A Friendly Game of Murder

Contents

Epigraph

Author's Note

Preface

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

 

Historical Note

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Praise for the Agatha Award–Nominated

Murder Your Darlings

“Sparkles with a wit to match the original Algonquin Round Table. I devoured it, chuckling all the way.”

—Rhys Bowen

“Dorothy Parker—satirist, poet, and one of the great wits of the twentieth century—is the feisty heroine of this delightful mystery. . . . I loved it!”


Suspense Magazine

“Murphy’s debut, the first in a new series set in the 1920s, will intrigue Dorothy Parker fans.”


Publishers Weekly

“This historical mystery is very atmospheric, giving armchair time-traveling readers a vivid taste of the Roaring Twenties in New York City.”

—Genre Go Round Reviews

“A brilliant first novel. . . . Murphy has courageously ventured into [Dorothy] Parker’s world, and does quite a creditable job. . . . And the mystery ain’t bad either.”


Mystery Scene

“This new series shows comical and intelligent promise. Each character stays true to the original in comment and personality.”


The Historical Novels Review

“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.”

—The Season for Romance

 

Praise for

You Might As Well Die

“Pure entertainment with some very funny scenes . . . well researched and well written. . . . Murphy [is] a talented and intelligent writer whose fictional characters remain true to the spirits of their originals. . . .
You Might As Well Die
and its predecessor,
Murder Your Darlings
, are bonbons for fans of the 1920s.”

—Gumshoe

“[A] charming 1920s period piece. . . . With a strong sense of time and place, fans will enjoy this engaging Americana as the superb twisting investigation enhances a feeling of being part of the Round Table.”

—Genre Go Round Reviews

“[A] great read. I can’t wait to see what mischief J. J. Murphy has planned for book three in this series.”


Suspense Magazine

 

Other Books in the Algonquin Round Table Mystery Series

by J. J. Murphy

 

Murder Your Darlings

You Might As Well Die

A Friendly Game of Murder

An Algonquin Round Table Mystery

J. J. Murphy

OBSIDIAN

Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © John Murphy, 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

OBSIDIAN and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

 

To Mom and Pop

 

Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.

—Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A
UTHOR’S
N
OTE

Dorothy Parker reportedly said, “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true.” Following her advice, this book is almost entirely a work of fiction, even though it is populated with many real people. The members of the Algonquin Round Table never seemed to let the truth get in the way of telling a good story—and I hope you won’t let it get in the way of enjoying this one.

P
REFACE

I
n the 1920s, there was no Internet, no wireless phones, no satellite TV. Even radio wasn’t commonplace until the later twenties. Instead of writing text messages and e-mail, people sent telegrams or employed messenger boys. For music at home, they listened to a Victrola or sang around a piano.

For entertainment, New Yorkers had dozens of theaters in which to see plays and a number of movie palaces where they could see silent films. (“Talkies” didn’t arrive until the later twenties.)

For information, New Yorkers lacked twenty-four-hour cable news networks. But they did have a dozen daily newspapers to choose from. Presses ran day and night, and printed morning editions, afternoon editions and special editions (“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”).

At this time, the people who wrote the news also became the news. An upstart class of writers, editors and critics emerged. A loose-knit group of ten—and their assorted friends—gathered around a large table for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. They went to the Algonquin because it welcomed artists and writers—and because it was convenient and inexpensive. Their daily lunch gatherings were known more for wisecracks and witticisms than for the food they ate. But they buoyed one another with merriment and camaraderie. They thought the fun would never end.

Chapter 1

“M
rs. Parker,” said Alexander Woollcott, “how about a friendly little game of Murder?”

Dorothy Parker pretended she didn’t hear him. Woollcott was a fellow member of the Algonquin Round Table and the drama critic for the
New York Times
. He was also a pompous, paunchy pain in the neck sometimes.

Dorothy was preoccupied anyway. She and Woollcott stood at one end of the crowded lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Her eyes turned again to the massive grandfather clock to check the time. Normally the lobby wasn’t quite so busy and boisterous at eight o’clock on a Saturday night—but this wasn’t an ordinary Saturday night. The crowd was elbow to elbow. The tinkling laughter of elegant ladies in glittering gowns mingled with the low chuckles of dapper men in their crisp white shirts, black ties and tails. The air was rich with the intoxicating scents of cigarette smoke and expensive perfume. Most of these people were here for the big party.

