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The Notorious Death of Marilyn Monroe


Working on the set of Something’s Got To Give shortly before her death

August 5 is the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death. Or is it August 4?

As conspiracy theories go the mysteries surrounding Marilyn’s death deserve serious examination more than most.

I researched the facts and speculations in great detail while writing my mystery novel Watching Marilyn. Some sources were more credible than others. Some who claimed special knowledge were cranks and opportunists. Witnesses contradicted each other and sometimes themselves. The official record, as is often the case, was slapdash and muddled. Even so I formed definite opinions about what really went on that night.

Like many others I don’t believe the verdict of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office that her death was Probable Suicide.

There are facts and there are speculations. Start with the facts.

  • In the period before her death Marilyn had begun work on a new movie Something’s Got To Give. Due to persistent lateness and non-appearance on set she had been fired by the studio, then very quickly re-hired at a significantly higher salary.

  • She had started seeing her psychiatrist for extended periods on an almost daily basis. Contrary to orthodox psychoanalytic theory Dr Ralph Greenson had developed their professional relationship into a quasi-family one, inviting her to dinner at his home and encouraging socializing with his children.

  • At around 7pm on the evening of Saturday August 4 Marilyn spoke on the telephone to her former stepson Joe DiMaggio Jr, with whom she had remained friends since her second divorce. He claimed she sounded cheerful.
  • Sometime before 8pm she received a call from Peter Lawford inviting her to dinner. He reported she sounded distressed. He subsequently called her housekeeper, Mrs Eunice Murray, asking her to keep an eye on Marilyn.
  • Marilyn’s housekeeper first claimed to have become concerned at midnight, then later changed her story to 3am the next day. The housekeeper immediately telephoned Marilyn’s psychiatrist. Dr Greenson initially seems to have first told police it was the earlier time, then quickly changed to the later time of the early hours of Sunday.

  • The psychiatrist arrived very soon after he was alerted, whenever it was (he lived only a short distance away), broke through a window and found Marilyn face-down on her bed, naked, with the telephone in her hand. A number of empty pill bottles were on the bedside table.

  • The autopsy determined cause of death to be acute barbiturate poisoning, specifically a mixture of 8mg% chloral hydrate and 4.5mg% nembutal. An expert estimated this equates to around 50 capsules of chloral hydrate and 20 of nembutal. The drugs had been prescribed by her physicians Dr Greenson and Dr. Hyman Engelberg because of Marilyn’s chronic insomnia.

  • The barbiturate residues were detected in various internal organs but not in the stomach or upper intestine. A dose as strong as that analyzed would normally cause violent convulsive death before the stomach contents were fully passed to the intestine.

  • Sometime after the initially autopsy by Los Angeles coroner, Dr Thomas Noguchi, several organs removed for examination were found to have disappeared from hospital premises. They were never subsequently located preventing further testing.

The Theories

  • Official verdict: Suicide. Distressed at the age of 36 by her failing career in movies, by three divorces, tossed aside by both Kennedy brothers, a personal and family history of mental illness and previous suicide attempts, she decided to end it all.

  • Alternative explanation: a cry for help – as on previous occasions she was making a dramatic, hysterical gesture, but expected to be found before the drugs did their worst.

  • A tragic accident – habituated to barbiturates she became confused after taking her regular dose to help her sleep, took another dose, and then became so mentally fuddled she repeatedly kept on to a fatal overdose.

  • The sinister explanation: murder! – the culprits most often identified being either the Mafia or the CIA.

Likely? Let’s examine the options.

  • Suicide?

    Why? The ‘previous suicide attempts’ are as well-documented as her scores of love affairs, the abortions, and a couple of clandestine marriages – in other words there’s no credible evidence to support any of them, and in a lot of cases the rumors, scandals and gossip are demonstrably untrue.

    Yes, she did have three marriages behind her, but two divorces at least were at her own instigation when her husbands wouldn’t play second fiddle to the career that was Marilyn’s real passion.

    Had that career gone down the tube? True Arthur Miller had failed to write her a part in The Misfits that would once and for all establish her as a serious actress, but that movie did win her a Golden Globe Award. True, Fox Studios had fired her from Something’s Got To Give, but then Head Office rapidly reconsidered and fired George Cukor instead, the director she didn’t get on with, to replace him with Marilyn’s old favorite Jean Negulesco. They persuaded her to return to the project at more than twice her original salary, a half-million dollar contract.

