IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE (1938) by Sherwood King


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 away from a wife who won’t give him 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 cann’t be convicted legally 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 – click here).

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

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Courtroom, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Orson Welles, Sherwood King. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE (1938) by Sherwood King

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I always learn so much from your blog. I didn’t even know that this was the inspiration for The Lady From Shanghai. Somehow I missed the connection. I’m glad the book was a decent read and now of course you’re tempting me to find a copy. I look forward to your film review.

  2. TracyK says:

    Well, I am going to repeat what Margot said. Never knew there was a book that inspired The Lady from Shanghai. In fact I did not know of this author at all. We just saw a few minutes of Lady from Shanghai on TCM recently so it was on my mind. Very interesting.

    • Thanks TracyK – in terms of plot it’s pretty faithful actually but the tone is very different and the main set-pieces of the film, other than the trial, are not to be found in the original nove.

  3. Colin says:

    OK, I’m going to break ranks here and admit that i did know the book was the source fro The Lady from Shanghai. Furthermore, I own a copy, the Penguin edition featured at the top of the article. I’ll stop at that because it rests on the shelf, spine unbroken, in pristine unread condition!
    The film, although I haven’t seen it in a while, is one that has grown on me over the years – usually a good sign – and I like it a lot despite all its faults.

  4. Richard says:

    I’m apparently so far behind the curve I was unfamiliar with both book and film. Sounds interesting, though. Nice review as usual.

  5. Kelly says:

    Great stuff, as always.

  6. I’m with Rick. I’m not familiar with the book or the movie, but after reading your fine review, I want to experience both! I think I’ve seen the ACE Double version.

  7. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

  8. neer says:

    So, a mystery version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the narrator is named Laurence. Very interesting.

    Thanks for letting us know of this book Sergio. Oh, the way my TBR pile grows after reading your posts…

  9. Sergio, I enjoyed your review. It is kind of scary to read even a fictional account of an innocent man convicted and on death row. I liked the “twists” in the story with Planter getting caught unawares between two men with their own sinister agendas. As usual, I hadn’t heard of Sherwood King or its Orson Welles adaptation. I’m waiting to read the rest of the story. Many thanks, Sergio.

  10. Pingback: The Lady from Shanghai (1948) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  11. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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

  13. Blautsch says:

    The review of Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake and the film adaptation Lady from Shanghai is very interesting but I’d like to know the story of how it came about–
    ” The story of how it came about is almost as interesting as the film itself (to be continued here at Fedora very shortly).”
    Please continue.

  14. Kurt McGill says:

    A retrograde comment? (On an article from seven years ago.) Movie pundits – Eddie Muller – speak rather derisively about Welles (“boy genius”) and the film, Lady from Shanghai, based on the Sherwood King book. “All atmosphere and no substance. A jumble of idea that don’t come off – or are unintelligible as a story – in the end.”

    My estimation of Eddie Muller was rather significantly reduced by his film criticism, even though he is a Czar. I grew up in SF, and people out there are provincials. Maybe even a bit philistine. I know the City and it’s a hard place to make art. All atmosphere and no substance…

    • Thanks Kurt. That is a shame as Eddie is definitely one of the good guys. But he does have fairly precise ideas about Noir and SHANGHAI is a bit of an outlier. He has been much more positive about TOUCH OF EVIL. Can’t remember what he thinks of THE STRANGER though …

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