Richard Wormser (1908-1977) was a prolific pulp fiction writer, penning 17 'Nick Carter' adventures for Street & Smith before releasing a novel under his own name - “The Man with the Wax Face” (1934). Along with writing TV adaptations and screenplays, Wormser wrote over 20 crime and western novels. In 2017, Stark House released two of Wormser's classics as a double reprinting - “The Body Looks Familiar” (1958) and “The Late Mrs. Five” (1960). Both are prefaced with an introduction by esteemed Texas writer Bill Crider, one of the last things the author wrote before his death in February of 2018.
“The Late Mrs. Five” is my first introduction to Richard Wormser. The book is a superb example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we first meet protagonist Paul Porter, it's on a lonely stretch of mid-west flattop. Porter, a divorcee, is making the territory pitches as a factory rep for terracers (like a farm plow). In the small farming town of Lowndesburg, Porter stops to check on a display model of the terracer and to talk shop with a client, Mr. Gray.
Upon his arrival he learns that Mr. Gray has gifted his retail business to his son-in-lawn, town sheriff Otto McLane. After a quick inspection, McLane encourages Porter to talk with the wealthy businessman John Hilliard. In route, Porter shockingly spots his estranged ex-wife on main street. Up until this point Porter has no idea of her whereabouts...and very little interest after a bitter divorce that's robbed him of his life savings. After the surprise discovery, Porter continues to Hilliard's residence only to find it vacant.
Later that night, Sheriff McLane arrests Porter for killing his ex-wife! Coincidentally, she had remarried Hilliard and was murdered the same date as Porter's visit to the home. McLane puts the finger to Porter despite a solid alibi. Aligning with McLane's daughter, Porter is forced to run in a frantic attempt to solve the murder. As the pace quickens, the cast of characters are examined by Porter and the reader as the whodunit mystery races to an exhilarating reveal.
Wormser blends a familiar prose – innocent man accused of murder – with small town charm. This hybrid of “Our Town” crossed with “Perry Mason” works brilliantly despite its shortcomings. We've read it before, but Wormser is an entertaining story-teller and works wonders with this elementary plot. The addition of shyster attorney Henry Lighton smooths out the morbid aspect of murder into a humorous subtext on the legal system's backward motions (paralleling present day). “The Late Mrs. Five” is highly recommended for someone just wanting a classic whodunit that isn't affixed to the names Gardner and Christie.
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