    In publicity shots for the film, and in extended photo shoots for Life and Cosmopolitan magazines, she looked more glamorous than ever and showed every sign of being comfortable and confident with her role and sexuality. She had also for the first time taken control of her career and formed a new production company with plans to develop serious dramatic parts for herself, but for the time being she was throwing herself back into the profitable light comedy persona that had made her famous. Her star was on the ascendant again.

  • A Cry for Help?

    Not if you lock the door before taking an overdose way beyond what’s needed to attract attention. Besides, as one of the most famous women on the planet she already had all the attention she could want. The weekend before she died she had been at Lake Tahoe’s Cal-Neva Lodge Casino with Frank Sinatra (who owned the place, allegedly in partnership with Mafia godfather Sam Giancana), Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr. Juliet Prowse, Peter and Pat Lawford and ex-husband Joe DiMaggio Snr. She wasn’t short of friends.

    Or was it, as some insist, only Pat Lawford’s brother Robert Kennedy’s attention she wanted? She was certainly attracted to the Kennedy brothers though they’d started distancing themselves. But I believe Marilyn could ride that out as she’d done with all the other men in her past; everything about her life story suggests it was her career she really cared about, and that was still an open road.

    And one last interesting rumor – if she wanted romantic attention Joe DiMaggio was firmly back in her life, still besotted as he always would be, and according to some there were secret plans to re-marry. It’s one of the less-likely scenarios but not impossible.

  • Murder by the Mafia?

    Marilyn was close to Sinatra who was close to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago Mob, part inspiration for The Godfather, and agent for the CIA in some of it’s most nefarious activities in Cuba, including the Castro poison plot. For a capo of professional hit men Giancana was strangely unsuccessful in this latter enterprise but perhaps the CIA’s insistence on poison rather than a bullet to the head resulted in less than peak performance. He later became an FBI informant and was himself murdered in extremely controversial circumstances just before testifying at a Senate investigation of alleged CIA and Cosa Nostra collusion in a plot to assassinate President Kennedy. But his motive for killing Marilyn? Well the Chicago Mob, allegedly at Joseph Kennedy’s request, had used union influence to swing an extremely tight vote in John Kennedy’s favor and win him the Presidency. When JFK and his brother, the Attorney-General, cracked down on the Mafia the made-men felt betrayed. To send a strong message to the two politicians the mobsters it’s alleged decided to rub out the brother’s mutual mistress Marilyn Monroe. So if the conspiracy theorists are right on this we assume the Mafia had learned from their repeated failures to eliminate Castro and had at last pulled off a very subtle killing. But as far as sending that sort of message goes? No, subtlety really isn’t what’s needed. This idea is too weird even for a movie. Oh, wait, no it isn’t, they’ve filmed it, many times. It’s fiction.

  • Murder by the CIA?

    The secret is long out that the FBI suspected Marilyn, Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, Dr Ralph Greenson and Eunice Murray of communist sympathies. Possibly they suspected everyone except Joe McCarthy but let’s be fair, the FBI don’t murder their suspects. The CIA though? We can believe almost anything of an organization that plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro with a poisoned cigar. No barbiturates in Marilyn’s stomach? That’s because, say the conspiracy theorists, the CIA used a poisoned enema. Motive? This was the height of the Cold War, the US was testing ever bigger H bombs in the desert, the Cuban Missile crisis was closing in on 5 to midnight, Marilyn kept a red-bound diary in which she wrote down JFK’s pillow talk. Enraged when he dumped her she was threatening to reveal dark secrets – she had to be silenced and the diary must not fall into the wrong hands. Credible? Well it’s true no diary was ever found, and yes she was into radical political causes like equal rights for minorities, and she did talk to the Kennedys about the dangers of nuclear war. But it’s silly to suppose Marilyn was going to pass H-bomb secrets to the Kremlin. The only damage she could do was to personally embarrass the philandering Kennedy brothers and destroy their political careers – since America was more morally conservative then than it was in the Clinton era. Which makes a strong case against this wild theory, the President had let the CIA down badly over the Bay of Pigs. Would they assassinate anyone just to protect JFK’s personal reputation? For the answer see Sam Giancana and the Mafia above. I suspect there were many in the CIA hierarchy who’d prefer a publishing contract to a rub-out contract for Marilyn.

