Inquest (1940) by Percival Wilde
Best-selling author Aurelia Bennett hosts a party on the Fourth of July weekend to celebrate her 70th birthday. On hand are her man of business, Dwight Charlton; her publisher, Mr. Peabody; her nephew Charles Platt and his wife; her great-niece Alice Minturn and husband William; and Oliver Bligh Stickney, the literary critic who has blasted her books for about twenty-five years. Also of note is Tams the butler and old Ben Willett who tends the grass on the village green (and has done as long as anyone can remember) who also, at Mrs. Bennett's request, helped around the house that weekend.
Charlton is Aurelia Bennett's favorite and it comes out that she has made a new will his favor. William Minturn is definitely not a favorite and has been treating his wife and her parents badly for years and had hopes that Aunt Aurelia would come through with a tidy inheritance for the Minturns. Stickney isn't wanted--no one knows what possessed Aurelia to invite the man who has downgraded everything she's ever written nor do they know why he accepted the invitation cloaked in a challenge ("Come if you dare..."), unless it was so he could drink all he wanted for free.
After an uncomfortable birthday dinner, the next day is spent in target practice in the back garden. Everybody takes an opportunity to get off a few shots and between the target practice and the Fourth of July fireworks going off, it's hard to tell who is shooting what and when. At some point somebody took a shot at Dwight Charlton who had gone off to sit in a secluded area of the garden. Was it a mere accident--a shot gone wild? But, if so, why had someone shot in the opposite direction from the target? And if it is murder, did William Minturn really pull the trigger? For Charlton is found with a letter in his hand which ends with "I know that if William Minturn takes my life, he will pay for it."
This is an interesting and unusual book. It is entirely set at the coroner's inquest--not a courtroom trial--just the inquest. The only thing we're supposed to determine is how the deceased came by his death--was he shot, did he die of heart failure, sudden apoplexy, or, as has been suggested at the very beginning, a "shock to the nervous system"? We hear evidence from Ben Willett, Tams the butler, Mr. Minturn, and Aurelia Bennett. The coroner seems willing to let everyone talk to their heart's content (after all, the jury is being paid $3 a day and he gets 50 cents for every folio [page?] of testimony given while the court stenographer gets 25 cents for every page she types up, and we've got make ends meet somehow). We hear about how to cut grass as well as every little detail of the weekend party. We hear about all the shooting, but nobody can seem to remember who had the gun when and who left to go get more cartridges and when folks went up to the house or the garage or just where. Nothing seems too clear until Mr. Stickney has a private word with the coroner...and even he doesn't have quite the straight of it. But the coroner isn't quite the backwoods, ignorant county official everyone might think and he knows exactly who did what when...
For a very long time, it appears that Wilde is merely giving us a commentary on early 20th Century American justice (or miscarriages thereof). We see how (apparently) little towns where everyone knows everyone and officials are either in someone's pocket or have people in their pocket. There is a lot of good local color and Ben Willett is an absolute hoot to listen to. I very much appreciated that our coroner is much shrewder and on the lookout for justice (in its truest sense) than first appears. It was also interesting to have all evidence and clues brought forth in the ramblings of the witnesses at the inquest. ★★★★
First line: This book is the fruit of a strange evening.
To those unnecessarily well-informed readers who will point out that the Honorable Lee Slocum could never have been elected coroner in my home state, my answer is that I know it--and I trust they, like me, will not permit mere facts to interfere with entertainment. (p. 2)
First I want to think it, and then I want to write it. If all the thoughts I have thought was laid end to end, they'd reach from here to the Milky Way--and keep right on going. (Ben Willett; p. 22)
Last line: Court is adjourned.
Deaths = 6 (three natural; two shot; one died of drink)