REVIEW: Murder Your Darlings

Note: This review originally appeared in The Season E-Zine's January mystery section.

Murder Your Darlings by J.J. Murphy
Obsidian Mystery, January 2011

Rating: 9 (Excellent) (The Season's rating scale runs from 1 to 10)

Every afternoon, Dorothy Parker and the rest of the Vicious Circle meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Their gatherings are never dull, but when Dorothy arrives early one day to discover a pair of legs poking out from beneath the table, she begins to suspect that this particular meal might be a bit more memorable than most. It turns out the legs belong to Leland Mayflower, drama critic for the Knickerbocker News, and that Mayflower is, in fact, very much dead -- stabbed through the heart by his own fountain pen. The police initially suspect a new acquaintance of Dorothy's, an aspiring young writer by the name of Billy Faulkner, but it soon comes out that many of Dorothy's dining companions had reason to want Mayflower dead. Can Dorothy track down the real killer and exonerate her friends without falling prey, herself?

Murder Your Darlings is the first in author J.J. Murphy's new Algonquin Round Table Mystery series. A rollicking good tale that's equal parts Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse, Murder Your Darlings captures perfectly the gritty, witty, debaucherous world that was Dorothy Parker's New York -- a city full of Automats and aristocrats, speakeasies and bathtub gin, where at any given moment you might find Edna St. Vincent Millay making unwanted advances toward Jack Dempsey or Harpo Marx playing poker with Irving Berlin. In the hands of a lesser author, such high-profile cameos might come off as ridiculous and gratuitous, but Murphy uses them to brilliant effect here; they lend texture and magic to his set pieces, and serve to transform the city from a mere backdrop to a character in its own right. His plot is unique and fun, his dialogue is riotously funny, and his prose is as charming and intelligent as Parker, herself.

It takes guts to co-opt a larger-than-life historical figure and turn her into your series heroine, but it's a gamble I'm glad Murphy made. Equal arts intrepid detective, wisecracking journalist, overprotective mother hen, and lonely widow, Murphy somehow manages to humanize the legendary wit without diminishing her; whether she's protecting young Faulkner from both the police and the world she and her friends inhabit or pining after fellow Vicious-Circle-member Robert Benchley, you may empathize with her, but you never lose sight of the fact that Dorothy Parker is a force to be reckoned with.

For his part, Robert Benchley makes a perfect sidekick and ill-fated love interest. Fiercely loyal to Dorothy and every bit as snarky, Benchley clearly adores his friend -- and indeed, spends nearly every waking moment with her -- but it's never clear whether the nature of his feelings mirrors her own, and in the end, much to Dorothy's great dismay, he always goes home to his wife and children. The relationship between the two is tender, yet bittersweet, and makes for incredibly compelling reading.

Murphy's mystery is marvelously clever. Full of bootleggers, hitmen, dark alleys, and two-bit thugs, it ends with a twist I never saw coming. (Though I confess, the story was so entertaining that I didn't spend much time trying to work out the identity of the murderer for myself.) If the book has one flaw, it's that the final chase scene is a bit unnecessarily complicated (and occasionally borders on farcical), but that's a minor complaint; Murder Your Darlings is a joy to read from cover to cover, and Murphy's finale does little to detract from that.

Some would pay a fortune for the chance to spend a few hours in the company of Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle; thanks to J.J. Murphy, however, you can now do so for less than the price of a drink at the Algonquin. Get thee to a bookstore, and quickly; Murder Your Darlings is one purchase you won't regret.