Now, where is that hound Robert Benchley?
Dorothy wondered for the umpteenth time.

“Please, Mrs. Parker, I beseech you,” Woollcott said, like a fly buzzing in her ear. “Murder would simply be no fun without you.”

Mildly alarmed at this, a tall, burly man who stood just a few feet from Dorothy turned toward them. Dorothy returned his glance to reassure him all was fine. He was an older gentleman, in his sixties, with a bushy walrus mustache and sagging, intelligent eyes. He looked vaguely familiar to Dorothy, but she knew she had never met him.

“Mrs. Parker, please!” Woollcott commanded. “One little murder is all I’m asking—”

“Fine,” she said, cocking her fingers at him like a pistol. “Bang, you’re dead. Game over. Have a nice night.”

Woollcott sighed, exasperated. “It’s not just any old night, dear Dottie,” he said. “It’s New Year’s Eve. Where is your sense of fun?”

“It was beaten to death by my sense of taste. And I find your detective game to be distasteful. I’d rather play something else. Russian roulette comes to mind at the moment.”

Through his round, owl-like spectacles, Woollcott’s dark beady eyes examined her. “What’s got your knickers in a pinch?”

She glanced at the grandfather clock again. It was now just after eight.
Benchley should have arrived half an hour ago. He’d better not stand me up
.

“Well?” Woollcott said, and repeated his question about her knickers.

“My knickers are perfectly fine, thank you. It’s you and everyone else who’s in a twist,” she said, as much to herself as to him. “Why is it that everyone insists on making such a big deal out of New Year’s Eve? Everyone’s in such a lather to have so much fun that the evening ceases to be enjoyable and starts to become one long, tedious chore.”

Irked, Woollcott turned on his heel and stormed away; he nearly collided with the large gent with the walrus mustache.

Dorothy checked the clock again, but the minute hand hadn’t moved.
Would Benchley stay at home in the suburbs with his wife and family? Or would he come into the city, as he said he would, for the party?
Dorothy had bought a new dress, even though she didn’t have the money to pay for it. Its forest-green velvet complimented her deep brown eyes. She toyed with the long strand of faux pearls around her neck.

What’s the point?
she wondered morosely. Even if Benchley did show up, he wouldn’t notice.

A gaunt, white-haired man with gold-framed glasses had joined the big man with the walrus mustache. The two old men shook hands as if they hadn’t seen one another in years—decades, maybe.

Out of the crowd appeared the hotel’s suave manager, Frank Case. He gave Dorothy a wink and then approached the two distinguished-looking men. Dorothy noticed a yellow telegram envelope in Case’s hand.

“Forgive my intrusion, gentlemen,” Case said, and turned to the thin, white-haired man. “Dr. Hurst, thank you again for taking the time to examine that family, even though you’re here as a guest. So, may I inquire about your diagnosis?”

The white-haired man—Dr. Hurst—spoke with an arrogant authority. “Chicken pox. Keep them confined to their room for the time being.” He had a gruff, clipped British accent that reminded Dorothy of military drill instructors or stern schoolmasters.

Case smiled deferentially. “Thank you for relieving our concerns, Doctor.” Case turned to the burly man with the walrus mustache. “I feared it might be smallpox. That is, it looked like smallpox to my untrained eye.”

“Smallpox?” said the man. He spoke with a soft Scottish accent. “An unfortunate way to enter the new year. I wish them a rapid recovery.”

“I will pass your concerns to the aggrieved family, Sir Arthur,” Case said to the big man. “I hope you enjoy your evening with us. Nice to finally meet you.”

Sir Arthur?
Dorothy wondered.

“Very kind of you, but I’m only here for a quick cigar with my old colleague,” said Sir Arthur, as he heartily slapped Dr. Hurst’s bony shoulder. “Haven’t seen each other in ages.”

Case smiled genially and turned back to Dr. Hurst. “A telegram arrived for you while you were attending to the family with chicken pox.” He handed Dr. Hurst the envelope with a polite little bow and excused himself.

Her tiny feet scampering to catch up, Dorothy followed after him.

