Murder in the Gunroom
By H. Beam Piper
Unabridged recording published by LibriVox
Read by Anthony Wilson
It is a well-known adage that you should always write what you know. This is why so many authors have to take so long to do research before writing a book. A novel is an entire world in microcosm, and the further afield you go from your own specialties, the more you need to know before you start writing.
However, H. Beam Piper really knew guns. He was an avid gun collector and brought all his incredibly vast knowledge on the subject into this story. Amazingly, while his main character Jefferson Davis Rand speaks gun jargon flowingly through much of the book, constantly describing a wide variety of pistols and other guns, it is not hard to follow what he is saying, so a reader who barely knows which way to point a gun, like me, can still find it an interesting subject, at least within the confines of the novel.
In some ways this may one of the most dated stories I’ve read or listened to in quite a while. But it is dated perfectly to the time in which it was written (1953) and that makes it continue to work so well sixty years later. So to our modern eyes it may seem strange to see Colonel Rand impulsively buying a Confederate pistol from a gun dealer without having to endure any form of background check or to even show his driver’s license. He just opens his wallet, peels out three twenty dollar bills (a respectable price at the time) and tucks the gun away. Simple as that. Another jarring incident to modern sensibilities was the early arrest of one of the suspects. The arresting officer informs the man, “In this country, a police-officer doesn’t have to recite any incantation before he makes an arrest, any more than he needs to read any Riot Act before he can start shooting, but it won’t hurt to warn you that anything you say can be used against you.” Wow, definitely not the Miranda Rights we expect to hear these days, but then Miranda didn’t come along for another thirteen years.
However, while these historical differences could ruin a story, in this case they help to make the story even more interesting. Now about that story.
Lane Flemming’s gun collection was one of the best. When he is found dead by gunshot in his collection room, the coroner rules it an accident, a verdict no serious gun aficionado can take seriously. Indeed, as the story progresses, the possibility becomes increasingly remote. But Colonel Rand, a successful private detective, is not hired to investigate Flemming’s death. Instead he is hired by the man’s widow to catalog and assist in selling the valuable collection. Almost immediately he discovers at least two dozen of the best guns are missing and have been replaced by comparative junk guns. But when Rand finds disreputable local gun dealer has been murdered, he is hired to find the killer even as he continues to work with the Flemming collection. Could the two cases be related?
Well, yeah, of course they are. Honestly it would be pretty sloppy writing if they were not and Mister Piper was not a sloppy writer. In fact, I must say I enjoyed this story as much or more than any other mystery I have ever read (or listened to). The story has just the right number of twists and turns along with the surprises we expect from a well-written mystery. I admit I am primarily a fan of fantasy and science fiction, but I would love to read more mysteries like this one.
Anthony Wilson does a creditable job as the reader of this novel. As I have noted before, not all Librivox selections are read entirely by the same reader so performances can vary by quite a bit. Most, however, read pleasantly and are easy to listen to. None tend to read like the actors chosen to read commercially produced audiobooks, giving each character a different voice, but then the commercial readers frequently go over the top too, and having heard Mister Wilson read Murder in the Gunroom I don’t think I need to hear it done as a slick commercial offering.
Anthony Wilson reads in a clear and easy to listen to voice and gives just the right tones to convey the emotion of the characters without all the “funny voices” I frequently complain about from other readers. In fact I would go so far to say that her reads the story almost perfectly, allowing Piper’s words delineate the characters, rather than resorting to a plethora of odd accents and inflections. Very well done!
Summing it up, the story is a good, well- thought out tale of action and mystery and Mister Wilson presents equally well. It’s just a shame that this is the only Jefferson Davis Rand mystery by Piper we have.