by Allen J. Hubin

ANONYMOUS [WYLIE] The Smiling Corpse

ANONYMOUS – The Smiling Corpse. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1935.

   This book is not notable for its great writing but for the unusual if not unique nature of the author’s approach.

   The critic Wendel Hyat is guest of honor at a literary tea to celebrate the publication of his treatise on detective fiction, “From Poe to Plethora.” The gathering is peopled almost exclusively with famous persons, such as Tallulah Bankhead, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, James M. Cain, Clifton Fadiman, George Gershwin, Elsa Maxwell, Gene Tunney and dozens of others, all of whom are humorously identified in the Who’s Who at the beginning of the book.

   Incidentally, a note in the Who’s Who states: “If any character in this book bears a resemblance in name or otherwise to any living person, it is sheer coincidence. None of the persons in this book is real.”

   Hyat, who was diligently hated by everyone who knew him, is naturally discovered to be a smiling corpse. Among the guests at the tea are also G. K. Chesterton, Sax Rohmer, Dashiell Hammett and S. S. Van Dine. The author sets these men to solving the murder while behaving like their detective creations.

   Cleric G. K. Chesterton tries not to overlook the obvious, Sax Rohmer suspects a sinister Chinese influence, Dashiell Hammett gets himself shot, and S. S. Van Dine overflows with erudition and says “deah man.”

   As might be expected, none of these men is outstandingly successful in solving the crime, particularly since they operate under a certain ignorance about the actual instrument of death.

   The author appears to have enjoyed himself in contriving this spoof, and it would seem that he had more than a nodding acquaintance with the works of the four mystery writers. Their characterizations, though naturally overdrawn, seem accurate enough.

   The book made enjoyable reading, but its attraction lies in the intriguing and amusing possibilities of the contrived situations rather than any element of suspense. Here’s an interesting bibliographical puzzle: who was the anonymous author of this parody — an established author under his own name, or a timid unknown?

– From The Armchair Detective, Vol. 1, No. 1, October 1967.

Editorial Update. 08-17-09.  I’m not sure when it was discovered, but the authors of this rather desirable (and pricey) detective mystery are now known to be the co-writing tandem of Philip Wylie and Bernard A. Bergman. See, for example, this online bibliography for the first (and more well-known?) of the two authors.