  • The Anomalies

    There are contested stories that Robert Kennedy visited Marilyn the evening she died.

    Long distance records show Marilyn repeatedly tried to call him at the White House during her final weeks. The calls may not have got past his secretary. Conspiracy theorists claim Marilyn had given up hope of JFK divorcing to make her First Lady and had transferred her hopes to the Attorney General, but – possibly after one brief fling – the staunchly Catholic father of seven (later to become eleven) was giving her the brush-off.

    In fact there’s no evidence of the subject or intent of these calls. On August 4 Robert Kennedy was in San Francisco. He may have flown down to Los Angeles to attend a party being thrown by Peter Lawford, neighbors at Lawford’s beach side house report a helicopter landing early that evening. Did RFK then drive to Brentwood to visit Marilyn? Does this explain the change in Marilyn’s mood between the 7pm phone call from DiMaggio and the 9pm call from Lawford? Lawford never admitted RFK was there that day but the evidence suggests he was. But why would Kennedy drive to see Marilyn in person if he was reluctant to talk on the phone? I suspect Lawford, in his role as fixer and facilitator to the famous and powerful, called Marilyn that night to arrange a meeting on the neutral territory of his beach house. Marilyn it seems had no intention of socializing with anyone that night. What was going on between her and Kennedy we’ll never know but I doubt there was any obsessive infatuation.

  • There are persistent indications that Marilyn died sometime earlier than was claimed. Her Brentwood neighbors are said to have heard a helicopter suspiciously hovering overhead on Saturday evening (if this was Robert Kennedy he’d have had to abseil down to the swimming pool – Marilyn’s garden was too small to land in). Also Saturday night neighbors supposedly heard raised voices and the sound of breaking glass. If this was Greenson entering the bedroom it confirms her housekeeper’s initial statement that Marilyn was dead before midnight. So why would the doctors lie and not call the cops until 4.35 on the morning of 5 August when Sergeant Jack Clemmons was the first police officer to arrive? Clemmons found three people waiting for him: Dr. Hyman Engelberg the physician, Dr Ralph Greenson the psych-analyst, and Eunice Murray the housekeeper. Engelberg told him Marilyn had committed suicide. The policeman formed a definite opinion the bedroom she died in had been cleared up, the body had been posed, the empty pill bottles were arranged too neatly, there was no drinking glass which usually accompanies the taking of 70 pills, and the housekeeper was oddly finding it an appropriate opportunity to do laundry, he was convinced this meant a murder scene.

    Many years later Murray made a second more major revision to her story. She stated that after Peter Lawford made his concerns know she went and found Marilyn unconscious. It was at that stage, in the early evening she called Greenson. According to this version Marilyn was taken away in an ambulance, destination unknown, but died wherever it was and brought back to the house. Monroe’s publicity agent at Fox was called in to decide how to manage the news. They decided everyone’s best interests would be served by an unambiguous suicide – no Kennedy involvement, no suggestion of medical malpractice in over-prescribing barbiturates to a vulnerable personality. Hence the clean-up that aroused the cop’s suspicions. Would members of the medical profession behave in such a deceitful and self-serving manner – well note the similarities to the Michael Jackson case.

    Sergeant Clemmons remained convinced his own police department were complicit in a cover-up. Given the powerful individuals involved, not to mention the Studio, this is entirely credible – but in politics and Hollywood other things beside murder need to hide from public scrutiny. Possibly the missing organs after the autopsy were part of this, but it was Marilyn Monroe after all, they could equally have been taken by a gruesome souvenir hunter. Likely? Well that’s what happened to Napoleon’s penis.

    Years later Dr Thomas Noguchi who conducted Marilyn’s autopsy would have the body of the assassinated Robert Kennedy on his table. A sad coincidence, unless of course you’re a conspiracy believer, Noguchi described a gunshot wound inconsistent with convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan being RFK’s killer.

