PROOF OF GUILT (1973) by Bill Pronzini

(photo: Robin Reese)

Buon compleanno Bill! Tomorrow is the 70th birthday of  William John Pronzini, now into his sixth decade of activity as a mystery author and still one of the best on the scene – and thankfully, one of the most prolific too. The creator of the ‘Nameless’ series of private eye novels, he is also co-editor with fellow mystery writer Marcia Muller (the couple married in 1992) of the indispensable mystery guide 1001 Midnights and dozens of anthologies (including the Gun in Cheek series, which celebrate bad pulp writing); and author of hundreds of short stories, many featuring impossible crimes. Proof of Guilt is a masterful case in point, offering a classic locked room mystery with a truly one-of-a-kind solution. It starts with a dead lawyer …

Blogger and author Patti Abbott is celebrating Bill Pronzini’s birthday over at her Pattinase blog – you should head there right away to check out some of the other fine reviews and tributes. I also offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here.

“… the murder of an attorney named Adam Chillingham is the damnedest case of my experience, if not in the annals of crime”

A lawyer named Adam Chillingham has been shot to death in his office, which is on the sixteenth floor of a downtown skyscraper. At 10:30 that morning George Dillon had arrived for his meeting with Chillingham and then two had gone into his office. About ten minutes later a muffled explosion was heard by the law clerk, who went to the office but found it locked. A couple of minutes later Dillon emerged, saying that the lawyer had been killed, then sat back in the room to smoke a cigarette. The clerk locked him in and called the police. Dillon tells them that Chillingham was leaning outside the window slightly when he was shot – trouble is the bullet is a small calibre and the nearest building a hundred yards away, making it an impossible shot from outside. Meaning it must have been Dillon – an open and shut case, surely? No, not at all.

“I admit I hated the man, I hated him passionately.”
“You admit that, do you?”
“Why not? I have nothing to hide.”

It turns out that the lawyer had been the executor of the estate of Dillon’s father and had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars. So Dillon has a clear motive, although the young man doesn’t care for money and had been estranged from his father for 15 years. The only trouble is, there is no gun to be found. The room has been searched top to bottom and is empty, there is no balcony and no weapon was found in the grass below the window either. So how was it done and is Dillon guilty? And why were there no striations on the bullet? The solution to this conundrum is beautifully done and truly unforgettable.

“… one of the very best Impossible shorts written over the past 50 years” – Jack Adrian

EQMM-361-Dec-1973Proof of Guilt originally appeared in the December 1973 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, a bumper issues as you can tell from the cover reproduced on the left.  I have chosen this ingenious tale not just because it’s a personal favourite but because it is beloved by some of the great experts in the field too. Ed Hoch singled it out for praise and the story also appears in two of my favourite anthologies devoted to locked room murders: The Art of the Impossible (1990), edited by Robert S. Adey and Jack Adrian (in his intro the latter says that it was the only story in the collection he was not prepared to do without) and Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) edited by Mike Ashley, who calls it:

“… the most audacious of the stories in this volume”

It was also adapted for television as an episode of the British anthology Tales of the Unexpected and first screened on 23 August 1980. It stars Roy Marsden, who was already well established as the star of the Spy series The Sandbaggers (1978-80). Here he appears sans toupée and sporting an almost cockney accent (what would now be termed ‘estuary’) as a slightly down-at-heel inspector that offers an interesting contrast to perhaps his best-known TV role as PD James’ hero Adam Dalgliesh. Indeed one is tempted to see his appearance as a sort of dry run for that role (he ultimately appeared in ten adaptations of her novels made between 1983 and 1998), especially as there is a connection as both shows were produced for Anglia TV by John Rosenberg. Here he plays the lead detective, just referred to as ‘Walt’ in the story but here called Chief Inspector Walters. Jeremy Clyde, who had recently played Bulldog Drummond for the BBC, here plays the Dillon character, his surname changed to ‘Stamford’.

