During the years 1998 to 2005, the popular cultural historian and author Ron Goulart (1933-) published a series of six Groucho Marx Mysteries featuring the legendary comedian in an unfamiliar role as a crime investigator. They’re set in the period immediately before the United States entered World War II—the heyday of the big Hollywood studios. The heads of those studios tend to come off poorly in Goulart’s rendering.
A very funny man
Groucho Marx (1890-1977) was a veteran of vaudeville who gained fame with his brothers Chico and Harpo in a series of thirteen feature films in the 1930s and early 1940s. (He made thirteen films without his brothers as well.) The Marx Brothers’s best-remembered productions are Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, and A Night at the Opera. Later, he had a successful solo career on radio and television as the wisecracking host of the quiz show You Bet Your Life (1949-60). If you’re too young to remember or haven’t watched the old Marx Brothers films, take my word for it: Groucho Marx was a very, very funny man.
The Groucho Marx Mysteries: a six-book series
Here are the six books in chronological order, followed by links to my reviews and summaries excised from them.
Groucho Marx Master Detective—Sherlock Holmes, meet Groucho Marx, Master Detective
This novel is set in 1937 after the Marx Brothers’ career in films had peaked. Groucho is in his late forties. The Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes is young Frank Denby, a Hollywood screenwriter who is working with him on a new radio show named like the title of the novel. When a starlet dies at her home, allegedly a suicide, Groucho resolves to learn what really happened. The young woman had been one of Groucho’s many extracurricular affairs, and he’s certain she would not have killed herself. The pair of amateur detectives set out on a madcap investigation that causes them to be kidnapped, shot at, and clubbed on the head more than once.
Groucho Marx, Private Eye—The comedian solves a baffling murder
In 1938, Groucho is on the air in a radio show called (Surprise!) Groucho Marx, Private Eye. The eponymous star is private detective J. Hawkshaw Transom. Frank writes the scripts. Unfortunately, the show’s ratings are declining, and the sponsor has forced Groucho to accept a popular child actor as his on-air daughter. The girl’s mother has been framed for the murder of a former boyfriend, a prominent Hollywood plastic surgeon. Life with the kid will be impossible unless they can keep her mother out of prison. To prove the woman’s innocence, Frank and Groucho will soon be tangling with mobsters, a crooked cop, venal studio executives, and a pudding manufacturer who wants to replace Frank with a clueless ad executive.
Elementary, My Dear Groucho—Groucho Marx versus Sherlock Holmes: guess who wins
Groucho’s radio show has been canceled, and the Marx Brothers’s film career is at a standstill. Groucho and Frank are attempting to peddle a script for a new film to Mammoth Pictures when they discover the body of a famous director on the set of his new film about Sherlock Holmes. And the star of the film, a pompous British actor, announces that he will solve the crime. Well, obviously now, Groucho and Frank will beat the actor to the punch. No question about it. But getting from the discovery of the body to unmasking the killers takes readers on a hilarious romp through the upper echelons of Hollywood society during its golden age. Together Groucho and Frank encounter a German spy, uniformed Nazi thugs, smug British expats, a dog who stars in films, and clueless studio executives. Along the way, they cross paths with Dashiell Hammett, P. G. Wodehouse, Conrad Nagel, and other stars of the age. And, oh, yes, they bring the murderers to justice.
Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders—Groucho Marx solves two puzzling murders
It’s the summer of 1939. As the title suggests, much of the action in this novel takes place in New York. But the story is firmly grounded in Hollywood, where the tale begins. Groucho and his Dr. Watson are kidnapped and hustled to the lair of Vincent Salerno, “head of mob gambling in Southern California.” The gangster wants them to find out who murdered his henchman, Nick Sanantonio. But both Groucho and Frank, for different reasons, are scheduled to leave for New York and are forced to decline the worrisome invitation. Somehow, they get away with that. On the train, Groucho, Frank, and Frank’s cartoonist wife, Jane Danner, soon become embroiled in an attempt on the life of a Hollywood producer who’s shepherding his newest female star to a press conference in the big city. And somehow this is connected to the mobster’s murdered henchman. Once the whole cast of characters arrives in the big city— the producer, his new female star, her publicist and bodyguard, as well as Groucho, Frank, and Jane — the plot quickly thickens.
Groucho Marx, Secret Agent—Groucho Marx exposes Nazi spies in Hollywood
Groucho and Frank become immersed in the effort to root out Nazi spies in Hollywood. The year is 1939, and war had come to Europe with the German invasion of Poland. Hollywood was host to a long list of illustrious German emigrés (Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg) and among them, and in the German Consulate in Los Angeles, there were believed to be many Gestapo spies. This often hilarious novel spotlights the murder of a Hollywood director who turns out not to be the man people thought he was. It’s all about German espionage in LA’s other major industry—airplane production—and sleuthing by Groucho and his Watson stand-in to expose the spies at work there.
Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle—Groucho Marx solves another baffling murder
This time around, the murder victim in question is a musclebound would-be actor who has been hired to play Ty-Gor, a low-rent version of Tarzan, in the latest rip-off of the popular African jungle films. The new Ty-Gor, it turns out, is a creep, both a womanizer, a blackmailer, and nobody’s idea of a boon companion. No one is sad to see him go. But of course a murder means bad publicity for the studio, and the producer is eager to see the murderer caught as quickly as possible. Naturally, then, the producer will turn to Groucho and Frank, whose track record for success in solving homicides puts the LAPD to shame. Fair warning: don’t be surprised when Groucho Marx solves another murder.
For further reading
You might also be interested in:
- My 10 favorite funny novels (plus dozens of runners-up)
- Famous people as detectives in fact and fiction
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series (plus dozens of other good ones)
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