Murder in the Gunroom

Review: Murder in the Gunroom, H. Beam Piper, 1953.

Piper begin writing at the age of 16 in 1920. At least as early as 1927, he was trying to sell gangster stories to the pulps, and, according to his friend and would-be biographer Mike Knerr, he wanted to be an historical novelist and mystery writer more than a science fiction writer. 

This novel was not a success. John F. Carr, in his Typewriter Killer, says

The book earned $750.00 (minus a 10% agent’s cut to Fred Pohl) for a total of $675.00 in Piper’s pocket! Using an inflation calculator, the $675.00 is the equivalent of $5,933.00 in 2014 dollars. There is no further mention of any royalties so it’s doubtful the book ever earned out its meager advance; although, the amount was typical of the time for a ‘new’ mystery author. In retrospect, even after sixty plus years of inflation, $750.00 was a piddling sum for a book involving years of labor and at least four different rewrites. 

Yet, in his resolutely unprofessional way, Piper worked on two sequels (Murder in the Conference Room and Murder Frozen Over) until December 1957. They would never be published nor would any of his other mysteries.

Knerr says of Piper’s lack of success selling his mystery novels: 

Beam’s mystery novels were as meticulously planned as anything he had ever written, but the publishers and the public were not much interested in them. Perhaps there was too much of the ‘Victorian’ in them at a time when readers wanted Mickey Spillane, Richard Prather or Fredrick Brown.

As is often noted in reference to this novel, it is mostly interesting to science fiction readers for one of the characters, Pierre’s, description of his work as a science fiction author. His remarks seem relevant to Piper and his Paratime series:

‘I do a lot of stories for the pulps . . . Space-Trails, and Other Worlds, and Wonder-Stories; mags like that. Most of it’s standardized formula-stuff; what’s known to the trade as space-operas. My best stuff goes to Astonishing. Parenthetically, you mustn’t judge any of these magazines by their names. It seems to be a convention to use hyperbolic names for science-fiction magazines; a heritage from what might be called an earlier and ruder day. What I do for Astonishing is really hard work, and I enjoy it. I’m working now on one for them, based on J. W. Dunne’s time-theories, if you know what they are.’

‘I think so,’ Rand said. ‘Polydimensional time, isn’t it? Based on an effect Dunne observed and described— dreams obviously related to some waking event, but preceding rather than following the event to which they are related. I read Dunne’s Experiment with Time some years before the war, and once, when I had nothing better to do, I recorded dreams for about a month. I got a few doubtful-to-fair examples, and two unmistakable Dunne-Effect dreams. I never got anything that would help me pick a race-winner or spot a rise in the stock market, though.’

‘Well, you know, there’s a case on record of a man who had a dream of hearing a radio narration of the English Derby of 1933, including the announcement that Hyperion had won, which he did,’ Pierre said. ‘The dream was six hours before the race, and tallied very closely with the phraseology used by the radio narrator. Here.’ He picked up a copy of Tyrrell’s Science and Psychical Phenomena and leafed through it.

‘Did this fellow cash in on it?’ Rand asked.

’No. He was a Quaker, and violently opposed to betting. Here.’ He handed the book to Rand. ‘Case Twelve.’

Rand sat down on the edge of the desk, and read the section indicated, about three pages in length.

’Well, I’ll be damned!’ he said, as he finished. The idea of anybody passing up a chance like that to enrich himself literally smote him to the vitals. ‘I see the British Society for Psychical Research checked that case, and got verification from a couple of independent witnesses. If the S.P.R. vouches for a story, it must be the McCoy; they’re the toughest-minded gang of confirmed skeptics anywhere in Christendom. They take an attitude toward evidence that might be advantageously copied by most of the district attorneys I’ve met, the one in this county being no exception.… What’s this story you’re working on?’

‘Oh, it’s based on Dunne’s precognition theories, plus a few ideas of my own, plus a theory of alternate lines of time-sequence for alternate probabilities,’ Pierre said.”

Jeff Rand is the detective of the novel. Besides detective work, he also provides security services. He’s also a noted gun collector, lawyer, and military officer. The world of antique firearm collecting and its attendant dealers and forgers was the element I found most interesting. It was a world Piper knew well.

Rand is hired by Gladys Fleming to inventory and appraise her late husband Lane’s antique firearms collection. Lane died under mysterious circumstances. Even though he was well acquainted with firearms and collecting them, he allegedly died while cleaning a “Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver” that he didn’t realize was loaded. Rand quickly learns that what Fleming tacitly wants him to do is investigate that death. Rand doesn’t think Fleming, a meticulous man when it came to cleaning his guns, would have made such a mistake.

The death was in sort of a locked gunroom in the large Fleming house, and Rand goes there to meet the prime suspects. Rand’s official job is to convince the heirs how best to sell Lane’s collection.

There’s Gladys’ step-daughters, Nelda Varcek and Geraldine Dunmore. They habitually bicker. Geraldine is married to a chemist, Anton, who works at the Flemings’ food processing plant. He hates guns. Geraldine is often drunk and flirts with Rand. Nelda Dunmore is married to Fred who supervises the plant. There is also family attorney Goode who lives nearby. We learn that there was some dispute between Lane and Fred about accepting an offer to sell the plant. 

We also get many other characters: Rand’s assistants, numerous acquaintances of his (mostly gun collectors), lawyers, shady dealers and forgers of antique guns, policemen, and the butler. Rand’s murder will be attempted too. There will be more bodies along the way as well as attempts at stock manipulation. 

Until nearly the final reveal, I didn’t suspect the Lane’s killer.

The other point of science fictional interest is that Rand is a fan of General Semantics and claims it helps in his investigation. He says, to Pierre the sf writer, about Korzybski’s Science and Sanity

“I first read it in the 1933 edition, back about 1936; I’ve been rereading it every couple of years since. The principles of I first read it in the 1933 edition, back about 1936; I’ve been rereading it every couple of years since. The principles of General Semantics come in very handy in my business, especially in criminal-investigation work, like this. A consciousness of abstracting, a realization that we can only know something about a thin film of events on the surface of any given situation, and a habit of thinking structurally and of individual things, instead of verbally and of categories, saves a lot of blind-alley chasing. And they suggest a great many more avenues of investigation than would be evident to one whose thinking is limited by intensional, verbal, categories.”

I suspect this one really only has interest for Piper completists and a mystery fan who wants a story about collecting antique guns. 

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