Compared with the original story, both the characters as played here are much less sympathetic and adversarial. Walters is short-tempered and ill-mannered while Stamford is arrogant and self-satisfied right from the beginning – in the Pronzini original it is clear that Walt likes him even if he thinks he’s guilty. Dudley Sutton, later a regular on the Lovejoy TV series starring Ian McShane, co-stars as Walter’s colleague Jack Sherrard. The script by Johnny Byrne is pretty faithful to the story, transposing it easily to the UK and to a slightly less grand high-rise building (skyscrapers still being a bit rarer than in the US at the time), so it’s now only on the sixth floor. He also expands the story nicely to include a more important role for Chillingham’s secretary (played by Elizabeth Richardson) and thus increasing the range of suspects. Shot almost entirely in the studio on video, it makes for a highly enjoyable half-hour playlet with only the bombastic music counting against it.

Proof of Guilt / Tales of the Unexpected (1980)
Director: Chris Lovett
Producer: John Rosenberg
Screenplay: Johnny Byrne (from the story by Bill Pronzini)
Cinematography: Richard Crafter (film), Geoff Greenleaf (studio)
Art Direction: James Weatherup
Music: Ron Grainer (theme tune)
Cast: Roy Marsden, Jeremy Clyde, Dudley Sutton, Elizabeth Richardson, John Gill

For a superb guide to Pronzini’s work and a look at the author’s lengthy bibliography in detail, you can do no better than visit the Thrilling Detective website at: www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/pronzini


***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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37 Responses to PROOF OF GUILT (1973) by Bill Pronzini

  1. Sergio – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the special occasion than this. It’s a fine review. And you’re reminding me what a great show Tales… was. I should go back and try to find some of those episodes. You’re also making me wonder (perhaps you have some insight on this being the film expert you are) why they would make those changes in character on the film. I often wonder about that when I see a character played quite differently to what that character is like in a story.

    • Hi Margot – you are much too kind, as always! The late Johnny Byrne was a poet as well as a screenwriter (probably best known today for working on science fiction shows like Space 1999 and Doctor Who and the bucolic period vet drama All Creatures Great and Small) – I suspect that by making Pronzini’s characters more adversarial the idea was to help make it more punchy and dramatic and help sustain the expanded running time up to the requisite TV length. Dozens and dozens of the episodes are available on YouTube – I don’t imagine they are there legally, but therey are certainly there (or rather here). I wrote a brief guide to the series itself here.

  2. TracyK says:

    This is a great choice to highlight Pronzini. The story sounds fascinating, although I am not a short story reader. I am a Bill Pronzini fan, as is my husband.

  3. Colin says:

    Sergio, I’ve read a few of Pronzini’s stories in various anthologies but I don’t believe I’ve come across this one yet. I first heard of Pronzini when I was trying to find as many impossible crime writers as I could, and I’ve really enjoyed what I have found of his output.

    • If you can get hold of either of the two anthologies I emntioned above you really owe it to yourself as they provide a wealth of great material. Pronzini, along with Ed Hoch, has written lots of impossibly mysteries – of his novels I would especially recommend HOODWINK featuring his ‘Nameless’ detective (well, actually, it loosk like he now has a first name – unsurprisingly, it’s ‘Bill’).

      • Colin says:

        Thanks. I have Ashley’s Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, Greene & Adey’s Death Locked In and your current “off the shelf” choice Murder Impossible. Rest assured I’ll be looking into those others.

        • Good haul there Colin, you’re a mystery lover after my own heart – actually I just changed the image to the second Ashley anthology I mention but the Pronzini is in Murder Impossible too.

        • Actually, have I just got my wires crossed about which anthology you meant? Sorry Colin – either way, the image I was displaying yesterday, and the one I have today, both contain the Pronzini tale.

          • Colin says:

            I should have spotted that the Pronzini story was included in Murder Impossible but I don’t believe I read it. I actually bought that book mainly to get my hands on the Hake Talbot story – I don’t *think* that’s available elsewhere – and only dipped into a few of the other entries.

          • Yes, I know exactly what you mean as the Talbot story and the the one by Joel Townsley Rogers are real rarities and they leaped right out at me at the time. Jack Adrian writes a very amusing intro to the Pronzini tale for the book.

          • Colin says:

            Cheers – will definitely be checking it out asap.

  4. I’ve been reading Bill Pronzini’s work since the 1970s. He is a very versatile writer. I prefer his mystery and suspense novels, but I’ve read several of Pronzini’s westerns and enjoyed them all. On top of my Real Real Soon stack of books sits Pronzini’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche, THE PERILS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.

