THOMAS STERLING – Murder in Venice. Dell D270, paperback, 1958. Originally published in the as The Evil of the Day (Gollance Ltd, hardcover, 1955; Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1955). Filmed as The Honey Pot (1967), with Rex Harrison. (See also the comments below, which also include information about a play based on the book that preceded the film, plus a link to the book’s Wikipedia page.)

   A mid-1950s mystery based on a 17th century comedy, and a plot that sneaks up on you.

   For most of its length, Murder in Venice  is a light-hearted and pleasantly venomous re-working of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, as a rich-and-dying old man invites a few well-off friends to brighten his last days while he makes up his mind who to leave his money to. Naturally, with an inducement like that, they come a-sailing up to his doorstep (This is Venice, after all.) bearing gifts and greed. And a whole lot of ill-will towards each other, especially when one of them announces that she was the common-law wife of the near-deceased (whose name happens to be Fox, just to reinforce the Volpone connection) and she intends to inherit or at least muddy as anyone else’s claim if she’s not mentioned in the will.

   I’ll give you one guess who gets murdered, and as many guesses as you’d like as to whodunit: The rich-looking but broke barrister Voltan, the miserly hypocrite Sims, the not-really-dying Fox, his actor-secretary-stage manager William, the ex-wife’s much-abused paid companion Celia, the butler…

   You may even guess right, but I didn’t.

   Sterling’s prose is clear and uncluttered, his characters well-rounded but not overblown, and his Venice colorfully evoked in a few verbal brush strokes. But what really impressed me here was the ingenious plotting, which transforms Murder in Venice from a slavish take-off of a literary classic into a classic mystery. Check it out!