  • The Verdict

    So what’s left? Simply the tragic accident. It was Hollywood, it was the early 60’s, addiction to prescription drugs wasn’t the publicly recognised problem it is now. And celebrity doctors were only too willing to keep high-profile patients happy with whatever juice or potion was fashionable. Both her doctors were prescribing for her and Dr. Engelberg reportedly often gave her “youth shots” which made her speech rapid and disjointed. Two weeks before her death she’d received treatment at Cedars of Lebanon for endometriosis – a painful and chronic condition that may have caused her to depend even more on barbiturates for relief. So, reliant on medication, doped too often and too much, that night she kept taking pills like a zombie until the overdose killed her.

    I think this is the most likely explanation of a tangled bizarre web. But I’d never be surprised if someday evidence surfaces to show something far more sinister.

    Marilyn had always wanted to be a serious actress. There was drama enough in her final performance.

Watching Marilyn is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook format.



Internet Book Marketing, the facts


Writers Need Reviews

Browsing casually through a bookshop or on Amazon, no one ever pays out hard-earned cash for a book they don’t know by a writer they’ve never heard of.

People buy novels because someone recommends them – whether through reviews, best-seller lists or word of mouth. Books without positive recommendations won’t sell.

When you find a book on Amazon with an eye-catching title in a genre you like and it has, say, 50 or 60 reviews, most very positive (not all because real people have different tastes), you’ll possibly give it some consideration. You might even buy it. Hopefully you like it, then you recommend it to others who in turn recommend…. it’s a snowball effect.

But for a new author getting the ball rolling is a challenge. Yes, you’ll often see books with three or four great reviews, all awarding 5 stars. Everyone is wise to this, one review will be from the author’s best friend, one from their mother, one from their aunt, and the other they probably wrote themselves. A genuine writer needs to get a critical mass (not too critical) of real people talking positively about his book before it will take off, and he needs to achieve that without expecting they’ll volunteer to pay for the privilege.

That’s why writers have free e-book promotions, give-away days when they reduce the price of their work to zero and encourage readers to download. They’re hoping that by getting their book into the hands of enough people they’ll generate a positive buzz that will translate into sales of the full-price paperback, and of the e-book when it returns to normal price. When the give-away is done specifically through the Kindle store they’re hoping for 5 star reviews on Amazon.

That’s the theory anyway, and when I was planning how to market my mystery novel, Watching Marilyn, a free give-away weekend seemed a good way to go. The story is about Hollywood in the 1960’s, the Cuban missile crisis, the dark suspicions surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. After launching it in the Kindle store it sold at a steady but slow pace considering it had no great fanfare of publicity associated. It needed a push.

I decided to have the give-away at the start of June – this was the anniversary of Monroe’s birthday, (she’d have been 86) and the hashtag #HappyBirthdayMarilyn was trending on Twitter. I covered the details of how the give-away went in an earlier blog. It seemed pretty successful. Now I want to analyse if the strategy really works.

Sadly the answer seems to be ‘not really.’

Well, I never did expect everyone who downloaded the free book to review it, most readers of books obviously don’t, it’s only a minority of activists who put their opinions out there to inform and educate the public. I’d have been very, very happy if 10% had responded, but expected it would probably be lower, but surely at least 1%. So how many reviews did the promotion generate? None. 0%. Nada. Zilch. There were no reviews. A couple of people did press the ‘Like’ button for the Kindle edition and I’m grateful to them, but what happened to the others?

Well some simply wouldn’t have liked the book, or were indifferent to it, you have to accept different people have different tastes, and for those who can’t stand the sort of book I write I should be happy they didn’t respond, negative reviews never help unless you’re a punk rock star.

I suspect there’s another group who download free books but never get round to actually reading them, like buying inappropriate shoes in a Sale the lure of a bargain is enough in itself.

But at the end of the day it may simply be that far fewer than 1% of people who download a book will respond with a review, and to get a useful marketing result you need to give away thousands rather than the hundreds I stopped at. Well, I’ve just looked at the Amazon page for that publishing sensation Fifty Shades of Grey, alleged to have sold over a million copies – currently it has 7,712 reviews (heavily polarised between 5 stars and 1 star to average 3 stars). I make that 0.8% – so I should have had 3 or 4 reviews at least! Obviously the only safe conclusion from this marketing experiment is that my free book didn’t have enough gratuitous sex.

Internet Privacy

Suspicious about how Big Brother is using ever more sophisticated tools to track your use of the Internet? Google, Amazon, the FBI, Facebook, the company that owns your work computer can all monitor what you do online. But it may be the lesser of two evils.