“Frank!” she said when they were out of earshot of the two older men.

Case turned around. “Good evening, Mrs. Parker! How are you this wonderful New Year’s Eve?”

“Annoyed, thank you very much,” she said. “Who was that you were just talking to?”

Case raised his eyebrows. “Ah, that’s Dr. Quentin Hurst. Not much of a bedside manner, apparently, but highly respected in the medical field. He’s in town for a medical conference.”

“No, not that old coot,” she said. “The big fellow next to him. He looks so familiar.”

“That ‘big fellow,’” Case said, “is none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.”

Dorothy let out a low whistle. She turned to have another look. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was saying something; his walrus mustache fluttered as he spoke. But Dr. Hurst didn’t appear to be listening. He had turned slightly away from Doyle, and his eyes were fixed on the telegram. His pale complexion had turned even paler. His hands were clenched on the paper as if he might suddenly tear it to pieces.

Doyle stopped speaking. He laid a concerned hand on Dr. Hurst’s arm and appeared to ask whether everything was all right.

Dr. Hurst shrugged off Doyle’s hand. He looked up from the telegram and eyed the crowded room. He spotted Frank Case and hurried over with a determined look in his keen old eyes.

“Mr. Case, I was just consulting with my medical colleague Dr. Doyle, and I may have been too hasty in my diagnosis,” Dr. Hurst said. “Upon further reflection, I do think that family has smallpox, not chicken pox.”

“Smallpox? You can’t be serious,” Dorothy said. She turned to Case. “You’d have to close down the whole hotel!”

Case leaned toward her and spoke under his breath. “Not quite so loud, please, Mrs. Parker.”

Dr. Hurst nodded his old head. “The young lady is right, Mr. Case. You will have to institute a quarantine immediately for the entire hotel.”

By this time, Doyle had sauntered over and joined them. “Quarantine? A moment ago you said chicken pox, old boy.”

“I’ve revised my diagnosis,” Dr. Hurst said with that air of arrogance. “Better safe than sorry.”

Why don’t they agree?
Dorothy wondered. She cast an eye at the telegram. When she looked up, she found that she had met Doyle’s gaze. They had both been looking at the telegram.

Doyle quickly collected himself and turned to Case. “I mean no offense, sir, but I would rather not be required to stay here for the next two or three days. My wife is lodged at the Biltmore, and I wish to rejoin her as soon as possible.”

Dorothy sympathized with Doyle—because she was thinking of having to spend the entire evening without Benchley. “Not all the guests have arrived for Doug Fairbanks’ party, Frank,” she said. “Fairbanks will be crushed.”

Case, unruffled, glanced from one person to the next.

Dr. Hurst stepped forward and stood nose to nose with him. “I insist that you shut that door immediately, Mr. Case.”

Doyle smiled amiably, trying to keep the peace. “Now, now, Quentin, old boy. Let’s not be too hasty.”

Dr. Hurst ignored these protests and stared threateningly at Case. “I’ll call the police and the Ministry of Health myself, if I must.”

Dorothy could see that Case was not about to argue the point. “That’s not necessary, Dr. Hurst,” Case said calmly. He moved toward the hotel’s entryway. Dr. Hurst followed him.

Case raised his voice above the din. “I have an announcement to make, everyone!” The noise in the crowded lobby decreased from uproarious clamor to murmurous chatter. Dr. Hurst’s somber presence next to him conferred a sense of solemnity. “The Algonquin has just been quarantined. From this moment no one will enter and no one will leave the hotel.”

The mood of the crowd transformed from merry to malevolent. Dorothy was dejected. Suddenly Woollcott was again by her side and gripping her elbow.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

She turned to him. “Count me in for your game of Murder. If I have to face this night without Mr. Benchley, I’m going to kill somebody.”

Frank Case raised his hands in an attempt to quiet the crowd. “As required, I shall inform the Department of Health, and they will insist—and Dr. Hurst here agrees—that in the interest of safety we must quarantine the hotel.” A fresh wave of moans and jeers answered this. Case glanced toward Doyle. “Now, fear not, we will make your stay—whether or not you intended to be our guests tonight—as enjoyable and comfortable as possible. But for the time being these doors will remain closed.”

