Straw Man (1951) by Doris Miles Disney

Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“As for his having been framed—well, who was this unknown man? Who had ever seen him, who had ever heard of him? He was a man of straw.”

Not long ago, Lincoln Hunter was a man who had everything: a big inheritance, a lovely new wife, and a $100,000 life insurance policy from Commonwealth Assurance of Boston.

This isn’t the first time claims adjuster Jeff DiMarco has been tapped to investigate a murder relating to an insurance client. But this time the policyholder isn’t the victim—he’s the suspected killer. Lincoln Hunter has been convicted of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and sentenced to death. When he’s executed, Commonwealth will be on the hook for a big payout…unless Jeff can prove that someone else committed the crime.

Straw Man begins as a fairly straightforward mystery, as Jeff pokes around the lives of Hunter and his alleged victim, Celia Worthen. Midway through, however, a big twist changes everything for the reader—but not for Jeff, who remains unaware of this new information. This turns the case into an inverted mystery,  one that Jeff may not be able to crack in time.

Straw Man by Doris Miles DisneyThe case against Hunter seems airtight. His rather feeble defense is that on the night Celia was killed he was too intoxicated to kill her; so drunk, in fact, that his friends had to carry him home unconscious from his own engagement party. However, Hunter has never gotten drunk publicly before, so why that night? As the evidence mounts up, even Jeff has to wonder whether his client might not be guilty after all. Hunter himself is no help, as he sticks to the story that he was drunk and has no memory of that night.

Jeff is a painstaking investigator, however. He has no doubt that he will solve the crime in the end. The real question is whether he will be able to do anything about it when he does. Over the course of the book, Jeff is forced to accept the fact that he is now firmly middle-aged, and he cannot help comparing himself with other men he interacts with, especially his local private investigator Mal Ferris.

This was a cool, chance-taking man with something calculated in the recklessness that showed in his eyes and in the twist of his lips. In another age, he would have been selling his sword to some feudal baron, the sedentary, overweight claims adjuster reflected a little enviously. Or he would have swaggered through the Renaissance holding his own life and the lives of others cheap. Or he would have been in his element captaining a slave ship or a privateer. Or— But why go on? Jeff smiled to himself. In any of those other times he himself would have been a clerk or a storekeeper…

His fears find an unexpected parallel in the dilemma of middle-aged bookkeeper Lucy Graham. She is convinced a man has been following her, though she can’t imagine why. Although the situation worries her more each day, she’s afraid of being taken for a hysterical spinster if she reports it. Lucy’s plight seems unrelated to the murder case, until she suddenly disappears. Jeff, who is interested in any possible killer in the area, looks into Lucy’s case, even though her boss can’t believe she’s in any danger.

It is difficult to imagine anything happening to her. Poor Lucy, unmarried, unloved, year by year she was wearing deeper the groove between the boardinghouse and our shop, and the other groove, the two weeks’ vacation, spent summer after summer at another boardinghouse at Chocolate Point Beach…Why should such a woman suddenly vanish?

Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney“Not much of a life,” Jeff thinks as he learns more about Lucy. But he has more in common with Lucy than he would like to think. Jeff, too, is aging, single, losing whatever looks he might have had, married to his job.

Knowing who the culprit is, it’s easy to spot several points where Jeff’s limitations affect the outcome of the case, such as his decision not to question a suspect at a key moment because he knows he would not be able to defend himself if attacked. The climax is suspenseful, not because it reveals the identity of the killer, but because Jeff’s fiercest efforts to fight back are so easily rebuffed. “This was the bitterest, most humiliating moment of Jeff’s life…The prospect of imminent death lost its meaning for Jeff before the fact that he must submit to being tied up and led away to slaughter like a patient old horse.”

Straw Man by Doris Miles DisneyIn a genre where male detectives of all ages tend to display amazing powers of combat and physical stamina, this portrayal of a man who must come to terms with his waning powers at the worst possible moment is greatly appreciated. The female characters are also thoughtfully depicted, including Celia, the pregnant mistress, who comes across as a good person with the misfortune to fall in love with the wrong man. Jeff views the deaths of Celia and her baby as a tragedy, not merely a footnote to Hunter’s situation.

Straw Man begins in a conventional manner before the plot takes some unusual turns. The characters and themes of the story are more subtle and interesting than the workmanlike prose might initially suggest. Jeff DiMarco is a quiet, unassuming sleuth, who struggles between his own desire for justice, and his company’s goal of saving money. Commonwealth is indifferent to questions of justice as long as they don’t have to write a check, but Jeff remains haunted by the human cost of this case. “He turned on the light beside his bed and tried to read. But the faces of the dead were clearer than the printed words.”

Second Opinion

Saturday Review,

Skill and interesting tale here; but the tactic of giving away the mystery at mid-point lets suspense down with thud and turns plot into cops-and-robbers.

Availability

Straw Man is out of print, with affordable used copies available.


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