H. Beam Piper’s snappy little novel Murder in the Gunroom was his last venture into the traditional detective story, before he started writing science fiction full time. The book – a forefather of modern gun porn – tells the story of a prominent businessman and gun collector found dead by his own hand in a locked gun room, the victim of an apparent accident and suspected suicide.
Of course, seeing how the mystery is titled Murder and not Accident or Suicide in the Gunroom, you’ve probably guessed that this is a clever take on a specific genre of mystery: the Locked Room sort.
The story is grand and fast and entertaining, but what recommends it most of all to Piper fans is how semi-autobiographical the story is. Now, I imagine that the protagonist detective Jeff Rand character is in some ways based off of Colonel Henry Shoemaker, the Pennsylvania folklorist to whom the novel is dedicated. In truth however, it is almost impossible to read the description of Rand and not see something of an idealized self-portrait of Piper himself:
…[H]e was certainly over thirty and considerably under fifty. He looked hard and fit, like a man who could be a serviceable friend or a particularly unpleasant enemy. Women instinctively suspected that he would make a most satisfying lover. One might have taken him for a successful lawyer (he had studied law, years ago), or a military officer in mufti (he still had a Reserve colonelcy, and used the title occasionally, to impress people who he thought needed impressing), or a prosperous businessman, as he usually thought of himself. Most of all, he looked like King Charles II of England anachronistically clad in a Brooks Brothers suit.
Rand is not just an avid collector of guns, he is head-over-heels in love with them. He can consider with some distance the risks and benefits involved with taking a Petty Girl for a spin, but for the right gun, he will travel the ends of the earth to win its cold, hard favor.
“My God, Jeff! Twenty-five wheel locks! Ten snaphaunces. And every imaginable kind of flintlock—over a hundred U.S. Martials, including the 1818 Springfield, all the S. North types, a couple of Virginia Manufactory models, and—he got this since the last time you saw the collection—a real Rappahannock Forge flintlock. And about a hundred and fifty Colts, all models and most variants. Remember that big Whitneyville Walker, in original condition? He got that one in 1924, at the Fred Hines sale, at the old Walpole Galleries. And seven Paterson Colts, including a couple of cased sets. And anything else you can think of. A Hall flintlock breech-loader; an Elisha Collier flintlock revolver; a pair of Forsythe detonator-lock pistols…. Oh, that’s a collection to end collections.”
The accident/suicide/murder occurs in November, the same month that an important business deal is about to close for the victim. The weapon identified by the coroner is one the victim had purchased just that day: a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36 revolver. Rand is brought in to the situation as a gun expert, merely to assess and evaluate the estate worth of the victim’s gun collection. It is his gun sense that leads him to peel back the layers of the tidy “accident” storyline, and puts him in the center of a high-stakes murder case.
Piper’s rugged, proud and open libertarianism is in full throat in Murder. Character flaws include any sympathy for socialism, any distaste for modern arms, any suggestion that the foe of liberty is intolerance. This is also makes Piper such an intriguing character in his own right.
He died early in his career, by his own hand.
At least, that’s what everybody says. Jerry Pournelle wrote that one November night, the man came home (potentially under stress from business deals), shut off all the utilities, laid down painter cloths in his own gunroom, and committed suicide with one of his guns.
I have always wondered if it was a Confederate-made Colt-type percussion .36.
My realistic side can accept that men, even principled men, even men like Piper–who cherished courage–, can be struck with cowardice, and fall for the siren song of suicide.
But the writer side of me is nagged by Piper’s gadfly, much as fans of Andy Kauffman continue to suspect that his terminal cancer was just one last gasp before the comedian’s retirement. Why commit a suicide so clearly patterned off the author’s final realistic mystery? Why allow the Maltese Falcon of Piperesque homage to firearms – his unpublished and now presumed lost forever “Only the Arquebus” — to vanish from the estate?
Alas, this is my mourning: that Piper left so many stars unlit, so many mysteries unsolved, so many words locked in the gunroom of his mind.
If I were polite, I’d leave the final thought to a friend of his who wrote:
We did not always understand him,
Too often impatient when he read us tales
Which our imaginations failed to grasp;
But still he met with us and helped us,
Seemed to like us in his odd and distant way.
Now, with regret, we wish we had been kinder,
Had thought of him enough to realize
He needed help from us, for yesterday,
With no sustaining faith in God,
Alone, withdrawn, mind faltering in despair,
He chose a weapon from the past he loved
And gave himself to Death
God Rest His Lonely Soul!
~Mary Ellen Riddell
…but I am not polite. It is perhaps morbid for me to consider Piper’s death so deeply. If you think it is, stop reading now, because I’ve written an alternate ending. It does not conclude the Piper tragedy, by any means. He did that well enough on his own. But it – in a too small way – returns to Piper something good that he once gave to me.
