Thursday, January 5, 2012

You Might As Well Die, by J.J. Murphy

You Might As Well Die
By J.J. Murphy

After reading The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower, I decided to see if there were other mysteries in which Harry Houdini played a prominent role. Lo and behold, it turns out that there are quite a few, including J.J. Murphy's You Might As Well Die.

Murphy's gimmick is historical mysteries featuring fictionalized characters from the famed Algonquin Round Table, a literary salon, of sorts, that was active in the Twenties. Most notable among the literary luminaries pressed into crime-solving, the writer Dorothy Parker, who in real life was probably as famous for her acerbic wit as her literary output.

You Might As Well Die looks to be the third book in this series. This time around Parker and humorist Robert Benchley team up to look into the death of a Roundtable second-stringer and struggling artist named Ernie MacGuffin. Though not a couple (Benchley is married) they do this in a style that recalls Nick and Nora Charles, tempering their amateur detecting with plenty of Prohibition-era alcohol. Houdini is drawn into the story when the pair draft him to determine what's really going on at a séance, something that the real Houdini, an active debunker of false spiritualists, was keen on doing whenever possible.

At times the proceedings start to resemble an old-time screwball comedy, with a number of scenes that skirt the boundaries of madcap and such background details as Harpo Marx and Roundtable regular Alexander Woolcott roaming Manhattan, playing a rather offbeat game of croquet. Apparently both men were actually avid croquet players in real life, though this rogue game is presumably a bit of dramatic license. More about Marx, Woolcott and croquet here, if you care.

As for the mystery that lies at the heart of this book, well, let's just say that it wasn't much to write home about. That's not really a knock, since I'd say the same about many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, which are among my favorites. It wouldn't quite be accurate to call MacGuffin a McGuffin in the Hitchcockian sense of the word, but if you've read more than a handful of mysteries you'll probably see everything that's coming long before it actually does. It ain't John Dickson Carr, to be sure, but it's a good time nonetheless.


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