And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)
Monica Stanton, sheltered vicar's daughter, goes off and writes a bombshell bodice-ripper that sells like hotcakes. Before she knows it, she's asked by a film company to come and write up scripts--she thinks she'll be doing the screenplay for her own book Desire, but discovers that there is more to film-making than meets the eye. Authors don't do screenplays for their own books, oh no. So, she'll be putting together a lovely little mystery screenplay for William Cartwright's mystery-thriller, And So to Murder, and Cartwright will be adapting her book for film. She doesn't know the first thing about writing screenplays and she definitely doesn't know about writing screenplays for mysteries--but she's not going to pass up an opportunity to work in films for anything.
But then someone takes a dislike to Miss Monica Stanton. She's nearly blinded by a bottleful of vitriol dumped down a speaking tube. She misses being shot by a hairsbreadth. And her unfortunate fellow screenwriter, Miss Tilly Parsons, is poisoned by cigarette laced with belladonna that was apparently meant for Monica. But Monica doesn't know any of these people. Nasty anonymous notes make it pretty clear that she's the target, but why on earth would someone be out to kill her? Don't worry, Sir Henry Merrivale will find out what's going on and point out the villain of the piece.
So...the title is a lie. There is no murder. Attempted murder? Yes. But no murder. This is the first Dickson/Carr novel I've read where there is no impossible murder to solve. A somewhat impossible attempt at murder--there seems, on the surface, to have been no opportunity for anyone to have doctored the near-fatal cigarette at the end--but the Old Man readily explains how that happened. But, despite there being no murder--and only one death by natural causes mentioned at the very beginning--this is a delightful mystery. The action is brisk and the dialogue sparkles. Dickson/Carr pulls out his standard "boy meets girl, the two despise each other at first sight but later are madly in love" trick, but in this story, it works! For one thing, (unlike my previous read) he allows us to see the two characters actually recognize and acknowledge what's happening. There's a progression towards romance that just didn't happen in Nine--And Death Makes Ten. Dickson/Carr also plays a fine game of misdirection in the middle section that completely fooled me and made me keep my eye on the wrong person.
I, like William Cartwright, do have a problem with one bit (the same bit, actually)--I still don't think the disappearance of the valuable sections of film is properly explained. Who did it and why was it spliced into the other bit of film? Oh--and just out of curiosity (for those who have read this)--did I miss the scene with the ax? I can't for the life of me figure out what that ax is doing on the cover of my Dell Mapback. It's a nice cover and all, but I don't remember an ax being mentioned anywhere. But, overall, a great, fast-moving read. ★★★★
First line: In spite of herself she was excited.
It was not that he expected Monica to resemble the voluptuous and world-weary Eve D'Aubray, the heroine of Desire. Just the opposite. In Mr. Hackett's experience, the ladies who wrote passionate love stories were usually either tense business women or acidulated spinsters who petrified every male in the vicinity. (p. 9)
"You appear to be confusing fiction with autobiography. Recently we both made the acquaintance of Mr. William Cartwright, who writes the detective novels. He made quite a favorable impression on you, if I remember correctly. You do not seriously suggest that Mr. Cartwright spends his spare time cutting people's throats?" (Rev. James Stanton; p. 14)
...William Cartwright had a beard. Again justice must be done. It was not one of those scraggly beards abominated by everybody. On the contrary, any male would have said it was a pretty good hirsute effort, as beards go; trim, close-clipped like the mustache, giving its owner something of the look of a naval commander. (p. 26)
"The highest paid scenario writer in the world" was a little, dumpy, bustling woman in her early fifties. She had a positiveness of manner which carried everybody along with her. Though her lipstick always looked as though it had been put on in the dark, so that it was just a fraction of an inch sideways across her mouth, she had a good deal of charm. (p. 91)
"...you are gradually driving me to the loony bin. I informed you last week that exaggerated was spelled e-x-a-g-g-e-r-a-t-e-d. Unless the authorities have got together and done something about it in the meantime, it is still spelled like that." (William Cartwright; p. 94)
Last line: "It's just one of those things that happen in the film business."
Deaths = one natural