"Hilarious." - Kirkus Review
In this inventive mystery set in Hollywood's golden era, Ron Goulart revives America's favorite cigar-wielding comic--Groucho Marx. Needing a project to occupy him between movie stints, Groucho agrees to act in a radio serial. But when a beautiful starlet is found dead before production even begins, Groucho is determined to find out who killed her.
About the Author
Ron Goulart has published a number of mysteries and nonfiction books dealing with the world of the comic strip, including the Groucho Marx mystery series. He lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Read an Excerpt
Groucho Marx, Master Detective
By Ron Goulart
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Groucho Marx Productions, Inc. and Ron Goulart
All rights reserved.
The world wasn't in especially great shape that autumn of 1937. And I ought to know, I was there.
Hitler was quite obviously already warming up for World War II, the Japanese were moving across China and there was civil war in Spain. America was suffering a recession and workers were staging sit-down strikes all across the country. The Prince of Wales had renounced his throne for the woman he loved, John D. Rockefeller had died, Amelia Earhart had gone missing in the Pacific.
In Hollywood Groucho Marx solved his first murder case.
Very few people were ever aware that Groucho carried on a successful sideline as an amateur detective. But from the late 1930s, trust me, Groucho was giving such West Coast sleuths as Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Dan Turner some stiff competition. A well-read and perceptive fellow, Groucho turned out to have a real affinity for investigating and solving crimes. "My sleuthing turned Sherlock Holmes green with envy," he once mentioned. "Or maybe that was only because we left him out in the rain too long."
I served him as a sort of Dr. Watson for most of his career "I don't need anybody to scribble down accounts of these capers," he told me after we'd been at this for a while. "If you were a real doctor, though, you might be able to tell me why I feel so tearful and forlorn whenever the first of the month rolls around. You could also explain these strange greenish spots people report seeing on my backside."
My name is Frank Denby and I wasn't yet a screenwriter at that point. I'd been a police reporter for the Los Angeles Times until early in 1936 and then quit to turn out radio scripts.
Don't worry, by the way, that this account is not going to star Groucho. I learned a long time ago that whether people loved him — which a lot of them did — or hated him — and there were, believe me, quite a few of them, too — they were always more interested in Groucho than they were in me. He'll be making a typical Groucho entrance shortly, but first I want to get some of the details about me out of the way, so that you'll understand how I came to be the Boswell of Julius Marx all those years ago.
His first real detective case got going on a bright, clear morning in October 1937. Groucho was approaching his late forties. A few months earlier MGM's A Day at the Races, in which he starred with his brothers Harpo and Chico, had opened across America to mixed reviews but a very impressive box office take.
I was just shy of thirty and living alone since my divorce the year before, in a small ramshackle beach cottage in the Southern California town of Bayside. My wife quit me a few weeks after I'd quit the paper.
I met Jane Danner on that particular autumn morning. She became the love of my life, but neither one of us had any notion that we were going to spend the rest of our days together.
I was driving a secondhand Plymouth coupe in those days. The previous owner had painted it a bright lemon yellow and attached an imitation raccoon tail to the radio antenna. I had to be in Beverly Hills for a meeting at an ad agency at ten A.M. that morning and I left my place a little before nine.
Groucho was going to be at that meeting, too.
When I turned onto Oceanside Boulevard the car radio was playing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," the Andrews Sisters hit that I'd already heard several dozen times so far that week.
"You know," I said aloud — I tend to talk to myself quite a lot, so be prepared — "I still don't have any idea what those lyrics mean."
Traffic up ahead seemed unusually thick and tangled.
"I wonder if even the Andrews Sisters know."
I heard a siren now.
About a block ahead was a large wedge of vehicles blocking most of my side of the wide boulevard. There were three Bayside Police Department cars parked in the street at assorted odd angles and another one up on the dry narrow lawn of a small stucco cottage.
A dusty white ambulance shared the patch of lawn with the police car and a second ambulance was just roaring to a stop on the sidewalk. Several other cars were parked on both street and sidewalk and more were pulling up. Three uniformed cops were trying to keep back a gaggle of what looked to be reporters and photographers. From this distance I couldn't recognize any of my former colleagues. They seemed to be interested in the small garage attached to the cottage.
Suddenly a new police car shot in front of me from the left.
