The Smiling Corpse
When mystery critic Wendel Hyat is found murdered at a literary tea to celebrate the publication of his new work From Poe to Plethora there is the usual endless list of suspects and more than one detective on hand to try to solve the case. The murder is particularly unusual because the victim is found in the shower stall with a grin frozen on his face. What makes this book remain fascinating after more than seventy years (the original publication date was 1935) is the anonymous author’s use of the names of real people in the book. The book is a namedropper’s delight. After all, a party of this nature would have attracted some of the more prominent names in the literary profession at the time. As an aid to the reader there is a four-page list of the cast of characters and place names that includes prominent authors, columnists, musicians, actors, and publishers. Each character is described in a word or phrase sometimes intended to be taken with tongue-in-cheek. The Benets (William Rose, Stephen Vincent, and Rosemary) are identified as “The American Sitwells.” The three Van Dorens (Carl, Mark and Irita) are identified the same way. Nowhere is the actual Sitwell family (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell) delineated, but since they were British literary lions and this party is largely attended by Americans, that may explain much. The point is, that it was difficult to tell one member of the family from the others. Some of the names on the list, such as George Gershwin, will resonate with the modern reader, but a few, like Achmed Abdullah, have faded into relative obscurity.
With so many characters entering the author’s stage, sometimes uttering a single line or being merely noted in passing by another character, it is obvious the depth of characterization is slight to the point of non-existent. What is remarkable about this is that some of the well-known figures are perfectly recognizable—at least according to the popular concepts that could be found in newspaper and magazine articles at the time.
Not all the characters are named for real people. The murder victim is fictitious and so is actor Jack Graham Ballantine who serves as narrator. Homicide detective Michael O’Casey is not likely to have been based on anyone in this world. Ballantine provides a preface to set the scene within the world of detective fiction. Admitting to have had a fondness for the genre since the days of Nick Carter, he quotes the descriptions of the four detectives as found in Hyat’s critical work, From Poe to Plethora, and who are also delineated in the sub-title of the novel: “Wherein G. K. Chesterton, S. S. Van Dine, Sax Rohmer and Dashiell Hammett are surprised to find themselves at a murder.” As is to be expected, each writer performs his individual investigation in the mode of the character with whom he is identified. Chesterton asks himself what Father Brown would do if faced with this situation, S. S. Van Dine (also referred to by his real name Willard Huntington Wright) drops his g’s and recites short essays on esoteric subjects in the manner of Philo Vance, Sax Rohmer disappears into Chinatown in imitation of Fu Manchu and Dashiell Hammett pulls out a gun and acts hard-boiled. They interact with homicide detective O’Casey and actor Ballantine to move the plot forward.
The choice of these four writers is of some interest in the light of the literary standing of each in 1935. While each was well-known to the public, they were not at the peak of their literary careers at this time. Chesterton published his final Father Brown collection, The Scandal of Father Brown, that year. He died in 1936. The Philo Vance series was still popular, but not nearly as popular as it had been. The most recent novel was The Casino Murder Case, published in 1934. There were still four novels to come before Wright’s death in 1939. Hammett’s final detective novel, The Thin Man, had been published the previous year, and while he was to live another quarter century, he wrote little of note. Only Sax Rohmer continued to produce novels and short stories after 1935, but there are those who would say his best years were behind him.
The book was published by Farrar & Rinehart of New York. It received several reviews in the columns reserved for detective fiction in newspapers and magazines. Time for March 25 described it as “first-rate satirical farce even for those not up on the mannerisms of current bestsellers.” Will Cuppy, writing in the New York Herald Tribune for March 10 called it “a spoof of the first order of merit and a mystery that will keep you glued to wherever you were when you started it. . . Who are the two modest men-about-town who are said to have collaborated on ‘The Smiling Corpse’? Anyway, they have turned out something different in the way of mystery fun, with satirical slants here and there, burlesque in spots, amusement in large quantities and a real puzzle at the bottom of it all.” Isaac Anderson of the New York Times for March 17 described it as “a bit of amusing and good-natured spoofing” while the reviewer for the March 30 Saturday Review of Literature said laconically: “Besides being [a] capital take-off on methods of major mystery mongers it is also a grand yarn.” The final verdict was: “Handsome spoofing.” The authorship of The Smiling Corpse was only given as “A Coupla Guys,” but there is nothing to indicate how the reviewer knew that. There may have been additional advertising for the book that mentioned the anonymous authorship. Sales of 2,984 copies were reported between March 11, 1935 and June 30, 1937.
Fast-forward more than thirty years to October 1967 and the pages of the first issue of The Armchair Detective, a quarterly edited and published by Allen J. Hubin from the basement of his home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. In a section called “Forgotten Murders,” Hubin wrote retrospective reviews of Murder in the State Department, by “Diplomat” (John Franklin Carter) and The Smiling Corpse. About the latter, he said “The author appears to have enjoyed himself in contriving this spoof, and it would seem that he had more than a nodding acquaintance with the works of the four mystery writers. Their characterizations, though naturally overdrawn, seem accurate enough. The book made enjoyable reading, but its attraction lies in the intriguing and amusing possibilities of the contrived situations rather than any element of suspense.” He concluded by asking if the anonymous author might be “an established author under his own name, or a timid unknown?”
Two years later, the answer arrived in the form of a letter from the prolific Frank Gruber, published in The Armchair Detective for April 1969. “Early in 1943 I was working at Warner bros. And was given the assignment to try to write a screenplay of this. Jerry Wald had persuaded the studio to buy the book for $5,000 from the author—Philip Wylie! Two or three other writers had already tried to lick it but had failed. I didn’t like it myself and tried to get out of it and got a lucky break. A producer for whom I had already written a script wanted me back to do a rewrite, and I was therefore taken off The Corpse—for which I was glad at the time. But I did learn the identity of the author.”
Intrigued by its premise, I put the book on my want list sometime that year and by December I had my own copy. I was in the habit of sending long lists of books I wanted to a mail order dealer in Troy Grove, Illinois, named Ray Zorn. I still have Ray’s postcard to me, dated 12-15-69: “The copy of ‘Smiling Corpse’ has just come in, and since you have paid for it, I am sending it on to you at once. Frankly, I am not overjoyed with its condition, but at least it is a copy, with 2 things in its favor: this is definitely not a common book and this was only copy offered. (And I’ve never seen one with clean binding.) Also it has interesting scribble on front e.p—if genuine—can you tell? (I think it’s OK)
The book arrived in due course and the “interesting scribble” on the front end paper proved to be an inscription by the author, Philip Wylie, that read “To Bogie: Nuts! Phil Wylie”
I found Philip Wylie’s address in his entry in Who’s Who in America (after all, I was a professional reference librarian, used to ferreting out such things) and wrote him a letter, sending him a photocopy of the front end paper. His letter, dated January 28, 1970, arrived from his home in Coconut Grove, Florida and read (in part) “The idea for [the book] was a friend’s and he and I did the book together. The inscription is mine, all right, but who ‘Bogie’ is/was I don’t recall. Probably not [Humphrey] Bogart, as I didn’t know him tho’ friends often have you sign books for their friends.
“The collaborator could quite possibly tell you who that ‘Bogie’ was and would, I’m sure, be happy to do it if you’d ask him and note that it is my suggestion. He is Mr. B. A. Bergman, Book Department, Philadelphia Sunday and Evening Bulletin, Phila., Pa., 19101, 30th and Market Streets. Largely retired, Bergie. And a marvelous person. Who enjoys anything having to do with that collaboration.” Before sealing the letter, Wylie added a handwritten postscript: “Just remembered! ‘Bogie’ may have been a friend, a writer-producer I knew when at Paramount Pictures, Hollywood. But may be not. Bergie could perhaps say. His name was Bogart too. Forget first name. P. W.”
Almost immediately I sent a letter to Mr. Bergman at his Philadelphia newspaper office and in a few days I had a letter from him on office stationery with another piece of the puzzle laid out for me.
“I do not know who ‘Bogie’ is. For several generations the Bergmans have been known as ‘Bergie,’ but Phil didn’t autograph ‘The Smiling Corpse’ to me. I wish he had.
“I was the other half of the anonymous authors. The idea for the story was mine, Phil did practically all of the writing. I was the editor.
“We published the book anonymously as a gag since practically all the characters in the book appear with their real names. However, it wasn’t too much of a secret for Walter Winchell named the authors and so did John Chamberlin, then book critic of the [New York] Times. He also included James Thurber as a co-author, which Thurber indignantly denied. Chamberlin ran a correction.
“The book was sold to the movies but never produced. Wylie never included it among his published works, because it was a joint and anonymous job. However I mentioned it in my Who’s Who biography.
“There’s much to tell about the book, much that I still think is amusing. I’m trying to do it in a book of Memoirs which I’m now writing and which Lippincotts is patiently waiting for.”
While Bergman claimed there was more to the story, we may never know what he meant. As far as can be determined, Bernard Aaron Bergman never finished that memoir before his death on April 11, 1980.
However, armed with the information from the letters to me by Philip Wylie and B. A. Bergman, I wrote a brief note about the authorship of the book for TAD where it appeared in the issue for April 1970, as “The Smiling Corpse Revisited.” There it might have remained, but for the interest in reprinting the book for a new generation of readers.
How does The Smiling Corpse hold up after all these years? That, dear reader, is going to be your decision as you read this newly resurrected work of a by-gone age.
J. Randolph Cox