In THE CASE OF THE ECTOPLASMIC ECDYSIAST, allegedly by George and Ira Gershwin, we hearken back to the nostalgic years of pre-World War Two America, when men were men and women frequently noticed.
As the book opens, the voluptuous but inert body—and what a body!—of TOODLES (“BOOM-BOOM”) LaTOUR is discovered on the floor of her backstage dressing room at THE PALAC (they couldn’t afford another “E” for the marquee, see?), a burlesque theater way, way, way, way, WAY off Broadway, somewhere just east of the Continental Shelf. In her left hand is a bag of golf clubs, in her right a letter from the draft board; sticking out of her ample chest is a six-foot-long harpoon.
When the coroner determines that Toodles died laughing, suspicion immediately falls upon TWINKLES, the sad-faced, baggy pants clown; it was well known that Twinkles had been having a torrid affair with both Toodles and his hot water heater—but the thermophilic jester is able to establish an alibi with dozens of burn marks all over his chest. Additionally, the golf clubs clearly indicate that the murderer must be a Republican, yet Twinkles often boasted about voting for Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk in the same election.
By now our SLEUTH—I haven’t mentioned him, have I? He’s the ruggedly handsome Hollywood leading man type, a delightful cross between Cary Grant and Margaret Rutherford and smarter than a bagful of gossip columnists—our sleuth, as I say, has his hands full, juggling squealing CHORUS LINE GIRLS (which they don’t mind at all), surly ANIMAL ACTS (an incensed penguin flips him a flipper), and an exasperated THEATER MANAGER who’s constantly pulling his (the sleuth’s) hair out and blubbering about how the show must go on. (Why must the show go on? That’s another mystery.) And as if that weren’t enough, reports start coming in of Toodles’ ghost haunting the backstage of the theater.
Our sleuth stops the theater manager from hair-pulling by shooting him in the foot and turns his attention to THE LEAST LIKELY SUSPECT, a gay—maybe—carefree man about town, SIR REGINALD NASAL-SEPTUM, recently imported from England in a shipment of crumpets and red herrings. But again, frustration for our detective! Sir Reginald can confim his alibi: At the time of the murder, he was dancing cheek-to-cheek with Fay Wray on the dirigible mooring mast atop the Empire State Building.
Back to Square One (Square Two being condemned as a public eyesore and razed to the ground). Clearly this is a three-pipe problem; but since our sleuth is a non-smoker, he must make do with the lavatories in the men’s room down at the bus station.
After six weeks in a trance (and two more in the hospital getting transfusions), he figures it out: The penguin dunnit! And so he dun—er, did: Toodles and the dapper fashion plate had had a frigid affair when she was stationed at McMurdo Sound with Dr. Samuel Johnson and the Trapp Family Singers, but things turned sour when she revealed her peccadilloes to him. “Nobody shows me their peccadilloes and lives!” he ejaculated. “I shall have my re-wenge!”
So he swam to Shanghai where he jumped ship and swam to San Francisco. He then took the 4:50 from Paddington and in a fortnight arrived in Fresno, from which he took a cab to THE PALAC and, passing himself off as a Lithuanian midget, joined the animal act.
And what was the give-away clue? “Elementary,” declares our sleuth. “Everybody knows penguins hunt peccadilloes with golf clubs.”
An attentive reader offers the following in rebuttal:
An Alternative Solution by Mary Reed
I believe the review, excellent as it is, is based on an incomplete copy of the work under discussion. Due to an error at the printers a number were issued without the epilogue, and copies featuring same now routinely sell for hundreds of dollars on abe.books and such sites. Here’s a brief description of the missing chapter:
The sleuth gathers the suspects in a Palac dressing room in order to point a finger at the real culprit rather than flippering the penguin.
“Miss Toodles,” he begins, “was found with a bag of golf clubs in her left hand, a letter from the draft board in her right, and a six foot long harpoon in her chest. It is true the harpoon suggests whaling and therefore frigid waters such as are found off Antarctica, wherein penguins roam.”
So far, so good. But notice the reader was not told whose letter from the draft board Toodles clutched nor who owned the golf clubs, a nice bit of misdirection on the part of the author.
“Though we all know chorus gals are giddy to say the least Miss Toodles gave us the only clues she could, clearly pointing to the guilty party as being a club man and a citizen,” the sleuth tells the assembled company. “It is Sir Reginald, a man who belongs to many clubs and probably lives at the Albany next door to Raffles for all we know.”
“What bally nonsense!” Sir Reginald responds, screwing his monocle more firmly into his eye socket. “Hundreds of persons saw me dancing with Miss Wray at the time of the murder! I defy you to prove your foul allegation!”
“And indeed I shall,” the sleuth replies, “Your alibi is you were dancing on the dirigible moored atop the Empire State Building. Obviously you did not mean this literally, but rather the Dirigible Night Club situated on the roof of the building. Given the number and potency of drinks downed in such places and the fact a man in evening dress looks remarkably like a penguin and vice versa, a trained penguin took your place while you hoofed around to the Palac to confront Toodles, and then—well, we won’t go into details.”
“What rubbish!” the accused man declares. “Wouldn’t Miss Wray notice if she was dancing with a penguin?”
The sleuth pointed out that after being hauled up a prime example of Gotham City architecture by a large gorilla a dance with a penguin would have been hardly worth remarking upon.
“So you’re suggesting I bumped off the dame?” riposts Sir Reginald. “And for why would this be?”
“Because she was blackmailing you!” comes the reply. “For you are not Sir Reginald but rather Jimmy ‘The Nose’ Clutterstein of the Bronx! A year or two back Toodles was your girlfriend and partner in a theatrical act called James And His Amazing Penguin. She was using your draft letter to blackmail you, for she knew you had done away with the original Sir Reginald and taken his place in order to avoid military service.”
“But where’s Sir Reginald’s body?” puts in Twinkles.
“Hidden in a barrel of red herrings,” comes the reply. “And you’ll notice the alleged Sir Reginald’s accent has slipped, not to mention his language.”
Sir Reginald dismisses this observation with a sneer. “And as for this alleged vaudeville act … where’s your proof?”
The sleuth produces a hand bill. “A true Briton would say music hall,” he points out. “But for proof I found this in Toodles’ hope chest, the one in which the harpoon was left in an attempt to implicate the penguin. The dead woman was strangled, you’ll recall.”
“You cur! You’re too damn clever for your silk socks!” cries the faux blue blood, producing a revolver.
Suddenly the lights go out and ….