Six heirs to a massive fortune gather in a small Pennsylvania town for a reading of the will and to learn their stake. The strange thing is, none of them know the benefactor, despite all sharing his last name. And, as it turns out, this is one of those wills where the money gets evenly divided among the heirs who are still living…
Not that atypical of a set up for a Golden Age mystery, but Zelda Popkin throws in the curve ball of a town beset by a rising flood. The heirs soon find themselves trapped in a mansion quickly filling up with water, without any power or a means to contact rescuers. Oh yeah – an oil tank has released a spill, and a blazing slick is headed their way…
Dead Man’s Gift is my first in a series of explorations into some of the lesser known books that show up on lists of top impossible crimes. Perhaps that seems like a bit of a contradiction – being lesser known, and yet still making the lists – but it makes sense to me. There are those regular titles that you expect to see and recognize at a glance, and then there are these books whose names you may notice from time to time, but somehow forget. At least I do, and when I recently decided to hunt some of them down, I was like a kid in a candy store when I realized there were a good dozen impossible crimes barely registering on my radar.
I’ve seen The Dead Man’s Gift featured in several lists of top impossible crimes, and with the swirling flood waters surrounding an untrusting and murderous pack of potential heirs, it’s easy to understand why. Now, I’ll play a bit of a downer immediately by clarifying that this isn’t really an outward impossible crime – there’s no headline grabbing impossibility that I can mention without revealing late-plot elements – and while there is an impossible bit that’s very central to the story, it was the one part of the mystery I was readily able to see through.
Popkin though provides a grand stage for a mystery, and I found myself thoroughly enthralled… for the first half. Then some cracks began to show. The author has a lot of balls to keep in the air – various murders, the flood, a weird cast of characters, armed people sneaking around in the dark, the burning oil slick – and yet she only seems able to focus on one ball at a time. There’s never a moment when the story becomes the cacophony of horror that the various elements deserve. Either we’re dealing with the flood, or we’re dealing with the murders, or we’re dealing with (somewhat forgettable) detective Mary Carner digging into the backgrounds of the strange cast. But we never get hit with it all at once.
I’ll contrast that with Murder on the Way by Theodore Roscoe, where the story becomes an absolute maelstrom of murders, impossibilities, zombies, and driving rain. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and more of an experience than a read. If Zelda Popkin had been able to better meld her plot lines, Dead Man’s Gift could have been a similar classic. Instead it just feels like some wasted potential. I started out thoroughly excited, and midway through the book I was ready to go out and buy several more of Popkin’s books. Now I’m not sure that I’ll really bother.
Which is unfortunate, because if you set aside the squandered potential of the set up, this is a moderately successful whodunnit. The ending featured some surprising revelations, although don’t expect Christie-level misdirection. It was a solid denouement though; nothing to write home about, but hitting the notes that you want from a Golden Age ending.
Detective Mary Carner is a bit of a dud though. I don’t need a grandiose detective, but it’s never a good thing when the lead sleuth is the least memorable character in a fourteen person cast. She ebbs in and out of the story as the point of view character, and there were several occasions after she’d been absent for a few pages where I was momentarily confused when her name was mentioned because I couldn’t remember who her character was.
If I had written this review midway through the book I’d have been borderline raving about it. It’s not so much that the second half is bad, but that was just where the weaknesses that had been there all along became apparent. It’s still a good read, and if you stumbled upon this book cold, I think it would be a nice little surprise. Not worthy of any list, but still enjoyable.
I was dead set on getting the Dell map back edition of this book, although that took some hunting to find it for a reasonable price. There’s a scene towards the end of the story where detective Carner draws a floor plan of the mansion, and the sketch on the back of this book nails what is described. I’m curious if non-Dell editions featured a map within the pages, just because the scene feels so map-appropriate. This is definitely a book where having a sense of the layout is helpful in understanding what is going on.