“BROADWAY BEAUTY STRANGLED” scream the headlines that ring in Christmas 1932 in this ninth case for novelist Edna Ferber (Old News, 2017, etc.).
Edna, universally identified as the author of Show Boat even though she and George S. Kaufman currently have a new play, Dinner at Eight, running on Broadway, is at a party given by her friend Noel Coward when Belinda Ross, the star who’s shot to fame in Tommy’s Temptations, enters on the arm of Dougie Maddox, the show’s backer. She’s on hand when Cyrus Meerdom, the powerhouse producer who first discovered Belinda, calls her a harlot, and Belinda slaps his face. And she’s one of the first people Coward calls when Belinda is found in a Times Square automat, strangled with Dougie’s scarf. The police naturally arrest Dougie for her murder, but Edna, struck by his obvious lack of motive, can’t ignore a more extensive roster of suspects: Tommy Stuyvesant, the skinflint bachelor who created Tommy’s Temptations; Corey Boynton, the old Yale friend of Dougie’s who doesn’t seem to like him much; Buzzy Collins, the friend of Meerdom’s whose biggest talent seems to be getting invited everywhere; and Belinda’s brother, Jackson Roswell, who owns the theater from which stardom beckoned her. Warned by Dougie’s imperious mother, Lady Maud Maddox, whose title is less authentic than her temper, to stay away from the case, Edna, urged on by her “reporter’s heart and soul,” her “gut instinct,” and her friendship with Coward, who serves as her de facto sidekick, circulates among the cast, interpolating pointed questions into their endless rounds of brittle chatter, until a sudden brainwave produces a remarkably unconvincing solution.
So many Broadway types that most of them never stand out in a crowd whose motto, as one of them puts it, is, “When you’re rich, you can’t afford to like anyone.”