Only the Arquebus, By H. Beam Piper
Just after Halloween 1964, H. Beam Piper, the now-famed science fiction author and the writer of a “locked room” mystery titled Murder in the Gunroom was discovered dead in his own well-stocked gunroom, an apparent suicide. The manuscript to his as-yet unpublished manuscript, Only the Arquebus, disappeared. Piper had told an editor that the story was a historical piece: an account of the zero-sum game played between Ferdinand of Spain and Louis XII of France for the control of Naples.
That was a lie.
Only the Arquebus did involve a zero-sum game. It was historically accurate. The 16th century setting, however, was a ruse – a private joke from Piper to himself. Piper fancied himself a renaissance man from a bygone era. He also fancied himself a hero.
He wasn’t wrong.
What follows is the unedited manuscript that appeared anonymously at our offices, wrapped in plain brown paper and smelling distinctly of Serene pipe tobacco smoke.
Clever. You jam dratted dopes – after all this time — aw, blast it, can I write more plainly than that and still get published?
Anyhow. It wasn’t suicide, you idiots. It was a fistfight.
Rats, I’ll start over. But I’m not apologizing – not for “idiots” and not for “dopes.” There’s no point in Porto Rican rum, and even less point in trying to make amends with the truth.
Paratime ring any bells? The Terro-Human history? Of course not – because none of it ever came to pass, and none of it ever will. Read those “stories” and you’ll know why it had to go down exactly like this. No one else was going to bother to save the world.
It isn’t bragging if I can back it up. So sit back and read.
It was 8:30 A.M. the sun streaming through the third story window: Bedtime in Altoona. I’d just gotten off my security shift at the Railroad, changed into my pajamas, smoked the last reserves of my sweet Serene tobacco, its conversation with me downright mellifluous.
The room they thought they found me in was, of course, the weapons room.
At my last inventory, the walls were lined with 138 firearms, not counting the ones in drawers, and a dozen sharpened swords.
A tube appeared in the center of the room, just as I’m cleaning Polly, my $5 Civil War noisemaker. Like a glass elevator, it rose up from the floor, the loose planks creaking, straining to bear its bulk. Out stepped a horse-faced fellow with stubby orange fingers, wearing a purple cowl swept back from his high forehead, and a cape running down below his ankles. Or fetlocks. God knows what he had under that dress.
He also held a clipboard, apparently a clipboard from the future, as it had buttons and spat paper with a stream of print on it.
Great. My first real live alien, and he’s a bureaucrat.
Of course, I shot him.
“Mr. Piper,” droned the bored alien, ignoring the pistol round that had cut into his flowing clothes and vanished. “I’m here to request an end to your literary ambitions.”
I fired another shot, right between the eye.
“Gloop,” said the eye.
“—In Blazes?” I said.
“Your guns are not effective. No, not even the 9 millimeter.” German engineering. Who knew?
I made like a dervish and slid an old Spanish poniard from its sheath, slashing the officious burglar at the throat. It cut the clasp of his cloak, whose collar he clutched against his chest, dropping the clipboard. He huffed.
“Only the arquebus fires at a sufficiently low velocity to both penetrate my flesh and remain long enough to damage vital organs, most of which are located in what you might call my skull.”
I shot a glance at the wall behind him. The ancient arquebus hung on its hooks, its brass ornaments tarnished, its patina allowed to spread unchecked for at least a quartet of generations. I’m not entirely sure I remember how to load it, and I sure as shooting know I don’t have the time.
“In short, your weapons are useless in the prevention of my mission, which is to persuade you to end your campaign against our greater designs for your people. If I can’t do that, my charge is, quite simply, to stop you.”
The sword clattered to the floor.
“Don’t be coy, Beam Piper. Both you and I are very well aware that your research into Paratime and your somewhat miraculous foretelling of the Terra-Earth history consist of far more than ‘stories.’ Unfortunately for our designs, you are just getting warmed up, and are, at our best calculations, as close as four months away from having a unified definitive, testable formula to express the truth of your theories to a wider public.”
“Oh,” I said, “You’ve got the wrong Beam Piper. I’m H. You know, as in Horace. I think you are looking for –“
And with that I leaped up, my arms stretched to the low ceiling, where I grasped the exposed steel rafter. Interlocking my legs around my opponent’s neck, I performed a stomach crunch that practically ruptured my own vertebrae. His long noggin drove into the rafter with a satisfying clang!
His body dropped to the floor a split second before my sweaty fingers lost their purchase. I fell on top of him, losing my wind and all initiative.
