Dead Man’s Gift – Zelda Popkin (1941)

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.

My edition

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.

12 thoughts on “Dead Man’s Gift – Zelda Popkin (1941)”

  1. I’m sorry the writing/plotting vaguely disappointed in the end. I’ve never heard of the author or the title, but the whole thing sounds intriguing! Take this one and the Roscoe, and I think we’ve discovered a whole sub-genre: the kitchen sink mystery!! 🙂

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    1. I’ve seen reviews that suggest that Zelda Popkin’s detective Mary Carner was the first mainstream female detective, so she does seem to have some wide recognition. There are 2-3 other Dell map backs by Popkin, which I imagine I’ll eventually get because, well, they’re map backs.

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  2. As discussed recently, I too tracked this down based on praise given elsewhere. I’m intirgued to see what I make of it, especially as I’ve read more than a couple of books lately where the second half has failed to grip as much as the setup of the first suggested it should. I’ll nudge it down my TBR for when I’ve actually enjoyed some more stuff all the way through — aaah, fond memories — and will report back when I’ve read it.

    Thanks for the heads-up!

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    1. Darn it, I was looking forward to your review in the next week or so. As for some books that I think deliver from beginning to end that I don’t know that you’ve read:
      – Cottage Sinister – Q Patrick
      – Death and the Maiden – Q Patrick (ok, these may not be so easy to get your hands on)
      – Four Corners – Theodore Roscoe (ok, so it’s a short story collection)
      – The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars – Anthony Boucher
      – Cat and Mouse – Christianna Brand (well, you’ll probably hate it, but it’s so damn good)

      These aren’t necessarily the best books, but I think you’d get the full experience you’re looking for.

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      1. Appreciate the suggestions — I know the Baker Street Irregulars reprint is out soon, possibly even today, so I’m looking forward to that…in another six months or so. I’m hoping some of my upcoming selections meet that criterion, too, because it seems the very least a puzzle novel should do, eh?

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  3. Ben – thanks for the helpful review. I coincidentally just got this one (Dell mapback edition) last week based on a positive review from TomCat awhile back. Despite its flaws, I look forward to reading it.

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      1. Sorry I have to bust JJ’s theory below 🙂

        Gradually I am making my way from the start of your blog, JJ’s, Kate’s, Brad’s, Puzzle Doctor’s, Laurie’s, Curtis’, Nick’s, John’s, Sergio’s, etc. looking for amazing GAD titles that I never knew existed. In reviewing TomCat’s blog, I came across Popkin there with the title, “Murder in the Mist”, and located a precious Dell mapback at an affordable price. It also has a brilliant set-up but is similarly let-down in its second half by weak clewing, unmasking of the culprit, etc.. I still enjoyed it though. Since TomCat was more complimentary about Dead Man’s Gift, I am off to read that next.

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  4. If Zelda Popkin had been able to better meld her plot lines, Dead Man’s Gift could have been a similar classic.

    I assume you came across this title on my blog and mentioned in my review Popkin was not a rival of Brand or Christie, but it’s a fascinating take on the closed circle of suspects with a plot that’s miles ahead of the muddled mess that was Murder in the Mist. Zelda Popkin was a poor man’s Lenore Glen Offord with a strong hint of Gladys Mitchell. So Dead Man’s Gift was a pleasant surprise with a solid and coherent plot, a hidden impossibility and memorable setting, but agree with you that, as great as the setting was, so much more could have been done with it. Yes, someone like Roscoe would have spun gold out of the whole premise.

    Perhaps that seems like a bit of a contradiction – being lesser known, and yet still making the lists – but it makes sense to me.

    It makes perfect sense! Locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction, beyond the usual suspects, still occupies a niche corner of the genre. So, if you’re looking for something else beside The Mystery of the Yellow Room or The Hollow Man, you need best-of lists from fans. And that’s how I justify my crippling impossible crime addiction.

    I’m looking forward to watching you tumbling down this rabbit hole of obscure impossible crime mysteries! Buckle up. It’s a long way down. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have about six of these coming up, although I doubt that I’ll get to them all by the end of the year. I’m pretty sure you’ve reviewed them all, although in a few cases I’m not aware of anyone else who has reviewed them. Looking forward to surprising you with the selections.

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  5. Thanks for the review! I recently read Zelda Popkin’s first Mary Carner novel, Death Wears a Gardenia, and have been looking out for other books of hers.

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