Death In A Million Living Rooms aka Die Laughing (1951) by Patricia McGerr

1951 and television is the next big thing (although I doubt it’ll catch on). Enterprise, a trade magazine, dispatch Melissa Colvin to gather information for a story about this up-and-coming fad. As she has unfinished business with Dave Jackson, the advert announcer of The Podge And Scottie Show, this seems to be the ideal place to start.

Once in the studio, it becomes apparent that the popularity of the show is masking dangerous undercurrents. Everyone, from the writers to the agents to the star, Podge, himself, is jockeying for more control over the direction of the show, trying to wrest that control from the iron grip of Scottie. When an accident on set incapacitates her, it seems their chance might have come… although when someone is poisoned live on air, it seems the show has even more serious problems…

I’ve heard a lot about Patricia McGerr’s writing for a while, from Kate Jackson, JJ and many other bloggers, but I’ve never come across her work before. This one arrived in a Coffee and Crime subscription box a month or so ago – sign up now! – and I figured it was time to give her a go. So it was a little surprising to find that this writer of original and clever mystery novels seemed to be, on the basis of this novel, somewhat like Ngaio Marsh. And you all know what I think of Ngaio Marsh…

At this point, you might be assuming that I didn’t enjoy this book, but you would be wrong. When I say she emulates Ngaio Marsh, I mean that McGerr seems to concentrating more on the characters and setting than the murder plot, but she does it exceptionally well.

The early days of television, with live broadcasts, announcers, adverts featuring the cast of the show, are all but alien to most of us these days. My experiences of this world are minimal – we are as far from the setting of this book as that setting is from the Gunfight at the OK Corral – but the detail here, along with the varied relationships between the characters, makes this section of the book absolutely gripping. Recently with my stupid workload – all done now – I’ve had trouble with some books remembering who is who, but that was never an issue here. And here’s another reason why I loved this book – it has one of the problems that I normally have with murder mysteries, namely a very late murder, about two-thirds of the way through – and yet I didn’t remotely care. If anything, I wanted to read more of the setting.

Then the murder occurs and we move towards the denouement, and after a bit of our heroine being possibly in danger from the killer, as her notebook is stolen, another attack happens and the killer is caught. I’m in two minds about this section. There are two problems with it; first of all, a lot of the interesting characters just fade into the background but, more importantly, McGerr takes a strange direction with the lead character. When we meet her, she has a clear plan to humiliate Dave Jackson for a past wrong, and while I expected the natural direction of that story, what I wasn’t expecting was that in the final section, despite being the narrator, she fades into that background, allowing someone else to sort out who the killer is. It’s like the shock of being possibly targeted by the killer robs her of all willpower and reason – which, I acknowledge, could happen, but it’s disappointing.

I should say something else about the finale though. It uses one of the most over-used mystery plot ideas, one that almost always gives the game away to me, even when the greats use it – and yet somehow, I didn’t spot it. Admittedly, I didn’t have much time to spot it before the killer is revealed, but even so. I did rather like the logic – I’d hesitate to call it cluing – that leads to the killer being deduced though.

Based on this, I’m looking forward to reading more from McGerr. I enjoyed her writing style and, apart from the fading of the lead character into the background, I really enjoyed this, which is, apparently, one of her more straightforward novels. Any recommendations for other books by her, should I happen to come across them?

9 comments

  1. Glad you found lots to enjoy with this one. I may have to seek it out at some point. Murder is Absurd is another less experimental novel by her which I really liked and is my favourite by her. Copies for under £10 do pop up but you have to be quick. I think there is one at the moment.
    Follow as Night (1950) has had a film made of it and is quite popular for that reason. I found it to be okay, (the book). The ending is easy to anticipate from the start, but if you enjoy the ride that won’t matter so much. A man invites his pregnant fiancee, his mistress, his ex wife and his wife to a meal and it is the ex wife who fears that at some point one of them is going to be killed. The story is mostly told in flashbacks which give the background to all the relationships.
    Flashbacks are a key part of McGerr’s more experimental novels. Other earlier examples are The Seven Deadly Sisters in which a woman tries to figure out which of her aunts has committed a murder. The woman lives in the UK, her aunts in the USA – trying to kill time until a telephone call will provide her this info. Victim is known I think. There is a copy of this for £6.90 at the moment on ebay.
    Pick Your Victim is another flashback book and the title naturally tells you what the key question will be.]
    I liked the idea of these last two books more than I did the reading of them. But others such as Tomcat, I think, really liked them.
    The only book I would discourage you from trying is Fatal in my Fashion – very extended flashbacks which I found very dull and the ending is just creepy and unpleasant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve got one on a shelf upstairs – checks – and it’s Murder Is Absurd, which is handy. I’m holding off on “random” bookbuying at the moment, as it’s been a little OTT recently, but I’ll be keeping my eye out. Any idea if her late books are any good?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome to the Pat McGerr fan club! She has been one of my favourite mystery writers for decades and I can’t recall a book of hers that I haven’t liked – not all are masterpieces but at her best she is wonderful.

    Depending on how receptive you are to “experimental” crime fiction you may want to try her “whodunins” – the best of which are Pick Your Victim (no matter what Otto Penzler says) The Seven Deadly Sisters and Follow as the Night – or keep exploring her more straightforward work, in which case I strongly recommend the superb Murder is Absurd and the almost Golden Age-like For Richer, For Poorer Till Death.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! It’s good to see that people listen to my ramblings sometimes. 🙂

        She is one of the first crime writers I studied rather than “merely” read, if you see what I mean. Her work is remarkably coherent in terms of themes and worldview, and this is one of the reasons that make me wonder why contemporary critics ignore her.

        Like

  3. Plot-fiend that I am, I was as suprised and delighted as you seem to have been to find so much of interest in the characters with this one — McGerr does a great job of assessing fame from the inside, and of making the milieu accessible and interesting to the outsider.

    I’m due to review Pick Your Victim next week — Xavier and Otto Penzler combining to make that one leap up my TBR — so watch this space…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.