He rolled me off like a firelog. I gasped, half-paralyzed from the drain of adrenaline, the other half just plain paralyzed. The dastard was sitting on my sciatic nerve. With a swipe of his stubby hand, he flipped my body over like it was a box turtle, and he the devil’s son.
“Henry Piper,” he said, exasperated, rubbing his skull, his cloak slipping off his shoulders like cheap burlesque. The weirdo’s got pajamas on underneath. My other pajamas. He’s a thief and a cross-dresser. The cloak, no longer touching his slick, greasy body lost its shimmering color and looked more like a painter’s drop cloth than the refinements of a government stooge. He straddled me, pressing down on my ribs with the weight of a mule. I could barely move my left hand. Everything else was pinned.
“Don’t call me Henry,” I said, gasping. “It ruins the joke.”
“Henry Beam Piper,” he said. “I’m here to convince you to reverse course. I can offer you three options.”
“I’m listening,” I grunted, quickly running out of lung capacity.
The glow from the elevator behind him pulsed with light, color and motion.
“Return with me through the portal. A foreign kingdom of riches and a harem of angelic concubines await.”
I’ll admit, I peeked. The red sunlight was a bit harsh, but the clothing was optional and the rum was Jamaican. The women were otherworldly, but thankfully in the two-eyed sense.
“Stay here. Abandon your sorcery and prophecy and live out your days quietly as you see fit-”
“But no writing.”
“But no writing.”
“What’s my third option?”
“Die here, seemingly at your own hand.”
“Right. Like anyone would believe that I, of all people, would do that.”
“They’ll come up with something. Your kind always do. Your ex-wife.”
I tried not to show the bristles on my neck.
“Aw, she’s a doll. They’ll be more likely to believe it was murder if she’s involved, but I guarantee you don’t have technology advanced enough to replicate her abbitoire.”
“Despondency, then, over your writing career. Your agent has recently died, and failed to tell you about a number of sales you’ve made.”
“Oh, that’s plausible. If reliance on an agent’s communications skills is a prerequisite for mental health, the nuthouse would be full of writers and the library would be empty.”
“What’s your choice?”
Well, I thought, they say everybody’s got one. I stuck my thumb where Phobos don’t shine. Old blue eye yowled like I’d dropped a mongoose down his flannel trousers, hot footing it a 4th down and long away from me. Even Frank Gotch would have scooted. So much for vital organs. Apparently Snoopy Gloopy had not anticipated my contribution of choice number four.
Still wheezing, I rolled to the opposite wall. I went for the arquebus, hoping to awaken its ancient glory. I bet it hadn’t been fired in combat in 200 years. Loading it was going to be a bear. The alien knew this. I knew this.
But one thing I knew that he didn’t is the art of misdirection. Must be a trait peculiar to me.
Most people, and all the Martians I know, are unaware of the startling utility of a well-placed elbow.
Not counting my ex-wife, that is. She knew how to throw one. That’s who I learned it from, a couple of times.
So Mr. Longshanks goes down in a puddle of goo, and I get a hard little boo-boo on my funny bone. I put my knee into his throat, and then, with all the time in the world, a few slow-loaded bullets into his head.
That’s when the trouble started.
Suddenly, the goo starts shifting, and not in the way you’d think space-goo ought to go. It shaped itself, and in not too long, looked like an amateur version of myself.
I had been framed for suicide.
With the gunshots, amateur is all it takes. With half the head gone, what matters is my tell-tale pencil thin mustache. Who are they going to think got offed in my apartment, Walt Disney?
Suicide. What a laugh: I’m not even dead, and I can prove it as easy as I can show you how to fiddle the lock on the paint shop at the Altoona Works so you can cut through to the boiler without having to go back around the long way. But darn if I can explain my own twin, shot to corpse-state in the middle of the floor of my personal armory.
But that isn’t important.
What’s important is that I didn’t do what they had expected me to do: hop on the elevator, travel the stars, and set myself up with a Martian harem to live out my days in interstellar luxury, damning this thankless planet to its fate.
In hiding, I did a few things, worked something out with Salinger: I took his place, he took no one’s, so on and so on. I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll say this: there’s a darn good reason a Quaker named Milhous made it in to the White House. Too bad those Martians took their revenge on him when I never showed up for trial.
That’s why there wasn’t an Atomic War in ’73, and the thousands of years of history that followed after. I derailed the entire Paratime and Terro-Human timeline, rendered all my “fiction” into bunk and ended up making me an exile on my own planet, instead of a minor king on another.
I’m coming out now because I’m 108 years young, and figure it is a matter of minutes before my memory goes for good, if not my ticker. Always figured I’d go out in a hail of laserfire, but, as they say, even picked poison will kill you in the end.
Now, do you still think I’m some sort of doe-eyed copycat of that sissy Hemingway or as short-sighted as that poor kid Howard?