"Jesus!" I swung the Plymouth's steering wheel hard to the right, hitting the gas pedal.
My car lurched, getting out of the way about five seconds short of getting sideswiped.
I started to sigh, then stopped.
From my right came an odd rattling noise, then a woman's cry and then more rattling.
I hit the brakes. Pulling on the emergency, I shifted into neutral and hopped free of the car. On the radio the announcer was delivering a commercial for a bargain funeral home.
I hurried around the front of the yellow car.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
An auburn-haired young woman, very pretty, wearing a tweed skirt and a green cardigan, was sitting on the pavement with her bare legs spread wide. A bicycle, looking out of kilter and surreal, lay nearby.
"What was the question?" she asked.
"Are you hurt? Did I hit you?"
She looked up at me. "No, I hit you I believe."
"Well, that was because I had to swerve to avoid getting smacked by the damn cop car."
"That sounds plausible."
"The more important inquiry has to do with what shape you're in. Especially your bones and such."
"Help me up." She held out a hand. "And we'll run a few tests."
I took her hand and, somehow, felt a mild electric shock. That was when I started to fall in love with Jane Danner and I came to understand the Prince of Wales. If I'd had a throne, it would have been given up right then and there.
She wiggled her left foot, then her right. Wiggled each hand in turn. "I seem to be shipshape." Leaning to the right, she looked around me and at her fallen bike. "But my bicycle's all askew, isn't it?"
"Afraid so. Can I deliver you someplace?"
"That would be nice."
I opened the rumble seat of my Plymouth, gathered up the injured bike and managed to get it stowed away. "Where were you going?"
"To work — about a mile from here. On Palm Lane."
"Sure, that's right on my way," I told her. "Well, even if it weren't, I'd get you there. I'll buy you a new bike, too."
"To keep me from suing you for everything you possess?"
"That's one good reason, yeah. But I happen to be a chivalrous fellow and anytime I knock a girl off a bike and damage it, I replace the damn thing."
"Fine by me." Hands on hips, she was surveying the traffic jam that was growing down the block. "Any idea what the heck is going on?"
"Something serious I'd guess. A death probably."
"Actress," said a middle-aged newsboy from the sidewalk. He was wearing a long tan overcoat and had a bundle of morning newspapers tucked up under his right arm. "Lived up there. Did the Dutch."
"Suicide, huh?" I said.
"Yep, so they're saying."
Nodding, I opened the passenger door. "My name's Frank Denby."
"I'm Jane Danner." She slid into my coupe. "Are you currently married?"
After coming around and getting in, I answered, "Divorced. You?"
"Haven't been married so far. Engaged three times, though."
I eased the car around the vehicles that blocked the way and turned onto a side street. "Is that a pattern?"
"So far, yes. I tend to leave them at the altar."
I asked, "What sort of job am I taking you to?"
"It's kind of odd."
Rising up on our right was a huge billboard advertising Lost Horizon with Ronald Colman.
"Ever heard of a comic strip called Hillbilly Willie?"
"Sure, everybody has. Rod Tommerlin draws it and it runs locally in the Examiner."
"Well, I help draw it."
"Do you draw the outhouses?"
"Right, and most of the pigs and mules."
"I like those outhouses. Especially the little crescent moons cut in the doors."
"I take it, Frank — judging from the slightly snide tone I'm sensing here — that you yourself do something far loftier than mountain boy humor."
"Nope. I write radio shows actually," I informed her as we turned back onto Oceanview.
"What? Soap operas like Ma Perkins? Or funny stuff like Jack Benny?"
"I've done both sorts of shows. Most recently I wrote a detective show called Crime Reporter. Chester Morris did that one for a season, but we didn't get renewed," I said. "I'm back with comedy now, working on a new show called Groucho Marx, Master Detective."
"Oh, I love the Marx Brothers. I thought Duck Soup was the funniest —"
"This is just Groucho. Something he can do on his own until they decide whether they're going to do another movie."
"I hope they will. Harpo's my favorite. He's cute."
"Cute, but difficult to fit into a radio format," I observed. "Matter of fact, I'm on my way to a meeting with the ad agency we're doing the show for. Going to be a network guy there, too. And Groucho will probably show up, if he remembers."
