Wed 5 Mar 2008
A. B. CUNNINGHAM – Murder Without Weapons.
E. P. Dutton & Co.; hardcover first edition, 1949. No US paperback edition.
The backwoods region of the Deer Lick country is pretty nearly an alien world to me, a city feller for most of my life. (The exact state doesn’t seem to have been mentioned, but presumably it’s somewhere in Appalachia.) Even the title is one that makes more sense to an outdoorsman, seeing as the murder occurs with the death of a young girl going over the edge of a logging chute, a drop of all of fifty feet, frightened by the snuffling sounds of an approaching bear. A nonexistent bear, as it turns out, since dogs are not so easily fooled.
Sheriff Jess Roden is the reluctant detective — reluctant, that is, to claim there’d been murder done if in fact there hadn’t. To the trained, inquisitive mind of the inveterate mystery reader, there’s a surprising lack of questions asked, both by those who find the body and by her family, but in many ways the roles of country folks are as fixed, as categorized, as those of us city people, and things do work out a little more slowly and in their own way.
Roden does do a fine, though irrelevant, piece of detective work to impress an inquiring reporter, but I was disappointed with the ending. All the traipsing around at the top of the cliff where the dirty work was done seems highly unlikely, and at best, it needs a bit more explanation. The killer was fairly obvious, but even now I’m not convinced I know why he did it. [C]
[UPDATE] 03-05-08. This book is one that was published as part of Dutton’s Guilt Edged series of mysteries, and as such it’s included in the online article that Victor Berch, Bill Pronzini and I did on them.
It’s still the only book by Cunningham that I’ve read, but I hope my comments didn’t suggest that such would always be the case. In fact, now that I’m (much) older, I have the feeling that I might enjoy one of Sheriff Jess Roden’s adventures even more than I did back then, in my youthful 30s.
Most of his cases I’m more likely to have in paperback. Many of them were published as Dell mapbacks, others as digest-sized softcovers from Detective Novel Classics and so on. None are particularly collectable — after all Jess Roden is not a detective that anybody brings up in conversation very often today — so unless you want them in Fine or better condition, they should be relatively easy to find.
And oh, one last thing. I didn’t know then, and apparently in the book it was never stated or made clear, but Deer Lick is in Kentucky. Not only that, but it’s a real town, just up the road from Lewisburg. The population today is about 1400.
Which leads me to a question. Is there a smaller town in the US with as many mysteries taking place in the immediately surrounding area as Deer Lick? According to Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, there were 20 of them, plus one Roden adventure set in Texas, all published by Dutton:
# Murder at the Schoolhouse, 1940.
# The Strange Death of Manny Square, 1941.
# The Bancock Murder Case, 1942.
# Death at “The Bottoms”, 1942.
# The Affair of the Boat Landing, 1943.
# The Great Yant Mystery, 1943.
# The Cane-Patch Mystery, 1944.
# Death Visits the Apple Hole, 1945.
# Murder Before Midnight, 1945.
# Death Rides a Sorrel Horse, 1946.
# One Man Must Die, 1946.
# Death of a Bullionaire, 1947. [Takes place in Texas.]
# Death Haunts the Dark Lane, 1948.
# The Death of a Worldly Woman, 1948.
# Murder Without Weapons, 1949.
# The Hunter Is the Hunted, 1950.
# The Killer Watches the Manhunt, 1950.
# Skeleton in the Closet, 1951.
# Who Killed Pretty Becky Low? 1951
# Strange Return, 1952.