Following a predictably debauched Christmas party in the publishing industry, a woman heads back to a hotel room alone. She is then horribly murdered. Suspects abound - the beautiful Patricia Andrews was married to one senior executive, had shagged another, was currently involved with yet another and, finally, was being stalked by a fourth man, who hadn't a prayer of getting into her knickers. Publishing, eh?
The story is told in the alternating-person view, flipping from chapter to chapter. Virtually every narrator has a guilty conscience. If they're not bemoaning their untimely involvement with the deceased, they're embezzling money or sleeping around or just generally being a bit dodgy.
Even the police lieutenant whose viewpoint opens and closes the book is acting suspiciously. His best friend, another officer, was hit by a car right outside the same Christmas party. The good lieutenant hasn't slept in days and is far more concerned about his fallen mate than he is about finding the killer of "a real slut".
The lieutenant's approach sets the tone for the book. He's nice to his interviewees (at least, they say so), but in his first-person sections, we read that he's exhausted, patronizing, irritable and incredibly disgusted. A Party to Murder is no different - this is a catalogue of sins. Venal, messy, petty, dirty sins. Everyone in it isn't just flawed, but they're reprehensibly, unempathetically foul.
The owner of the publishing company, Harold Markey, is a repulsive little man that hires and fires his staff for purely sexual purposes (and unconventional ones at that, it is implied that he has them beat him for pleasure). He's conned his own wife into giving him power of attorney, so the company and its millions all belong to him. He prefers giving a Christmas party to giving a bonus, but even then, most of the booze is heavily discounted and he begrudges the guests. He's a loathesome character and it is both upsetting and predictable to learn that several of the other characters attribute his behaviour to his "Jewishness". Markey has canoodled with Patrica Andrews in the past, but is eliminated as a suspect when he's beaten to death with a poker. Good riddance to bad stereotypes.
Opposite to Markey, but still equally repulsive, is Susan Flannery. The new file clerk, she's a pert and perky 19 (she pretends to be 20 and everyone thinks she's 17 - as if that's an appealing thing). She's not bright, but she's cunning enough to cut a route straight to the top, and she spends half the party on the sofa with Markey. The next morning she's not upset that she spent the evening flagellating the boss, she's just irked that he's a Jew. Ick. Susan's got a boyfriend, of course, but he's Italian and works with his hands. The glamour of publishing is such that he's merely a hanger-on, and Susan has to strain to come up with ways of convincing him that she's still a virgin.
Hubert Pringle is Markey's longest-serving employee, an accountant with almost twenty years of service. Markey hired Pringle after the latter's term in prison. Initially Pringle was delighted, but as the decades have passed, he's realized that Markey just wanted to "own him". Well, Pringle is getting his own back through embezzlement. Even if he spends his daying procuring near-underage clerks for his boss' attentions, Pringle gets his own back at nights. Pringle never made a pass at Patricia Andrews (couldn't be bothered), he's more worried that his ex-con brother-in-law was at the party disguised as Santa Claus. Could that have anything to do with the jewellery store robbery in the building at the same time?
There are a half dozen more characters, all equally despairing and even, as the reviewing catchphrase goes, nihilistic. Their character traits aren't just unredeemable, but are also invariably seen in the worst possible light. A connection between the reader and any of the narrators is impossible - you want to wash your hands every time you turn the page.
The actual murder is almost patently obvious - in a handy swoop of simplicity, the jewellery store robbery, the dead cop and the murdered woman are all tied up together. And, in an act of intentional irony, none of it has anything at all to do with her sexual habits - or the political infighting of the publishing house.
In fact, Andrews' murder is essentially a red herring. Not just because she goes completely unmourned (everyone is actually pretty relieved that she's gone - except for her stalker, and he's got his own problems...), but because its real impact is to pull out the last Jenga block from this sordid tower. As suspicions flare, all the old rivalries and resentments come out in the open, and Andrews' murder is only the first of three in the book. Similarly, her killer is only one of the many that end the book in prison. How all these people got along in the first place is a miracle, that anyone should've survived the Christmas party is doubly so.
Even the "side crime" isn't enough to make A Party to Murder consistently interesting as a mystery. Although a brief book with an epic's worth of slaughter, it too frequently gets bogged down into the muddy minds of the different narrators. The relentless grimness is so overwhelming that the reader is best off without brushing up against any of this book's characters. This is a collection of nasty little people meeting nasty little deaths.
(But it did sound like a pretty good party.)