"What's he like?"
"Well, he doesn't have a moustache in real life."
"I've heard that, yes," Jane said. "Oh, by the way, you passed Palm Lane two blocks back."
"Oops." I pulled to the curb, checked the rearview mirror and then executed a U-turn. "You busy tonight?"
"I'm free any time after six."
"Okay, I'll arrive shortly after six and we'll go to dinner. Okay?"
"Fine. I live at 2303 Mar Vista Way."
"Not too far from my place."
"Walk over, then, and we can try a favorite bistro of mine on the beach."
I drove in silence for a few seconds, then said, "This has been an unusual morning for me."
Jane smiled. "Wait till you see what the evening's going to be like."CHAPTER 2
The offices of the Pauker, Hatton & Underwood advertising agency occupied an entire floor in a brand-new building on Wilshire Boulevard on the edge of Beverly Hills. The senior meeting room was done up in extreme art deco style and everything in it was either stark white or dense black.
When I got there, about fifteen minutes late, three of the eight black chairs around the white oval table were already occupied. Jape Griffin, the large wide sunbrown account man on the Orem Bros. Coffee account, sat at the head of the table. Warren Stander, a small weary man in his fifties, was a vice president for programming at the Nationwide Broadcasting Network and had placed himself as far from Jape as possible. Jape's secretary — I was pretty sure her first name was either Betty or Betsy but had no notion as to her last name — was seated at her boss's right hand. There was a copy of the latest draft of my radio script at each place and as a centerpiece a pyramid rose, made of ten of the familiar gold and blue Orem Bros. Coffee cans.
"You must think you're Groucho," observed Jape as I sat down.
"You're fourteen minutes late," said the account executive. "Of course, he's not here yet."
Pointing at one of the windows, I explained, "I got tangled in traffic."
Making a grunting noise, Jape picked up his copy of the script. "The client, that's Junior Orem, isn't completely happy about the title of our proposed show, Frank."
"What's he unhappy about? And how come a guy who's near seventy is still known as Junior?"
"He feels that Groucho Marx, Master Detective is too bland."
"It's supposed to be ironic."
"Irony doesn't sell coffee." He patted his blond secretary on the arm. "Betsy."
She smiled across at me and flipped open her steno book. "Mr. Orem suggests Groucho Marx, Silly Detective. Groucho Marx, Screwball Detective. Groucho Marx of the Famous Marx Bros. Joins Forces with Deeply Satisfying Orem Bros. Coffee to Bring You Goofy Mysteries Every Week."
"Oh, I love that last one," I said, slumping in my black chair and producing a believable groan. "It has zing and is, furthermore, streamlined. Jesus, Jape."
"You're eventually going to have to capitulate to the client's wishes."
"Yeah, but it'll take fifteen minutes just to read that damned title. Leaving only fifteen for the whole show and the commercials."
"If I were a writer — which, praise be, I'm not — I'd sit up and pay attention when a client told me my title was dull and drab," Jape told me.
"You're thinking of my laundry, not my script. And it isn't dull and drab — not since I switched to Rinso." I held up both hands. "And I got rid of my dishpan hands, too."
Jape patted his secretary's arm again.
She turned to a new page in the steno book. "The client is also perturbed by the suspicion that both the proposed writer and the proposed star of the radio show are making snide remarks about him behind his back. Furthermore —"
"Did I miss the sermon?" A middle-sized man with an impressive tennis court tan came rushing into the meeting room, crouching slightly. He was wearing a checked sport coat, a tan polo shirt and slacks of a russet hue.
"Sit down, Groucho," suggested Jape. "This concerns you."
Groucho Marx gazed around the black and white room. "Too bad you couldn't afford Technicolor." Circling the white oval table, he stopped next to Betsy and tugged a small purplish bouquet from inside his coat. "Orchids for you, my pet."
She, reluctantly, accepted the flowers, nose wrinkling. "These aren't orchids, Mr. Marx. They look like petunias to me."
"I thought two bouquets for a quarter was too good a price for South American orchids." He continued around and dropped into the seat next to me. "Have you been defending our honor, Rollo?"
"To the best of my ability, sir."
Stander spoke now. His voice was dry and rasping. "Can we assume that the clowning is over and we can get down to business at last?"
