it may be too intricate. Piper offers the reader a lot of suspects, whom Rand spends much time diligently interrogating. Piper doesn’t do enough to memorably distinguish all the characters from one another, however, which creates more disorienting confusion than mysterious puzzlement. While Piper keeps the reader fed on a steady diet of bread-crumb revelations, there’s no action scenes to alleviate the tedium of the questioning. Instead, there is a lot of detail about a merger between two processed food companies, and, as is to be expected, much ado about guns.
If this mystery had been about a collection of paintings, archaeological artifacts, or even rare gems and minerals, I probably would have found it fascinating. It is a book about guns, however, and Piper goes into a level of detail that assumes a fair amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. He obviously loves his subject, and the book is aimed at others who share his passion. When he describes Fleming’s gun collection, he’s both showing off his expert knowledge and sharing his private wish list. As a novice on the subject myself, I couldn’t tell a flintlock from a wheel lock, much less a Leech & Rigdon from a Griswold & Grier.
Piper won’t go down in literary history as the next Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but he is a pretty good mystery writer. The specificity in which he goes into his favorite subject, however, limits his potential audience. If you’re nuts about historic guns, this is the book for you. If you’re just a curious fan of Piper’s science fiction, reading this mystery won’t be a complete waste of your time, but don’t expect to be thrilled by it.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to Amazon.com and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.