Groucho Marx, Private Eye

by Ron Goulart

Published by St. Martin's Press

263 pages, 1999

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The Joking Detective

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Author Ron Goulart has had the audacity to take an icon of Western comedy -- Groucho Marx -- and put him to work as a sleuth. Can we believe that behind those bushy eyebrows, big nose, glasses, and greasepaint mustache is the cool, calculating mind of a master crime solver? That the late, great Groucho, whose movie roles took him from safari jacket to doctor's smock to golfer's tweeds, could just as easily have inhabited a detective's trademark trench coat and fedora?

You bet your life.

I started reading Groucho Marx, Private Eye with misgivings, doubtful that its humor would be anywhere near the caliber of Marx Brothers film classics such as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935). Sure enough, the humor is less memorable -- but nevertheless, it rings true. This is not the ensemble Groucho, indulging in rapid-fire word play and wild slapstick with his brothers as they lay waste to drawing rooms, racetracks, and cruise ships. But this is the wisecracking, irrepressible Groucho, host of the 1950s TV game show You Bet Your Life, in which he pried into his guests' lives in much the style of a persistent gumshoe.

Crime fiction writers -- from Bruce Alexander (author of the Sir John Fielding mysteries) and Lillian de La Torre (the Dr. Sam Johnson series), to Donald Zochert (Murder in the Hellfire Club, featuring Benjamin Franklin) and Peter Lovesey (who resurrected Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, in a series of sprightly novels) -- have re-cast historical figures as detectives. Stuart M. Kaminsky's 1978 mystery You Bet Your Life was probably the first time Groucho Marx (along with his brothers Harpo and Chico) appeared in a comedic crime caper, but he didn't have his first solo outing until Goulart's 1998 book Groucho Marx, Master Detective. Goulart, who has penned more than 30 works of fiction (most of them science fiction and mystery) and more than a dozen non-fiction books (most of them about the history of comic-strip art or the history of the hard-boiled detective novel), has a knack for creating -- and re-creating -- other worlds.

In this book, Goulart gives us a writer's view of the pre-war Los Angeles immortalized by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. He has the fictional Groucho starring in a LA-based radio series (a job the real Groucho had mid-career, between his New York stage work and Hollywood films). As in Master Detective, this new book's narrator is Frank Denby, the radio show's scriptwriter and Groucho's partner in crime solving. Denby, a perennial bachelor (though he's mulling over moving in with his sweetheart, Jane Danner), describes his relationship to the comedian as playing "Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe." Such references to famous detectives and to the clichés of crime fiction abound -- most with a groan-inducing Marxist twist.

"Not only is the game afoot," Groucho assures Frank as they embark on their case, "but my foot's a little gamy."

You can almost see Sherlock Holmes recoiling with a grimace that would outdo Groucho's famed straight-woman, Margaret Dumont, at her most indignant.

Groucho fans will enjoy a chance to see their man come to life in a very plausible role (one which has the authorization of the late comedian's estate). For mystery readers, the pleasant surprise of this book is not the Groucho character, but Goulart's neatly crafted plot. The first half of the book is thick with 1940s period characters -- a rich widow, a corrupt cop, Denby's beautiful girlfriend, the pompous pudding manufacturer who sponsors Groucho's radio program -- but by the second half you realize that Goulart has got quite a game afoot, indeed.

Polly Pilgrim, the bratty teenaged starlet who sings on Groucho's show, asks him to investigate when her mom is arrested and charged in the murder of Dr. Frank Benninger, "the noted Beverly Hills nose job artist." Young Polly convinces Groucho that her mother, a star-turned-alcoholic, has been framed. In order to clear her name, Groucho and Denby must find the real murderer.

There is no shortage of suspects. Groucho unearths a former movie star, who has lived in veiled seclusion since Benninger botched her face-lift. The two amateur detectives also discover that the doctor had run afoul of an organized-crime boss who was supplying him with illegal drugs to sell to his patients. And Polly's wealthy stepfather is suspiciously unenthusiastic about Groucho's attempts to clear his ex-wife's name.

The ensuing investigation ranges across the City of Angels, from quaint bungalows to the deserted backlots of movie studios. A gunman shoots Groucho in effigy at the Marx Brothers exhibit at a Hollywood wax museum. Denby is kidnapped by mobsters, who interrogate him on a Ferris wheel. Groucho leaps out the window of a bordello with a key witness in tow. And throughout, the mustachioed comedian acts the consummate wise-guy detective. One particularly hard-boiled scene finds him confronting sleazy talent agent Rupe McCloskey over the whereabouts of Maggie Barnes, an aspiring starlet who Groucho suspects has been part of the frame-up:

McCloskey said, "I get it, Groucho. This is more of that amateur detective crap." He shook his head. "Let me tell you something, pal. You did okay on that Peg McMorrow mess, but you ought to rest on your laurels."

"I tried that, but it was very uncomfortable. Few people realize that laurels are extremely prickly," he said. "I'd like her address, Rupe."

"Maggie isn't acting."

"On the contrary, I suspect she's played a couple of interesting roles very recently."

I could have done without much of the cloying subplot about Denby's love life, but all in all, this is a nimble and diverting book, if not destined to be a classic of the genre. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar -- even if the person waggling it so entertainingly is Groucho. | April 1999


KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.