PETER DUCHIN & JOHN MORGAN WILSON – Blue Moon. Berkley, paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 2003. Hardcover first edition: Berkley, 2002.

peter duchin

   Peter Duchin, son of famed pianist and bandleader Eddie Duchin, is a bandleader of some renown himself, so when he sits down to play — well, in this case, write a mystery — it certainly comes as no great surprise that his leading protagonist is Philip Damon, famed pianist and bandleader, and son of Archie Damon, leader of one of the most famous high society orchestras of the 30s.

   Write what you know, they always say, and it’s obvious all the way through this name-dropping debut murder mystery novel that Peter Duchin knows whereof he writes. Aided and abetted by his Edgar-winning co-author, John Morgan Wilson, they together turn in a nicely tuned performance.

   The Edgar, by the way, was for a book entitled Simple Justice, the first in Wilson’s noirish Benjamin Justice series, of which there are now five:

         Simple Justice, 1996. [Edgar award, best first mystery]
         Revision of Justice, 1997.
         Justice at Risk, 1999. [Lambda award, best mystery]
         The Limits of Justice, 2000. [Lambda award]
         Blind Eye, October 2003.

   The Justice series is, from what I’ve heard, rather tough and not for the faint of heart, but in Blue Moon, everything is frothier and very much light-hearted. As bubbly (in an early 1960s high society sense) as a murder mystery can get, you might almost say. The name-dropping begins in earnest on page two, and continues throughout the book.

john morgan wilson

   Appearing on various occasions, many with speaking parts are: Jackie Kennedy, Truman Capote, George Plimpton, Joseph Kraft (and on the west coast) Joe DiMaggio, Herb Caen, Cary Grant, Kim Novak, Carol Channing, Alfred Hitchcock, Willie Mays, Melvin Belli, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, Gerry Mulligan, and I probably left out many others.

   Nothing like hobnobbing with the stars. And there’s also nothing like the sit-up-and-say-oh-my-gosh effect that occurs on page 35 when the ballroom suddenly goes black, a scream rings out, and when the lights go back on, there is a body lying dead on the floor. When was the last time I read this happening? Ever? Did it happen only in the movies? Someone with a better memory than I will have to come up with the answer.

   Damon’s own person demons (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) are also at work here. His wife, to whom he was married only three blissful years, was murdered two years earlier, and the case was never solved. Somehow the two deaths are connected, but how? Not trusting the abilities of a black homicide detective named Hercules Platt, whose name should remind you of some other famous detective, but I digress, Damon decides to do some amateur sleuthing on his own.

   More deaths occur, and Platt proves himself worthy enough to be invited for an encore, both in an upcoming second pairing, Good Morning, Heartache (Berkley, 2003) and on stage, as Platt (surprisingly) has his own amateur sideline as an after-hours and more than competent jazz saxophonist. The detective work is more melodramatic in the closing than I’d prefer, but the period (a mere 40 years ago) is well-evoked, and the overall ambiance is suave, sophisticated and easy going down.

— November 2003.

[UPDATE] 12-26-12.
Two additional Benjamin Justice novels published since this review was written are Moth And Flame (2004), and Rhapsody in Blood (2006). There seems to have been only the two books in the collaborative Philip Damon series.