Wes Beattie is a known liar and a convicted thief and now a murder suspect. His lies have always been ridiculous, but now that his uncle has been beaten to death with a blackthorn stick shortly after cutting Wes out of his will, Wes’s cockamamie stories seem like a sign of something more sinister. His attorney is preparing an insanity defense, but when Sidney “Gargoyle” Grant hears of the case, he starts asking questions. And those questions make Wes’s unlikely stories seem a little more likely.
This 1963 novel by John Norman Harris is an oddly cheerful murder mystery, especially when you consider the nature of the crime at his heart. The tone makes the crime go down easily and makes it easy for readers like me to accept some of the big leaps Grant makes when investigating case. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, although it never quite becomes outright comedy, as I thought it might, given that the Felony and Mayhem edition I read features a cover blurb from P.G. Wodehouse. This is not Wodehouse. There are moments of silliness, such as when a maid tells Grant that “Mrs. Beattie is never A Tome in the evenings,” by which she means that “she’s here, but she’s not A Tome.”
Grant comes up against all sorts of kooky characters in the course of his investigation, and the case itself takes some oddball turns. This isn’t the sort of whodunit mystery that readers can solve along with Grant. Instead, Harris just has the case build until it turns into something altogether different from what it initially appeared to be. It’s fun to follow the trail and see where it leads.
Most of the pleasure of the book rests in the plotting. The characters are mostly too goofy to take seriously, but they’re never goofy enough to enjoy as comic figures. Harris’s attempt at adding romance feels forced, and Wes’s character never makes much actual sense. My biggest issue there is that we’re told again and again that he traffics in childish lies, but we never see examples of his lies, other than those tied to the earlier theft charge and the current murder charge. Ordinarily, I like more depth to the characters in a mystery, but I had enough fun reading this that I’m not sorry I spent time with it, despite its flaws. As far as I can tell, Harris only wrote one more mystery novel, and it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere. Even though I liked this well enough, I’m not all that disappointed that there isn’t more of his work to explore. This was good enough for a few evenings of entertainment, but I’m not hungry for more of the same.