Last Night I Shot a Private Eye in My Pajamas…

Groucho Marx, P.I.?
Created by Mr. and Mrs. Marx

Okay, I’ll confess. I’m a big Marx Brothers fan. I remember stumbling into class Monday mornings in high school, all bleary eyed, for what seemed like an entire semester, because CBC-Montreal insisted on running Marx Brothers flicks on the late show every Sunday night. And to this day, I shudder at the memory of carrying a bicycle horn tucked in my belt, à la Harpo. In my senior year. What the fuck was I thinking?

But despite my Harpo-channeling, GROUCHO MARX was always my favourite. His acerbic wisecracks, his disdain for authority and kneejerk social norms, the suggestiveness of those waggling brows–what wasn’t there to love for a horny, messed up, insecure kid?

Of course, obsessions change, evolve and adapt, and so by college, my love of detective fiction had come galloping up on the outside, to take the lead (a love, I might add, that so far shows little sign of abating). But part of that newfound P.I. passion was fueled by my discovery of a small paperback called You Bet Your Life by Stuart Kaminsky.

It must have been one of the first private eye novels I remember buying, and it was completely about the Marx Brothers–at the time, I had no idea who private eye Toby Peters–or Stuart Kaminsky–were. In it, Hollywood private peeper Toby Peters is hired by the brothers because Chico has a slight gambling problem (a real thing!), and owes the wrong people (the Chicago mob!) the wrong amount of money ($120,000!). Peters, a Hollywood dick with a knack for helping celebrities out of jams, is hired to intercede, and along the way consorts with Al Capone, Louis B. Mayer, and Ian Fleming (in a brief cameo), as well as the Marx Brothers in all their raving lunacy.

Like I said, what wasn’t there to love?

So, for those of you who aren’t afraid of a little Groucho in your detective fiction–or a little detective fiction in your Groucho–may I offer the following suggestions:

  • The Big Store (1941, MGM) Buy the DVD  Watch it now!
    Sporting one of the all-time great P.I. monickers, Groucho plays Wolf J. Flywheel. He and his (silent) partner Ravelli (played by Harpo), investigate assorted shenanigans at a downtown department store owned by Margaret Dumont. Chico’s there, too, running his own scams.
  • Love Happy (1949, United Artists) Buy the VHS | Buy the DVD  | Buy the Blu-Ray | Buy this DVD
    The last Marx Brothers film ever made, purportedly to pay off Chico’s gambling debts, Groucho plays Sam Grunion, another P.I. Here he gets involved with a bunch of ambitious young performers trying to mount a Broadway show, whose interests collide with those of a gang of jewel thieves. But Sam’s scams are further thwarted by Chico and Harpo as a couple of petty criminals looking to cut themselves in on the action.
  • You Bet Your Life (1978, by Stuart Kaminsky)Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    This 1978 novel by Stuart Kaminsky was the third in his long-running Toby Peters series, and still, I think, my favourite. But then, you never forget your first love…
  • Groucho Marx, Master Detective  (1998, by Ron Goulart | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    The first of half a dozen novels, crammed full of outrageous wordplay and dreadful puns, in which Ron Goulart posits Groucho as a wise-cracking, crime-solving amateur sleuth and shit magnet, who decides to do a radio detective show. Unfortunately, Groucho and the show’s creator, Frank Denby, seem to keep stumbling into murder cases–and the English language doesn’t get off too easy, either.
  • Groucho Marx, Private Eye (1999, by Ron Goulart | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    Groucho gets his own radio show, called “Groucho Marx, Private Eye,” in which he plays gumshoe J. Hawkshaw Transom. But the ratings soon tank, and then the mother of his co-star is charged with murder. Groucho and show runner Frank step in.
  • Elementary, My Dear Groucho (1999, by Ron Goulart | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    Murder again, this time on the set of the Sherlock Holmes movie, The Valley of Fear.
  • Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders  (2001, by Ron Goulart) | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    Groucho and Frank are at it again, all the way from Hollywood to Broadway.
  • Groucho Marx, Secret Agent (2003, by Ron Goulart | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    Groucho’s at it again, snooping into the mysterious death of a film director, as the world teeters towards war.
  • Groucho Marx, King of the Jungle (2006, by Ron Goulart | Buy this book  | Kindle it!
    Groucho and Frank visit the set of a Tarzan rip-off, only to discover that Ty-Gor himself has been knocked off.
  • Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers (2021, edited by Josh Pachter)
    It had to happen. Fourteen stories, one inspired by each of the Brother’s movies. (okay, there were fourteen, though only thirteen were ever actually released.) Contributors include Donna Andrews, Brendan DuBois, Barb Goffman, Robert Randisi, Marilyn Todd, Joseph S. Walker, Rob Lopresti and others.

AND NOW, THE PUNCHLINE…

  • “How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Pat Nolan for the push.

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