Later adapted by Orson Welles into The Lady from Shanghai starring Rita Hayworth, this was one of a pair of pre-war mysteries by Raymond Sherwood King. Set among the wealthy elite of Long Island, it is narrated by Laurence Planter, an ex-sailor working as a chauffeur who ends up being put on trial for a murder he thinks was actually committed by his own defence attorney.
I offer this review for Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ’Old Bailey’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at Patti Abbott’s fab Pattinase blog.
“Sure,” I said, “I would commit murder. If I had to, of course, or if it was worth my while.”
With this touch of devil-may-care bravado (he doesn’t really mean it), Planter begins his account of how he ended up on Death Row. Our 26-year-old protagonist is an able-bodied seaman with literary aspirations. He is at heart an honest man but also a very foolish one, getting mixed up in a complex drama that, in essence, plays a bit like a mystery variation on the Lady Chatterley story. Elsa is a beautiful and youthful woman with flowing red hair who quotes Omar Khayyám, a former chorus girl married to the much older Mark “Marco” Bannister, a wealthy and highly successful lawyer embittered by a wartime accident that left him with a twisted, unusable leg (and we presume, by extension, not fully functional in the marital sense either). Planter of course falls madly in love with her – but he is already being targeted by Bannister’s business partner, Lee Grisby, who wants a special kind of favour …
“No Laurence, the one you’re going to kill is – me”
This is where the story gets really screwy. Grisby wants to get a way from a wife who won’t get a divorce, so hires Laurence to pretend to have killed him so he cam make a clean get away to the South Seas. Grisby says that Laurence won’t be convicted simply because of the lack of a body (which is utterly bogus by the way). Even Laurence thinks that this might be asking a bit much, even for the handsome fee of $5,000, especially when he realises that Grisby plans to partly use this as an alibi so he can kill Bannister. Laurence decides to cut and run after writing a confession to Bannister – but on his way out meets Elsa and the two go for a ride to the beach. Love strikes (as does some fairly purple prose) so Laurence goes back and tears up his letter. But there is trouble because Bannister has hired a new man, Broome, and Elsa thinks he is actually a detective hired to spy on them. When Laurence tries to back out of the crazy scheme, Grisby turns the tables and says he will kill him too if he doesn’t go through with it. So Grisby heads off to Wall Street to kill Bannister and Laurence attracts attention by firing a shot off on the beach. When the police arrive he panics and heads off into the nearby swamps, leading to a wonderfully eerie sequence in a derelict house infested with rats. He eventually heads back to the Bannister home and is arrested – and gets a shock when it turns out that it’s Grisby who has been killed, for real, and so had Broome – and Bannister is going to be defending him.
“So I went on trial for my life claiming to have killed a man I hadn’t killed – and hoping they’d believe me, but not to the extent where they’d send me to the chair for it.”
The story is divided into three parts – the lead up to the murders, Planter’s trial, and then the extended section on Death Row. The central section is by far the most effective, with Bannister’s skills coming in to question as he starts to suspect that Laurence and Elsa have fallen for each other. There are also some sharply satirical moments in the courtroom when Bannister is called to testify and then even cross-examines himself! Laurence tries to the tell the truth but nobody believes him. Will anyone other than Elsa try to save him? The book slows down after the trial as it doesn’t leave Death Row again, constraining the action as we only see what Laurence sees. There are a couple of nice twists though seasoned mystery buffs will see them way before the often dim-witted narrator.
“It’s a new one on me. This whole trial gets screwier and screwier every minute”
This book is by far the best known title in the rather sparse bibliography of King, a reputed child prodigy and finger print expert. This seems to have been King’s second novel. His first, Between Murders, was first published in 1935 as by “Sherry King” and reprinted in the UK in 1941 as Death Carries a Cane. His postwar works, as far as I can gather, only includes some articles, the odd short story and the novella length A Price for Murder (1957). But If I Die Before I Wake certainly deserves to be remembered for its vivid courtroom scenes and its neo-Gothic swamp sequence. But it’s probably through its association with the Orson Welles movie version that it will most probably survive … The story of how it came about is almost as interesting as the film itself (to be continued here at Fedora very shortly).