Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by C. W. Grafton (1950)

I have more than a reasonable doubt that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is actually the basis for the 1956 movie of the same name (which was certainly Fritz Lang's last American movie.) But I read the ting anyway, so what the hell.

Undoubtedly, C.W. Grafton's most significant contribution to the mystery genre was siring a daughter who grew up to pen whodunnits like D is For Dipshit. However Grafton pere, a practicing lawyer, wrote a handfull of mystery novels that are well regarded in some circles, of which Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the most noirish. More a legal thriller than traditional mystery, it does have its moments.

Jess London is a rookie lawyer working for his sister's unscrupulous husband Mitch Sothern. After a party at Sothern's place which features much group singing and even more drinking, London returns to retrieve his hat. He overhears a bitter fight. Sothern is leaving his pregnant sister, and using London's job with his firm to blackmail her into a quiet divorce. After the sister exits to the hospital, London bursts into the room and clubs Sothern over the head with a substantial cigarette lighter with the usual results.

The next day, Sothern confesses to police. Suspecting he's covering for his sister, they don't believe him. But London discovers Sothern has framed him for dereliction of duty and possibly for a disbarrable offense. At this point, the story stumbles and takes on the dull tedium of a bad hangover and meanders along for 150 or so pages as the police gradually decide they may have been too hasty discounting London's confession. Only the occasional bit of pre-war color (can you believe teenagers going out on a Saturday night to park, drink whiskey, and singing "Down By the Old Mill Stream"?) brightens the tedium.

Interest returns when London is finally indicted. The prosecution has motive, opportunity, and no shortage of witnesses placing London near the scene. So London decides to defend himself and insists on starting the trial the next day!

The sneaky legal maneuvering, the legal rock throwing between counsel, and the clever way that London dismantles the prosecution's seemingly overwhelming case dispel the lingering hangover. It may not be real, but Grafton, a practicing lawyer, makes it nicely realistic. In the end London gets off, but in a lightly noirish twist, loses the girl when she realizes that he's just sold the court a dog & pony show.

Sources inform me that the film is about a man who frames himself for murder so his ultimate vindication be a critique of capitol punishment. Unfortunately, a key witness dies before the show can begin! It sure doesn't sound like Grafton's novel. But we shall judge for ourselves when Beyond a Reasonable Doubt screens at the Castro on Saturday, January 31.

No comments: