Quite apart from having the best damn title ever, Death in a Million Living Rooms (1951) by Patricia McGerr employs one of my favourite conceits of classic-era detection: the Live On Air Murder. With The Dead Are Blind (1937) by Max Afford, Murder in the Melody (1940) by Norman Berrow, and And Be a Villain (1948) by Rex Stout giving us death on the radio, McGerr turns to the television studio to kill her poor victim live in front of the several million who tune in to Podge and Scottie’s weekly comedy show, with — as in Stout’s take — poison in the sponsor’s drink responsible. That you know it’s coming makes it no less horrible, so whodunnit?
To deal with the biggest issue first: fans of classic detection — that is, who take delight in a detective gathering clues and using obscure proclamations and/or brilliant insight to build up a watertight case against a surprise culprit — should take one star off the above. This is not that kind of book in the least. My Black Dagger Crime edition (not shown above, because the cover is awful) is 138 pages long, and the investigation such as it is takes place entirely off-page in the penultimate chapter so that 12 pages from the end our narrator Melissa Colvin is simply told by Dave Jackson that he thinks he’s worked it out by thinking about it overnight and checking a few details with some people. As a piece of detection, it’s a complete failure on every front.
But — and always bearing in mind that I adore my classic detection, yet have awarded it four stars — as a portrait of the genre in transition it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the way the Golden Age of Detection came and went. We’re on the cusp here of about four different types of novel, and McGerr refuses to be drawn too heavily one way or the other, clearly wise to the fact that certain conventions are expected in each subgenre, and equally intent on writing the book she wants to perch atop all of them. True, this means that what emerges is a little hazy when its precise genus is to be declared, but there’s a quiet enjoyment to be had in seeing a book emerge as perfectly-formed as this…even if you don’t know who to recommend it to come the end.
The plot sees researcher Melissa Colvin dispatched by trade magazine Enterprise to garner some background information on the recording of a television show — any television show — and the rising popularity of Podge O’Neill and his ex-wife Scottie’s variety show, plus the presence of advert announcer Dave Jackson with whom Melissa has unfinished business, makes it the perfect baby. Thus, Melissa finds herself in prime position to witness the various furies and fires that erupt on set as the domineering Scottie — the real brains of the outfit — steadily wears away the last nerve of just about everyone on the crew. A more fitting victim you may never meet, but it’s fair to say that Scottie’s not quite the dragon she could easily be dismissed as: with everyone clamouring for the far more popular funnyman Podge to break with Scottie, she seems genuinely pained by the notion of chancers simply using his charm and popularity to further their own ends. And, while nothing is made of it in the text, I’d imagine that a woman enjoying the autonomy Scottie is depicted as having on such a show would be a hellishly unlikely occurrence in the era this was written, so a certain bullishness would surely come with the territory.
However, before there’s a sniff of the eponymous death, plenty of incident will keep us busy: an injury to Scottie sees Podge potentially having to do the show solo, much to the delight of the coterie of writers on hand — writing material for Podge is “everybody’s favorite indoor sport” Dave tells Melissa — and an extended scene at his apartment, with the writers haggling over material and the star keeping out of the way, is striking for how it delves into the mind of such a personality:
“When Scottie pulls the strings, I jump or make faces or whatever the script calls for. If Scottie isn’t around, I have to wait for somebody else to put words in my mouth. And if nobody does, I lie in the corner as useless as any other stick of wood. By myself, I’m completely worthless.”
There’s very little about the precise workings of television in here, but an interesting glance at the prospect that the show might not be the freshest thing going — “Podge had a string of jokes about skating, some of them tantalizingly familiar until I realized that I’d heard them originally applied to horseback riding” Melissa, no fan of TV, casually throws at us, and witness the band leader’s sarcastic aside at Scottie’s requested musical cues — adds an element of ‘what if…?’ to all the hangers-on who might just maybe have the right idea about getting a fresh start to things. By the time murder strikes, about 60% of the way through, there’s a veritable line-up of grudges, slights, broken promises, and shattered dreams that could be held up as motive enough for this and several more besides.
From here, things take a slightly Suspense-y turn, with it becoming apparent that Melissa might well be a target on account of the copious notes she’s been taking, and suddenly the attentions everyone has been paying her achieving a possibly-sinister edge. This section also works very well, but is over fairly briefly when Dave finally figures it out and gathers everyone for the denouement. Sure, there are clues of sorts — most of it psychological, pulling us in a Margaret Millar-esque direction with motivations and intentions — but there’s nothing even close to, like, actual compelling evidence of the culprit’s guilt: it feels like the two-thirds point false solutions of a longer detective novel, while also making it clear that such a novel is not what McGerr wants to write. She’s here for an extended character piece with a whiff of everything, rather than trying to pigeonhole herself into more simple classification. The puzzle novel was well and truly on the way out, and the suspense novel was becoming the crime novel before her eyes, and I feel here that the balance of genres is what McGerr really wanted: less cleanly defined, but more appealing to her writing sensibilities, and so she struck while the fashion was on her side.
The only really glaring flaw in the whole thing is that she’s a wonderful writer with a very evocative turn of phrase at her fingertips — “he proceeded to to rehearse them in the art of raucous laughter and thunderous applause, that counterfeit coin with which a studio audience typically pays for its free tickets” — which tends to get mired in scenes of dialogue that do begin to drag after about the fifth page. In a longer book this would be more of an issue, and the various gear changes experienced here commend it to the curious who wish to witness the genre in transition, but if your attention or patience wear thin with little payoff from lots of talking, or if you want a tighter focus to your plots and structure, look elsewhere. However, if this mixing of genres, betokening as it does a seismic shift in the expectations of a genre that had ruled for some three decades prior to this, sounds like your kind of thing, chances are you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.