Book Review: The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case by George Baxt
Like The Humphrey Bogart Murder Case before it, The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case is just another cheap knockoff of a novel-turned-movie, this time The Thin Man. It’s not the plot that’s a copy of The Thin Man, but the characters. My my, Dashiell Hammett must be turning in his grave.
The plot: Basking in the success of The Thin Man series, best friends and costars William Powell and Myrna Loy are suddenly thrown into real detective work when Claire Young, madam to the stars, is diagnosed with an inoperable cancer and threatens to reveal the contents of her little black book in order to get some money from her famous patrons so she provide for her secret son after she’s dead. This blatant blackmail leads to the murders of Claire’s best friend Fern Arnold, and her secretary, Amelia Hubbard (to whom Claire was dictating her memoirs). Of course, there’s your usual cast of weirdos, including a Hungarian prostitute who works for Claire, her violinist, a young naive prostitute, and a notable doctor. It’s up to detective Herb Villon, along with Nick and Nora…I mean Powell and Loy…to figure out who would be desperate enough to kill for this little black book.
Many things about this book both shocked and disgusted me. First was the characterization of the celebrities. Baxt doesn’t understand that Powell and Loy have personalities of their own. Instead we get a very poor rendition of Nick and Nora Charles, their characters from The Thin Man. The two of them speak purely in quips and are never found without a martini in hand. They also never show any emotion towards the murders, instead making sarcastic jokes about them. This appalled me more than anything else in this book, especially when it comes to Myrna Loy, who was one of the most compassionate, kindhearted Hollywood figures. If someone she knew got murdered, she never would sat there, said “the poor bastard” or something to that effect, and take a swig from her martini. But that’s precisely the Myrna Loy we are presented with here. I find it so sad that Baxt obviously knew nothing about the actors he was using in his books, and instead resorts to bad imitations of their famous film characters. Actors are not always like the characters they portray! There’s also Louis B. Mayer, who does nothing but bang his fists on his desk and pass out in a dead faint (was Mayer always this prone to fainting? He faints at least three times in the book) and Jean Harlow, who does nothing but pout at William Powell and sashay down the MGM in a sheer swimsuit. Again, Harlow wasn’t a loose woman like those she played on-screen!
The friendship that Powell and Loy have with the madam, Claire Young, also confuses me. Each MGM contract player had a morality clause in their contract, correct? Now, I know that many of them had extramarital love affairs and in fact did visit prostitutes, but all this was done in secret and I’m not so sure but I guess it was considered okay as long as it wasn’t publicized and as long as the movie-going public didn’t get wind of it. At that time, stars could get fired for breaking this clause. So why was it okay for Bill and Myrna to publicly visit a whorehouse, get their picture taken by every camera in Hollywood, and get interviewed by reporters!?!? They literally just barge in on this mystery! They had NO point being there. They just walked right into this whorehouse and said they were “researching for their next Thin Man film.” The hell?? THEY HAVE A MORALITY CLAUSE, REMEMBER? And what does Mayer do? Faint in his office. I think the real L.B. would’ve wiped them off the face of the earth!
The way the dialogue in the book is written is dizzying. It’s very dialogue-driven (which in itself gets annoying after awhile. Sometimes you need a break from all that talking and need to read a description or something) so it should always be clear exactly who is speaking. But Baxt rarely ever mentions the speakers. He does only once in the beginning of the conversation and then you have to follow for a good couple of pages. It gets so confusing, and sometimes you have to start again from the beginning to figure out exactly who is doing the talking by the bottom of the page. Talk about frustrating.
I also hated how everyone was an alcoholic in this book. Loy and Powell never stop drinking martinis (God knows how they were still sober enough to do detective work) and you also have drinkers in Hazel Dickson (Herb Villon’s girlfriend) and in Hellman and Hammett. Just because it’s Hollywood doesn’t mean everyone lives solely for their next drink! Honestly, I was waiting for Powell and Loy to die from liver failure by the end of the book.
Another shocking plot point was, believe it or not, Paul Bern’s death. Firstly, Baxt states that Bern was the one who got Claire Young her start in the prostitution business, but then he goes so far to say that Bern was involved with silent film actress Barbara LaMarr and provided her with the drugs that would end up killing her. I don’t know much about LaMarr, let alone her relationship with Bern, so if someone knows anything about this and can tell me, I’d appreciate it! He’s also definite that Bern’s death was not a suicide but a murder. It is a possibility, and there’s evidence that can point that way, but it’s also equally possible that it could’ve indeed been suicide. How can Baxt be so sure? And in this book, the person who murders Claire’s friend and her secretary also murdered Bern, since he was in a way connected with Claire as well. In my opinion, fooling around with an actual murder mystery in a fake murder mystery is playing with fire!
If you want a real murder mystery, read The Thin Man instead.