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
Proof 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