"Life is a collection of ifs. We go from the buts of doubting childhood to the ands of accumulating knowledge, and finally to the ifs of questioning wisdom."- Dr. D.V. Leonardo (Leonardo’s Law, 1978)
Before appraising yet another locked room mystery, I have to apologize for the slapdash job I did on the previous review. After going over it today, I was tempted for a moment to expunge it from this blog and replace it with a rewrite, but the opposition, consisting of the always present lack of time and just plain laziness, voted down that proposition – which means that it will stay up as a memento mori. This will hopefully teach me not to post stuff online that was scrawled when my mind was already drifting off to Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.
But enough of this palaver, and onto today's feature: Warren B. Murphy's Leonardo's Law (1978), which has an inviting byline, "A Locked Door Mystery," plastered across its classy front cover. The effigy that passes for a scan really doesn't do the cover any justice. Anyway, I accidentally chanced upon a copy of this book and unhesitatingly picked it up, but without the strained expectancy of having uncovered the literary equivalent of a lost Rembrandt – which made for a nice surprise when I actually found a satisfying and interesting impossible crime story wedged between its covers.
Some of you might wonder why I'm still skeptical towards detective stories that rolled off the presses after the 1940s, when they so prominently manifested themselves on this blog for the past two months. It's true that writers like William DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini continued a tradition that started with Edgar Allan Poe, but even their exquisite, neo-orthodox mysteries haven't entirely subdued the nightmarish flashbacks to Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) and Frederick Ramsay's Stranger Room (2008) – atrocities second only to Hitler's genocide. But that's a story for another day.
Leonardo's Law is set against the scenery of a small Connecticut town, populated with an artsy, liberal orientated citizenry governed by a conservative municipality, which provides with an intriguing backdrop for the murder of Barry Dawson – an acclaimed novelist of sleazily written and sloppily plotted mysteries. Dawson may have been a noted man of letters, but he wasn't on the short-list for Walton's most popular citizen trophy and when someone bludgeons him to death with a claw hammer the region proves to be fertile with suspects and motives. However, the key problem facing the investigators is not figuring out who had written him off and for what reason, but explaining how the crime was perpetrated.
Barry Dawson was found in his newly erected studio with the windows securely fastened and with the only door locked from the inside. The lock in the door is antiquated, but this makes the problem only more puzzling. It can only be locked and opened from the inside, with an old-fashioned brass key, which Dawson was clutching tightly between his stiffening fingers – making it an impossible feat for anyone to have slipped in and out of that studio.
Enter Lieutenant Anthony Jezail and Dr. David Vincent Leonardo! The novel is seen through the cynical eyes of the police lieutenant, whose narrative voice is wry, sardonic and occasionally laced with prejudice against gays – which probably explains why this book hasn't been wrung through the inner workings of a printing press for over three decades. On the other hand, it must be noted that Jezail constantly vexes his chief for being a cretinous racist who assumes that black people must've committed every misdeed in town. This makes Jezail somewhat of a schizophrenic character who can be lewd and funny on one page and boneheaded and embarrassing on the next. Dr. Leonardo is a literary descendant from the line of academic and scientific detectives, which includes the likes of The Thinking Machine and Dr. Lancelot Priestley, who's a mathematician with an expanding collection of honorable doctorates and a cushy teaching gig at a local university – and every once in a while acts as a special consultant to the police in cases they find difficult to crack. Going by the clues and hints strewn throughout the book, suggests that we should perceive him as the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci.
As a locked room mystery, this book proved to be an engaging read that throws one or two compelling ideas around. For instance, there's a false solution that implicated Dawson's research assistant, Alfred Needles, because his tie-tack was found on his employer – which suggested to the police that Dawson locked the door himself to safeguard the evidence that would help them convict his murderer. I admit that it would've been a disappointing solution to the premise of the sealed studio, but there's a touch of mad genius about a victim accidentally creating a locked room problem to protect a tell-tale clue before finally collapsing.
The enigma's surrounding the murder of Barry Dawson are eventually satisfyingly explained, during a hearing in court by Leonardo who acts as an expert-witness for the defense, but Murphy walked a very fine tight-rope to get there. The identify of the murderer was perhaps too well hidden from the reader and the clues a trifle weak (one of them needed a floor plan to really have made it an effective hint as to how the locked room illusion was created), however, the most notably flaw was perhaps that both characters and publisher touted this book as a case that "turns the classical locked door mystery on its ear," but the ingenious explanation proffered to problem of the locked studio came straight from the pages of a detective story from the 1960s. Nevertheless, I disliked that particular book from start to finish and prefer this stories interpretation of that crafty, but simplistic, locked room gambit. Oh, and did I mention that Leonardo recapped Dr. Gideon Fell's locked room lecture from The Hollow Man (1935)?
All in all, Leonardo's Law is a satisfying, if somewhat flawed, detective story littered with some really nasty and repugnant characters, but Murphy's derisive and cynical writing style usually puts them in their place – which makes for another fine example of combining hardboiled story telling with orthodox plotting. It's therefore a shame that he only wrote one book in what could've been an excellent series.
Definitely recommended, but let the individual reader be warned about some of the opinions spouted by the characters that inhabit the pages of this book.