Dear Chief Fellows: My name is Ernest Sellers and I am in Death Row at Midland State Prison. I have been unjustly convicted of killing my wife. Appeals have been in vain and there is little hope of clemency from the Governor. Three weeks and one day from now I am to be executed, but I am an innocent man.
Police Chief Fred C. Fellows of Stockford, Conn., has something of a reputation for solving difficult cases. Something about Ernest Sellers’ letter tugs at his heart-strings and he finds himself paying the prisoner a visit.
Ernest’s wife Sheila was a pretty but introverted young woman who rarely went further than the local shops. Three years ago, Sheila was bludgeoned to death in her own home after answering the door in her bathrobe (implying she knew her killer well, especially given her reputation for shyness). Sellers came home late from his regular Thursday-night chess club but discovered he was locked out of the house. Unable to wake his wife by ringing the doorbell he asked the neighbour’s son to climb in through a window to open the front door; the boy found Sheila’s body.
Sellers had the reputation of being a violently jealous man and – in the absence of any other suspects – he has been convicted on circumstantial evidence. He wants Fellows to go up to Banksville and re-examine the evidence until he finds the real killer.
‘I suppose it is a tall order,’ Sellers admitted in a subdued tone, ‘but that’s why I wrote you. From what I’ve heard about you you’ve filled some pretty tall orders.’
A visit to Sellers’ lawyer convinces Fellows that the case wasn’t defended vigorously enough and so he decides to take some holiday in Banksville and look into the earlier police investigation.
But Fellows isn’t the only detective Sellers has invited in. Once the Chief is in Banksville he finds himself teamed up with a publicity-hungry Massachusetts PI named Raphael Jones. Jones is investigating for free in return for column inches, and has already put the locals on edge by asking too many questions.
The Banksville police are hilarious. Raphael Jones winds up the local Chief by speaking to the papers, and Fellows finds the great man in his office issuing a statement of his own:
‘You put it in the papers that I say this guy is a nut or a spy or something. Anyway, he’s a lousy sonuvabitch bastard, only don’t you quote those words […] I run an honest town here and no sonuvabitch bastard is gonna come in here and frighten people. And no bastard outta Masschusetts is gonna come down here and suggest Connecticut cops don’t know how to solve murder cases neither, and you can quote me on that. On second thought, maybe you better not. Just say bastards from other states.’
Just as amusing is the straightforward Detective Wiggin, who helps out with an interrogation later in the book:
‘Now this punk. Is he guilty or not guilty?’
‘That’s what we want to find out.’
‘That’s no help. What do you think he is?’
‘It depends on whether he’s guilty or not guilty how I question him. There’s no point roughing up a suspect to make him talk if he don’t know nothing to talk about. It’s like beating a dead dog.’
‘You’d better consider him innocent then,’ said Fellows.
The set-up of a condemned man’s possible innocence is reminiscent of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, but as with Waugh’s earlier Last Seen Wearing…, the hunt for the killer is much more police-procedural: A painstaking job of interviewing, re-interviewing, and sifting the available evidence. If I have a criticism it’s that Chief Fellows too readily restricts his list of suspects to the residents of Sellers’ block, but apart from that the procedure seems entirely realistic. Overall this is another immensely readable book from Waugh, written with a mix of grit and humour. He’s definitely worth checking out.