Friday, 14 December 2007

Murder in Paradise

I’ve just watched a Channel 4 documentary about one of the most famous of all unsolved crimes, the killing of Sir Harry Oakes. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, called it the greatest murder mystery of all time. A touch of hyperbole there, I think, but it’s certainly a classic puzzle. Oakes was a very wealthy man (a billionaire, by today’s reckoning) who lived in the Bahamas and was found dead in his Nassau beachfront home on 7 July 1943. His body had been battered, set on fire, and – a bizarre touch worthy of a novel – covered in tiny white feathers.

The Duke of Windsor was the Governor of the Bahamas at the time; probably his appointment was a neat way of preventing him embarrassing the Royal Family at close quarters, not least as a result of his track record of enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler. He knew Oakes quite well, and as if a royal connection was not enough, there was a hint of Mafia involvement.

In the end, Oakes’ son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, was charged with the murder. De Marigny was an almost stereotypical lounge lizard, and when it emerged that he had been burned (after setting fire to Oakes’ room?) and apparently left his fingerprint in the corpse’s vicinity, prospects of an acquittal didn’t look good. But he was capably defended, and found not guilty. His marriage to Oakes’ daughter failed, but he lived quietly on until 1998 (he’d settled in Texas with his fourth wife), occupying himself with bridge and tennis.

The tv programme was based on James Owen’s valuable book about the case, A Serpent in Eden. Like the book, the programme presented a fascinating picture of a seemingly glamorous society with a rottenness at its heart. Shades of White Mischief.

No comments: