Undeground Reading: What a Body! by Alan Green
Monday, August 31, 2009
Alan Green's goofily-named What a Body! was first published in 1949. It promptly won him the Edgar for best first mystery novel - an award that was exceptionally well-deserved.
What a Body! is a clever and entertaining mystery that combines complicated, Asimovian howdunnit with a host of hilarious and enjoyable characters.
What a Body! opens with the death of Merlin Broadstone, health guru. The statuesque, dictatorial Broadstone is shot in the back (from an impossible angle, in a locked room, etc. etc.). Although the book's omniscient, sarcastic narrator is quick to point out that everyone in the country had motive (Broadstone's calisthenics having worn a bit thin), only a few had the opportunity - the murder taking place at the opening of the Broadstone resort on a remote island.
The investigation therefore centers on Broadstone's 'friends' and family, who had all gathered around him for the big opening. The cast is universally entertaining: windbag Senators, unscrupulous maids and playboy heirs all jostle for attention. The narrator treats everyone unsparingly, but lovingly - there are no 'bad guys' in What a Body! (except, perhaps, the deceased).
The ostensible protagonist (although he plays second-fiddle to the narrator) is John Hugo, police detective. Aided by Sandra (the attractive niece of the deceased) and Arthur (the portly-but-insightful brother-in-law of the deceased), John does a fairly solid (if unspectacular) job of the investigation. If his police work seems to consistently involve spending time with Sandra, a point the narrator frequently enjoys mentioning, that's clearly incidental. John serves as a tour guide for the mystery, with the narrator (and thus, the reader) peeking over his shoulder. When his work becomes too dull (or too interesting, winkity nudge nudge), the narrator bounces someplace else, ensuring that the story keeps moving.
Although red herrings abound, the author makes sure that the mystery is still kept in the forefront. Granted, quite a bit of exposition is required in the ultimate wrap-up session, but even that is done in an entertaining way. What a Body! is a good mystery, but a great piece of entertainment. The Edgar was well-deserved and I look forward to seeing what else Green produced in his writing career.
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