I’m back this week again with H. Beam Piper, this time a locked room murder mystery featuring private eye “Colonel” Jefferson Davis Rand. He has a law degree, though he’d never practiced, going into the FBI instead for a few years before opening his agency. MURDER IN THE GUNROOM was published in 1954 and was his only mystery/crime novel.
Jeff Rand didn’t want to take the job Gladys Fleming offered him. An attractive blond, she wanted him to evaluate her late husband’s antique gun collection, some 2500 pieces, assign a value, and get them sold. It would require a lot of his personal attention, not something he could put off on one of his employees. You see, he was an expert himself, having a small collection of his own, and had written a number of articles for gun magazines.
Lane Fleming’s death had been ruled an accident, killed while cleaning a new purchase, an old Civil War percussion pistol. He was found across a bench, gun in hand, in the locked gunroom.
Offers had already been made. Ten thousand by a man named Arnold Rivers, a gun dealer Rand was familiar with and knew to be a bit “crooked.” A conglomerate of collectors wanted to pool their money and split the collection. So he named a high price for his services, five thousand, figuring she would turn him down. She didn’t bat an eye, accepting even though she would only get a third of the proceeds. Two daughters by his late first wife shared the estate with her.
This told Rand something. She didn’t really believe his death was an accident, though she wouldn’t come right out and say it. The description also told Rand that she might right. An expert like Fleming wouldn’t make the mistake of missing a loaded weapon that he’d cleaned. When he brought it in, it was dirt covered, rust encrusted, and when the body was found, the widow remembered it as being clean.
There were plenty of suspects. Both daughters’ husbands were at the residence at the time, as well as one of the daughters, the widow, and the butler. The second daughter had gone out for a drive. They all lived in the mansion.
There was plenty of motive as well. Fleming owned fifty-two percent of the voting stock of Premix, Incorporated, a family business he’d built up from his father’s modest start. They made pancake flour, as well as ice-cream and pudding mixes. They were being courted for merger by a much larger company, a deal that would increase thier stock value four-fold.
Fleming wasn’t interested, worrying that new management might get rid of a lot of the old employees that he felt a loyalty to protect. Besides, he didn’t need the money. The company did well enough on it’s own.
On the other side were the two daughters and their husbands, one who ran the business end and the other a chemist in charge of production. The two daughters hated each other as well.
Finally, gun dealer Arnold Rivers was on the verge of being sued by Fleming for fraud over a couple of counterfeit antique pistols. Already with a shady reputation, the lawsuit would likely kill his business.
Rand moves into the mansion temporarily to begin the process of evaluating the collection and solving the murder. As he looks over the guns, he notices something odd. There’s a lot of junk sprinkled throughout the more valuable pieces(stuff an expert like Fleming would never allow in the house) and some, he’d seen the set himself two years before, of the guns he’d remembered were no longer there. Someone, since Fleming’s death, had been looting the best pieces and replacing them with cheap guns to cover the holes in the set. Also, the ledger that held the catalog of the collection was missing.
The murderer? Or someone else?
Then, Rand finds one of the suspects dead, clubbed in the jaw with a German rifle and bayoneted three times, left pinned to the floor by said bayonet. An angry murder.
I liked this one and would have liked to have seen more of character Jefferson Davis Rand. Piper infuses the book with his own knowledge of guns, being a collector himself, and later committed suicide with one of his guns, having just gone through a divorce and believing his career on the ropes. It was said he laid out a tarp before, leaving a note saying he didn’t want to leave a mess for someone else to clean up.
A sorely missed author.