  5. Jerry House says:

    Sergio, “Nameless” first got the name Bill in TWOSPOT (1978), the fifth Nameless novel, written with Collin Wilcox and featuring Nameless and Wilcox’s Lieutenant Frank Hastings. The name Bill was a throwaway in a section written by Wilcox; if my memory hasn’t failed me, the name appeared in the book only once. Nameless remained nameless through many of the following books, although recent books embrace the name. Wilcox may have been playing with his co-author when he snuck the name in.

    Nameless does have a last name, but we are not privy to it. Pronzini has mentioned in the series that the last name is Italian. “Bill **Italianlastname**”…hmmm…go figure.

    And, yes, “Proof of Guilt” is a great story, isn’t it?

  6. neer says:

    I have to admit that I have never heard of this author but the story sounds fascinating. Would definitely look out for his books. Thanks for another wonderful review.

  7. TomCat says:

    Here’s to Bill Pronzini and may he plot for many more years to come.

    Funny that you picked “Proof of Guilt” to review, because that’s one of the rare Pronzini stories that I didn’t like and hated the explanation for the disappearance of the gun. The type of solution I find as trite and disappointing as secret passageways and venomous animals. Pronzini wrote (IMHO) better and far more original locked rooms than this one.

    • Hi TC – you’re kidding, you really thought this was trite in the sense of hackneyed and cliched? As far as I know it’s never been used in any other story to explain a locked room mystery! Your standards really are high mate.

      • TomCat says:

        I’m not just looking at the gun part of the trick, but also how it was made to disappear from the room and that part was most definitely not original. I also disliked it when Ellery Queen and Clayton Rawson used variations of the same trick.

        • OK TC, though I think you’re being a bit picky – it’s a perfectly viable bit of mystification, isn’t it? All I can say if that if it’s good enough for Jack Adrian and Mike Ashley – also, I did want to pick one that had been adapted for the screen, which admittedly limited me somewhat (as per Todd’s comments below).

          • TomCat says:

            I partly blame them saying it was one of the best locked room shorts from past twenty years, or so, which made the disappointment even bigger when I found out that the gun was made to disappear with something I equate with hidden passages. I never, ever, want to see that explanation for a vanishing weapon from a locked/watched room – no matter what clever ruse you use to dress it up. Just hate it.

            Still love Pronzini’s work, but not that particular story.

          • Hidden passages are of course a complete no no – I don’t think, humorous extrapolation aside, that this really counts as the same thing though – it’s meant to be a bit outrageous after all, as Ashley pointed out and perfect for a short story. I agree though, had it been for a novel i would feel quite differently about it. And the fact that it is perfectly feasible does, in my estimation, make a big difference. But hey, there is more than enough Pronzini to go round thank goodness!

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Glad to know there’s been a Pronzini adaptation…I wasn’t aware of any…

    • That was the other reason i chose this one – it does seem extraordinary to me that with the wealth of great material to choose from so little of Pronzini’s output has made it to the screen – the only other two I am am aware of are another episode of the same series, ‘There’s One Born Every Minute’ starring the great Frank Finlay and a Corbin Bernsen TV movie adaptation of ‘Liar’s Dice’, which I have not seen, called ‘ Tails You Live, Heads You’re Dead’.

  9. Jeff Flugel says:

    This sounds like a nifty little story, Sergio! I’ve read a few of Pronzini’s short stories and am most familiar with his “Nameless” series of detective stories and novels. That TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED episode looks really interesting, thanks for posting the video link. As a big fan of Roy Marsden from THE SANDBAGGERS and the Dalgliesh adaptations, I’m intrigued.

    • Thanks very much Jeff – I may have read several of the anthologies Pronzini co-edited (they really seemed ubiquitous in the 80s) before actually getting into his fiction. Annoyingly very little of his work was available in anything other than specialist bookshops in the UK so e-commerce has certainly come in handy of late!

  10. Sergio, I have read absolutely nothing by Bill Pronzini though I have heard and read about him and his writing mostly through reviews and yours is definitely a wake-up call for me. I’d certainly like to lay my hands on some of his anthologies.

  11. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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