"The Case of the Murderer's Bride" by Erle Stanley Gardner (first published in Look, October 15, 1957; reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1960; in EQMM #155 (Australia), May 1960; in EQMM #90 (UK), July 1960; in Ellery Queen's Anthology #16, 1969; and in Gardner's collection The Case of the Murderer's Bride and Other Stories, edited by Ellery Queen, 1969.)
Lawrence B. Ives had an interesting and profitable occuation: murdering his wives. Of course, Ives would be sure that his wives were heavily insured (in smallish amounts but from a number of different insurance agencies) and that they each died accidentally. We can assume that Ives was not his real name, for he has had a number of names in the past, most likely one name per wife. We have no idea how many women he married and then murdered but, by the time of this story, he was 36, pretending to be a 48-year-old widower of independent means; it's safe to assume that it took a goodly number of uxorious corpses to allow him to reach him to reach those independent means. In his defense he was, at least, not a bigamist; each wife was good and dead before he moved on to the next one.
His latest wife was the former Nan Palmer, a quiet,unassuming woman who was supporting her mother, sister, and brother by the time she was sixteen. Her sister had left home when she was 18, wen t through at least two marriages, and eventually stopped communicating with her family. Nan put her brother through two years of college before he was killed in Korea. Her mother had numerous medical,problams and, between the doctors bills and nurssng fees, Nan had little money to her name. Her days, while not at work, were spent in drudgery -- caring for her mother, shopping for food, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, sewing...
After her mother's death, Nan did not know what to do with herself. She was a likable person but never had time to cultivate friends or to take much care in her personal appearance. Ssecretly she harbored the romantic dreams she found in novels featuring an innocent heroine who was swept off her feet by a romantic and dashing Prince Charming. But those were just dreams and had no bearing on her boring reality. Until she met Larry Ives through a couple of chance meetings at the local library. Amazingly, Ives began to appear interested in Nan.
It was not long before the two married -- all according to Ives's plans. He planned to take her out of her drab past, cutting her off from what few friends she had. She fell for it as he lavished her with gifts: expensive clothes and makeovers, as well as exciting new experiences. Nan blossomed. Beneath her plain, unattended appearance, there was a surprising beauty and a hidden sophistication -- so much so that Ives briefly considered forgoing his occupation, letting Nan live, and spending the rest of his days with her.
But no. Work was work, and Ives had invested his capital heavily in his bride. He needed a return on his investment. But how to kill her without raising suspicions? Ives's modus operandi was to read newspapers, searching for unique method of accidental deaths. Over a period of a few months, there had been three or four cases -- widely spread throughout the country -- of person drowning while swimming out of sight of others. These all took place on large lakes where the boat the people had ridden in drifted away unnoticed from where they were swimming; by the time they realized that the boat had drifted, it had gotten too far for them to reach. Perfect!
Enter Corporal Ed Courtland, whose kjob it was to read all the crank mail that came into the police department. (What kind of police department and where it was located were minor details that are never explained.) One "crank" letter expressed concern for a former co-worker, Nan Palmer, who had married in a whirlwind courtship, moved away, and never contacted her friends. The writer, while cleaning out some papers in her attic, came across a picture in an illustrated magazine about a man who had tragically lost his wife in an airplane accident (she had fallen out of a plane because her seat belt was not porpoerly connected). The picture was of Nan's husband Lawrence Ives. But the man's name wa Corvallis Fletcher. The writer as concerned for Nan's safety.
Courtland brought the letter to his friend, Dr. Herbert Dixon, a medico-legal epert in forensic pathology and homicide investigation. Dixon, like Courtland, became interested. A they investigted, each became convinced that Ives planned to murder his wife, but they had not a shred of proof. Learning that Ives had taken his wife to a large Nevada lake formed from a part of the Colorado River, the pair headed out in a desperate attempt to save Nan's life. It was a very large lake, with lots of inlets, and the chances of them locating Ives were slim...
An interesting set-up, weakened by an unrealistic pair of heroes and a deux ex machina denouement. The pacing is good and the tale harks back to Gardner's pulp roots and the characters of both Ives and his wife are well-drawn. It's a fast read so you won't feel cheated taking the time to quickly turn the pages.
The Case of the Murderer's Bride and Other Stories was an early digest-sized paperback collection edited by "Ellery Queen" during the days when EQMM was published by Davis Publications; it was also the very first collection of Gardner's short stories. The collection has been reprinted at least three times so copies should be readily available. All seven stories in the book had been reprinted in EQMM from their original appearances. Other single author collections from writers like Michael Gilbet and Edward D. Hoch followed. This followed a more successsful, earlier series of single-author collections edited by Ellery Queen from Mercrury Press, beginning in the Forties, most notably significnt collections of Dashiell Hammett's piulp stories.