As Case was saying this, the doors opened and a stunning young woman strolled in. She was wrapped in furs, with a matching fur hat. A long feather bobbed from the hat as she walked. She stopped just inside the lobby, because everyone’s eyes were on her. She seemed to revel in this attention. She flung off the furs and revealed a short, skimpy flapper’s dress barely covering her tall, shapely figure.

“Bibi’s here!” the woman announced with a dazzling smile and her arms raised over her head. “Let the party begin!”

Several men cheered.

Dorothy, like Woollcott and the others, recognized the flashy young woman. She was Bibi Bibelot, currently the most popular young starlet on Broadway.

Case tried to raise his voice over the cheers. “Miss, you cannot come in. We’re in quarantine.”

“I don’t care if you’re in quicksand,” Bibi chuckled. “I’m here for Doug Fairbanks’ New Year’s Eve bash!” And, dragging her furs behind, she pranced on high heels into the midst of the crowd. Woollcott, almost literally riding on her coattails, followed after her.

Case shrugged. Not much could disrupt his cool demeanor. “As I was saying, from henceforth no one shall be admitted in or out—”

Then Robert Benchley came through the doors. He shook the snow off his hat and dusted it from the shoulders of his coat. Then he looked up to see the entire crowd in the lobby staring at him.

“Hello there,” he said to the crowd as his mirthful eyes creased. “Did someone call for a plumber?”

Dr. Hurst grabbed Frank Case’s arm and shouted in his ear, “Lock those doors!”

Dorothy rushed up to Benchley. She was so happy to see him, she could just hug him. But she stopped herself. Maybe she’d simply give him a peck on the cheek—at midnight.

“Hello, Mrs. Parker,” he said. “What fresh hell is this?”

“That’s my line!” She smiled and gently squeezed his arm. “But I’ll lend it to you for now, because I certainly am glad to see you.”

“The feeling is mutual, my dear Mrs. Parker,” he said, and smiled in return.

The feeling is mutual?
she thought.
If he only knew!

“So, what’s the hullabaloo?” he asked, taking off his coat.

She nodded toward the white-haired man. “That venerable doctor recently examined a family of tourists staying here. He determined they have smallpox. So Frank Case has just declared a quarantine of the whole hotel.”

Case and Dr. Hurst rushed past them, followed by Alfred, the uniformed employee who manned the front desk. Alfred had a ring of keys. He selected one key without looking, slid it smoothly into the keyhole and locked the doors with a decisive clack.

Case turned to Dr. Hurst. “The Health Department will be here soon with an official notice and a seal for the door. Is that satisfactory?”

Dr. Hurst tested the door himself. It didn’t budge. “Yes, fine, fine,” he said dismissively. “By the way, do you have a safe in which guests may keep valuables?”

For the first time, Case looked put out. “Yes, but it’s broken. I entrust our valuables to Oscar.”

“Who the devil is Oscar?” Dr. Hurst fumed.

“Our doorman. A large and eminently trustworthy fellow.”

“Fine, fine.” Dr. Hurst dug into his jacket pocket and brought out a silver locket. “This item is extremely important. Please give it to him immediately.”

“I can’t.”

“Why ever not?”

“We’ve just locked him outside,” Case said simply.

Dr. Hurst shoved the locket back into his pocket, turned and charged off in a huff. He muttered over his shoulder to Doyle, “Come on. You can telephone your wife from my room.”

Dorothy stood on tiptoes to whisper in Benchley’s ear. “That’s Arthur Conan Doyle—
Sir Arthur
to peasants like you and me. Let’s go pull his whiskers.”

She and Benchley followed Dr. Hurst and Doyle to the small elevator. Bibi Bibelot was already inside, as was Maurice, the greasy old elevator operator.

Bibi twisted in the tight space and turned her beautiful body and her big bright eyes on Dr. Hurst. “How long will the quarantine last?” she asked him breathlessly. Dorothy wondered how Bibi could make a question about smallpox sound sexy, but somehow she did.

Dr. Hurst appeared immune to Bibi’s allure. He stared straight ahead at nothing. “Could be forty-eight hours. Could be two weeks.”

“Well, that’s okay, then,” Bibi cooed. “Fairbanks’ New Year’s Eve party could very well last that long!”

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