Long sequences of very bookish-sounding book chat take up a lot of space here. At one point, for example, a member of the New York literary scene explains to Dr. Basil Willing the exacting standard that defines mid-century American letters: “Today a plot is indecent anywhere outside a mystery.” Inside this mystery, the plotting is decent enough. Publisher Tony Kane and his wife, Phillippa, host a party in honor of best-selling author Amos Cottle at their Connecticut home. Then, as quickly as one might turn a page, an occasion of mordant social comedy becomes a scene of homicidal tragedy. An unseen hand, it appears, has slipped cyanide into Cottle’s drink. But whose hand could it be? Everyone present at the affair—the Kanes; literary agent Gus Vesey and his wife, Meg; a pair of book critics; a couple of gushingly enthusiastic readers; and Vera Vane, the author’s Hollywood actress wife—would seem to benefit far more from Cottle’s continued royalty-generating life than from his death.
Also present at the party is Willing, a psychiatrist-cum-sleuth who soon figures out that Cottle was not the man that his jacket-flap blurb said he was. With two linked mysteries to solve, Willing embarks on a course of literary detection, scouting for clues in book reviews, publisher’s correspondence, and other documents related to this rather ghostly writer. (The title refers to a parlor game that partygoers are playing at the time of the murder, but it clearly has a broader resonance as well.) The old-fashioned, and unfashionable, puzzle that McCloy sets forth is engaging, and yet a few of its pieces are loose-fitting at best. For all of her devotion to plotting, moreover, she lades the novel with a great deal of satire for satire’s sake, much of it over-ripe. The outcome, one might say, is two-thirds of a good book.