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YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE
(an Algonquin Round Table Mystery)
By J. J. Murphy
Obsidian, 2011 ($7.99)
Kindle eBook ($7.99)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
Most readers know about the Algonquin Hotel Round Table, a group of writers and other miscreant Roaring Twenties New Yorkers who gathered regularly at the hotel to drink, talk, and savage each other mercilessly. Regulars included Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, and of course Dorothy Parker. Her acerbic wit has always been a favorite of mine.
Author J. J. Murphy has created an entertaining and highly readable mystery that features Dotty Parker as the AD (amateur detective) who sets out with her other Round Table pals to investigate crime. YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE is the second in the series.
Writing fiction about real people can be difficult, even if they're deceased. If the story sticks too much to fact, the plot may be plodding and dull. If the characterizations stray too far from reality, they soon become parody. Happily, Murphy plays it right down the middle.
Dot Parker is approached by a hanger-on to the group, a hack artist named Ernie MacGuffin, who grandly presents her with his suicide note. He's selected Parker because it's common knowledge that she once attempted suicide herself and has joked about it. Parker and her friend Robert Benchley consider the note an erratic and meaningless flourish by a frustrated painter, and don't give it much thought. Later, of course, MacGuffin appears to have thrown himself off the Brooklyn Bridge as promised. Chagrined, Parker and Benchley investigate the suicide to learn why, mostly to placate their conscience, at least in the beginning.
The subsequent mystery leads them to meet Harry Houdini. This piqued my interest because I've made a personal study of his life and have read numerous books about this greatest of magicians. Although a bit comic in approach, most of what we read about Houdini in the novel is factual.
J. J. Murphy has successfully navigated between Scylla and Charybdis when taking authentic history about the novel's characters and modifying it sufficiently to create an entertaining story, yet not go too far and stretch the truth about the real people.
There is a place, however, where the author seems to have run aground, if only slightly. Writing humorous or comic stories is a great deal more difficult than serious prose. It demands a certain wit and balance, and for the most part, YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE fits the bill nicely. There's a lot of clever punning and inside jokes to make the reader smile. Where the novel fails, I think, is overreaching into farce. For example, two undercover cops dressed as a priest and rabbi enter a speakeasy to prepare for a raid. This simply makes no sense. Naming a rumrunner Mickey Finn and his girlfriend (or "moll") Lucy Goosey doesn't help, either. It temporarily sidetracks the otherwise clever writing and makes the reader blink. We understand the author's intent here, to provoke humor. This is well and good, but letting a clever narrative slide into juvenilia is a mistake, I think. It rather spoils the broth.
Another small point. The character of Dorothy Parker in the book is quite a bit more "PG" than the real person. Of course, the novel is focused on a time when Parker was just establishing herself as a writer, and had likely not yet embarked into her numerous affairs (and aborted pregnancies) nor her sad descent into alcoholism. Whether the author will choose to expurgate Parker in future novels or show a more factual image is yet to be seen. No one wants an historic character besmirched, but telling the truth is often the better path.
These are however minor issues. It's the job of the reviewer to nitpick, as we all know. I found YOU MIGHT AS WELL DIE a fun read. Mystery fans, especially those who follow ADs, will enjoy this novel and look forward to future Algonquin Club stories.
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