Scalps by Murray Leinster (1930)
"Murray Leinster," as many of you know, was the pen name of Will. F. Jenkins, who -- until his death -- had the longest-running career for a science fiction writer (his first science fiction story was published in 1919, before the term science fiction existed). His writing career started before that; his first publication was the short story "The Foreigner" in the May 1916 issue of Smart Set., the first of more than 1500 stories and articles he would publish -- add to that his dozens of books, 14 screenplays, and many television and radio scripts, plus the occasional poem and you have a formidable talent who managed to remain popular for more than 60 years. Leinster wrote almost every type of fiction. If there was a market, he probably wrote for it: SF, mysteries, westerns, romance, sports, adventure...
He wrote under at least eleven names: Will F. Jenkins (or William Fitzgerald Jenkins), "Murray Leinster," "Willam Fitzgerald" "Louisa Carter Lee," "Joe Gregg," "Rafaele Ybarro," "Earl Stanley Gardner" (note the spelling of the first name), "Kenny Kenmore," "Jean Farquar," "Pepe Gomez," "Burt L. Standish," and "Florinda Martel." There may have been more.
Scalps was the first of six mystery novels he published, either as "Leinster" or under his own name. Sammy Dawson runs a four-passenger plane service in Arizona. He doesn't make a lot of money but earns enough to keep his plane in top condition and a little bit to put away, so when Sammy had an extra $300 and no upcoming bills he decided to take a little vacation to San Francisco. There, he met a beautiful nightclub singer and went out with her a couple of times. He didn't know the singer was the girlfriend of a deadly mob boss. He also did not know the singer had a habit of leading men on to make the mobster jealous. And, finally, he did not know that the mobster had already murdered three men who had gone out with the singer -- and Sammy was the scheduled to die.
After a wild, bullet-filled chase through the San Francisco streets, Sammy manages to escape and returns to the quiet life in Arizona. Or so he thought. Donovan, the mobster, still wants Sammy dead. It turns out that Donovan owns a near-by dude ranch as a cover for smuggling operations and as a hideout for his cronies whenever San Francisco became unsafe for them. Knowing none of this, Sammy has been flying "vacationers" to the dude ranch for months. Sammy's latest client was drunk when he picked him up for a flight to the dude ranch. The man continued drinking during the flight and soon passed out. Arriving at the ranch, Sammy was unable to rouse the man so he got some of the ranch men to either wake him or carry him off the plane. That's when it was discovered the man was dead, stabbed through the heart. When the man's hat was removed, there was even a greater shock -- the man had been scalped!
Things look bad for Sammy. The man was alive when he entered the plane, dead when the plane landed. There was no one else in the plane and Sammy swore he had not stopped anywhere during the flight. And it turns out that the dead man was the gangster Donovan who had sworn to kill Sammy.
Sammy is arrested and that night gangsters riddle his cell with bullets. Sammy manages to avoid being hit but even if he survives the next attack, he is likely to be convicted at trial and evecuted. His only option is to get loose and to try and figure who the real murderer is and how it was done. Thus, being the hero, he escapes.
There are suspects aplenty. The one-quarter Indian, Heidelburg educated deputy who freely admits he is crooked. The man who may or may not be a secret servece agent. The rancher whose son was killed by Donovan and who who had been shot three times when he tried to get revenge on the mobster. Jessie, the night club singer, who knows she will be killed whenever Donovan tires of her. The dude ranch manager who may have his own reasons for seeing Donovan dead. Members of Donovan's gang, some of whom are loyal and some decidedly not. The only one not a suspect is the rancher's pretty daughter...
Scalps is a fast-moving, entertaining read, true to its pulp roots. It's interesting to see the "locked airplane" take on the standard locked room mystery.