Chocolate and Novels: For What Ails You in February

Caroline Vandreil’s monthly column reviewing a recent read.

My go-to for when I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed is to eat copious amounts of chocolate and read mystery novels. It really doesn’t help with the stress – the chocolate gives only a momentary feelings of delight before dropping to my waist and thighs, and reading novels takes away from time needed to get stuff done. But, at least for a short, pleasant period of time, I can disappear into a world of 1930’s murder and mayhem, in novels by J.J. Murphy.

I enjoy historical fiction. I think it’s because my librarian brain wants to look things up and check out facts for accuracy. I learned all sorts of interesting things about people who were the “talk of the town” of New York in “Murder Your Darlings.” Actor Douglas Fairbanks makes guest appearance, but the focus of the novel is on the members of the Algonquin Round Table, particularly Dorothy Parker and her good friend, Robert Benchley. The Algonquin Round Table was literally a round table in the centre of the dining room of the Algonquin Hotel, which is still in business today, where artists, and magazine and newspaper writers and editors would meet for lunch. The author takes some liberties with timelines, but otherwise the story is fairly accurate historically.

The story starts with Dorothy Parker arriving for lunch, only to discover a dead body under the table. One of the early suspects is Billy (William) Faulkner, who has come to New York to find his writing voice and to meet Dorothy Parker. Parker takes him under her wing, hiding him from the police, mobsters, and the murderer. Hijinks ensue as Parker changes Faulkner’s name to protect him, then dashes about the city with Benchley in tow, following clues to determine who really did commit the crime.

At times, the novel plays out like a comic movie. Both Parker and Benchley, both well known for their pithy, often sardonic, witticisms in real life, are written as true to form. Murphy occasionally includes jokes and one-liners that Parker and Benchley are known to have said (although in slightly different contexts). Scenes with the police detective, O’Rannigan, and some of his underlings are reminiscent of the Keystone Cops silent films. The atmosphere, dialogue, and action all have the feel of a 1930’s short film, something that both Benchley and Parker wrote for and/or worked in later in their lives.

In both “Murder Your Darlings” and “You Might As Well Die,” Murphy writes Parker as a woman in love with her best friend, Benchley. There is no historical evidence to support there being a romantic relationship between the two, despite their close working relationship, but it does work to create additional tension between the characters.

Initially I thought the title was a throw-away, simply pulled from a couple of quotations about authors needing to kill their ”inspired” and “exceptionally fine writing” so that it not see the light of day. Further reflection shows me that the title is actually quite fitting, especially as it pertains to the murderer.

All in all, “Murder Your Darlings” by J.J. Murphy had me going to Google enough for me to feel that I wasn’t completely wasting my time reading. It was actually enjoyable enough for me to find the next book in the series, “You Might As Well Die” and rapidly consume it as well. Murphy portrays Parker as an audacious heroine, and writes enough action to keep the plot moving, especially towards the end.

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