Making famous historical figures characters in murder stories has become a familiar gimmick of writers of mysteries, and I must admit I am a sucker for it. I rather like the idea of people like Ernest Hemingway and Groucho Marx being involved in murder cases. It's fun to imagine how real people whom we know a little something about might react in a life-or-death situation.
Stuart Kaminsky and Ron Goulart have both written mystery series in which historical figures play prominent roles. In Goulart's case, the real person, Groucho Marx, is the amateur sleuth. Kaminsky's narrator/hero is the fictional Toby Peters, but people like Mae West, W.C. Fields Joan Crawford, Albert Einstein and, yes, Groucho Marx always get mixed up in his murder cases.
The two novels I read recently, Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (2001) and High Midnight (1981) are representative of the two series. Each is set in roughly the same historical period, the late 1930s in the case of Goulart's book and the early 1940s in Kaminsky's.
Another similarity is that both books are quite humorous, although the humor is very different. High Midnight uses situational and character-driven humor, while in Groucho Marx, the humor consists mainly of Marx one-liners, an average of about one per page. One example: When a man introduces himself as "traveling with Willa Jerome's party," Groucho replies, "Ah, I wasn't aware she brought a party along. I wonder why I wasn't invited." Most of the novel's characters just ignore Groucho's wisecracks, and most readers probably will, too, after awhile.
As for the mystery, Groucho and narrator Frank Denby, the Doctor Watson of the duo, travel by train to New York, where Groucho is to appear on Broadway in a production of The Mikado. When two murders occur and a man Groucho believes is innocent becomes the prime suspect, he gets involved in finding the real killer. As a mystery, Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders is entertaining enough, but nothing special. Unless one is a fan of Groucho Marx, as I am, one would do well to avoid it.
High Midnight, on the other hand, is a winner all the way. Toby's client is none other than Hollywood star Gary Cooper, who is being pressured by a gangster to make a movie called High Midnight (this is before High Noon) that Cooper doesn't want to make. Pretty soon bodies start piling up, and it is Toby Peters who is the innocent suspect. He must find the killer before he either gets killed himself or thrown into jail by his own brother, a Los Angeles cop.
Along the way, Peters bumps into Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway, the latter of whom gets involved in a gun battle along with Peters and Cooper, sort of a comic gunfight at the OK Corral.