Groucho checked his gold wristwatch. "Actually, Warren, the clowning isn't scheduled to commence for another half hour yet," he explained. "What you've been enjoying up to now has been the overture as rendered by an all male choir — and that should tickle your fancy. What have they been bitching about, Franklin?"
"The title of our radio show," I told him. "Seems the client finds it dull and dingy."
"The title," said Groucho, standing up and pointing a finger at the white ceiling, "happens to be the best title I have ever heard for a radio show. It brings tears to the eyes — or maybe that's just the onions you had for breakfast, Warren. Be that as it may, the title is terrific." He sat down again, tugged a second bouquet from out of his coat and tossed it across to Betsy. "And keep in mind, Jape dear, that I've worked with some of the most brilliant writers of the century. George Kaufman, Arthur Sheekman, Morrie Ryskind, Sid Perelman, George Bernard Shaw, Harry Ruby and —"
"When the hell did you work with George Bernard Shaw?" inquired Jape.
"Oh, that's right," said Groucho, "he never finished the script he was working on for us. His whiskers kept getting tangled up in the typewriter keys. Broke his heart and caused him to become a vegetarian. If the title goes, we go." He settled back in the chair and produced a cigar out of his breast pocket.
"There are," put in the NBN executive, "other problems."
"Give us an example, Little Eva," invited Groucho, as he lit his cigar with a wood match.
"We're not going to be able to okay the name you've chosen for the detective you're going to play on this show."
"Why, pray tell?"
"It's lewd and lowbrow. J. Hawkshaw Transom." Stander tapped thin fingers on the script. "Suggestive of cheap hotels and smutty assignations."
"Gee, I never caught that until now." He exhaled smoke and nudged me. "That's what I get for working with this youthful offender here." Suddenly he lunged and grabbed one of the Orem Bros. Coffee cans from the bottom row. "Here's something else I never noticed until just now."
The pyramid of cans went toppling. One rolled into Betsy's lap, another sailed over the edge of the white table and thunked onto the black carpeting.
"One of the Orem boys has a glass eye." Groucho had the can close to his face and was frowning at the engraved portraits of the three founding Orem brothers. "Doesn't match the other one at all. And just think, Rollo, I've been swilling down this stuff every morn for — what is it? three weeks now — and never spotted this." He tapped the can. "What this is is one of those glass eyes they use in stuffing chipmunks." He thrust the can toward me. "See?"
"I'd say it's a squirrel eye."
"You think so? No, squirrels usually look smarter and more honest than that."
Jape put in, "Groucho, we're supposed to go on the air with your new radio show in less than two weeks. If we can't get together with the client and the network on these minor changes — well, we may have to drop the project."
Excerpted from Groucho Marx, Master Detective by Ron Goulart. Copyright © 1998 Groucho Marx Productions, Inc. and Ron Goulart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Set in Hollywood in 1937, it follows Groucho as he works to solve what he's convinced is the murder of a young actor whose death has been ruled a suicide. The narrator, who acts as his Watson, is a former Los Angeles Times police reporter who's writing scripts for Groucho's new radio show. It's a comedy mystery show called, not surprisingly, "Groucho Marx, Master Detective." This novel was a great deal of fun because I got to pretend to be Groucho and come up with wise remarks. I've been insulting people all my life, but now I'm finally getting paid for it. I also got a great kick out of roaming 1930s Hollywood and going to such locations as the Coconut Grove, the Hollywood Bowl, the Garden of Allah, and Angel's Flight and rubbing shoulders with gamblers, movie moguls, crooked cops, gossip columnists, stars and starlets, and assorted other denizens of the Movie Capital. I've been a lifelong Groucho fan and have just about all his movies on video cassette and just about every book ever written about him and his siblings. While I never actually met him, I was, very briefly, one of his ghostwriters. Back a few decades ago, while working at an ad agency, I wrote a humorous testimonial ad for Skippy Peanut Butter that Groucho signed his name to. And now, I'm again putting words, if not peanut butter, in his mouth.
This novel is, by the way, the first of a series. After seeing an advance copy, the Official Unofficial Marx Brothers Web Site said, "Goulart presents an intriguing mystery in which he managed to capture Groucho's comic spirit wonderfully." That's more than anybody ever said about the peanut butter ad.