If you are not familiar with Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), a remarkable satirist, writer, screenwriter and poet, then you have missed the life story of a woman well before her time. J.J. Murphy has adopted Parker as her main protagonist in the Algonquin Round Table mysteries, of which You Might As Well Die is number two. (Murder Your Darlings was the first.)
The 1920s were unique and troubled times. Speakeasies were part of the landscape, and Dorothy Parker was the queen of the Algonquin round table. Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood of Vanity Fair magazine were her co-founders at the Algonquin. The “table” of writers came to include Franklin Pierce Adams, Alexander Woollcott and others. Murphy does a dynamic job of not only keeping true to the personalities and behaviors of this mixed bunch, but of creating a really clever mystery plot to surround them.
It is no secret that Mrs. Parker toyed with suicide, so it comes as no surprise that a second-rate illustrator named Ernie MacGuffin uses her to palm off a suicide note on. When it’s found, Parker and Benchley scurry to the Brooklyn Bridge in a panic to try to stop Ernie from jumping. They are too late. From the here, the story evolves into a harried hunt through fraudulent clairvoyants, famous magicians (Harry Houdini!), and a plethora of bizarre sub-characters.
Each step of the way, as Parker, Benchley and Houdini struggle to unravel the wheres and whyfores, the reader becomes more and more intrigued with the setting (New York, 1920s) the background history (the magazine The New Yorker was started at this time,) and the colossal talent of this odd, egocentric group of personalities. You will dabble in the world of art and auctions, traipse along the New York sidewalks and in speeding taxis with Brooklyn cabbies, and sneak into Tony Soma’s for some bootleg gin. (A side note—amongst others given in a historical note at the end of the novel—Tony Soma’s granddaughter is Angelica Huston!)
It’s a hard book to review without spoilers, so I will simply say that the plot moves nimbly through the twists and turns of the story, providing a delightful undercurrent with the relationship between Parker and Benchley and the great Parkeresque humor. As a reminder, although this book stands alone just fine, reading the books in order will give you some background, and make this book even better.