Each organization would claim they have good reason for their surveillance, and to some extent it’s arguable they really do, assuming they can be trusted to act responsibly. In the case of Google their knowledge of almost everything we look at on screen helps them target highly individualized adverts, which increases effectiveness for advertisers, makes lots of money for Google, and keeps all those incredibly useful services like search, email, storage, free to use for everyone.

Even so I can’t blame people for feeling uneasy, even paranoid, about the intrusion behind the screen, even when the only obvious result is advertising popping up on my computer for mail-order Creative Writing degrees, Cellphone packages and Shelving Systems, all connected in some way to stuff I’ve done online.

The European Union, an odd organization that champions consumer rights when not busy bankrupting small member nations, has recently banned web sites from dropping cookies in secret on visiting computers, legislation now insists they must, if they’re hosted in Europe, explicitly get a user’s permission beforehand. Additionally browsers like Firefox and Internet Explorer have introduced ‘Do Not Track’ settings – though usually buried in the options and compliance by websites is voluntary. You can even tell Google you want to stay private if you dig deeply enough into account settings.

So I tried becoming anonymous recently. It took a few hours delving through technical advice sites, ironically relying on Google, before I had every system, browser and cookie setting switched to protect my online identity from prying eyes. I don’t have anything to hide, honest. I simply believe in a right to privacy.

Google and it’s surveillance buddies however seemed to draw their own conclusions about the type of person who’d want to become anonymous in this way. My targeted (and admittedly appropriate) adverts for shelving systems and the classic books of John Dickson Carr were promptly replaced by larger and much more colorful banners for agencies representing attractive Russian brides, and for sun-soaked Gay vacation resorts in Palm Springs (I’m broad-minded, but both at once ?). Clearly they weren’t tracking my financial status any longer.

And of course it wasn’t what I wanted anyone physically looking over my shoulder to see on my laptop (okay, I’m really narrow-minded). I went back to allowing widespread surveillance. They’re tracking me again, probably even as I write. Google, if you’re reading this, tell Anastasia from Podolsk to email me, I’ve lost her details. FBI – friend me on Facebook?

For technical details here’s how the experts explain it: How Websites Track You Online

Internet publicity

Usually authors who want to publicise their books are recommended to use social media. I’m sure it can be effective but it’s not a quick fix, it needs work putting in.

Facebook is probably the most versatile tool, but I’m not sure about it’s reach – it only communicates to people you already know, or those who deliberately seek you out then find you in the throng of others across the world who share your name.

Twitter has potentially a much wider potential to attract new interest with judicious use of hashtags. But how many billions of users are there now? The competition for attention is enormous unless you’re a major celebrity. Sure you can say something profoundly attention-grabbing in 140 characters, then a minute later you’re number 1000 in the profound twitter stream. Building a significant audience is a steep mountain to climb.

Instagram looked the most promising marketing tool to me. It’s the photographic equivalent of Twitter that got a lot of publicity when Facebook bought it for an astronomical sum just before the public flotation. Not yet as oceanic as Twitter, but sharing the hashtag basis so more focussed than Facebook.

Since the book I wanted to publicise, Watching Marilyn, featured Marilyn Monroe it meant I could base the marketing campaign around photos of her – of which there must be thousands to choose from, she was constantly photographed over a period of almost 20 years. And photographs of her, some well known, some rarities, are still hugely popular among an army of fans on the internet (I share the opinion that movie stars ain’t what they used to be). Definitely pictures of Marilyn attract more attention than photographs of the Cuban Missile Crisis which is one of the other major themes in my book, or photos of American political corruption (everyone just takes that for granted).

So my instagrams were photos of MM, where possible with an appropriate quote from the book for publicity purposes (Instagram allows more than 140 characters), and a #MarilynMonroe as well as a #WatchingMarilyn hashtag. And it did seem to work. My first instagrams attracted a handful of likes. Before long, as my audience grew, they were getting 50 or so likes each. I can’t tell what proportion of people who view the instagram (aka advert) bother to press the like button, but I assume most don’t, so the 50 likes represent a lot more views.

I was feeling reasonably pleased. Then I looked at the output of one of my fellow #MarilynMonroe hashtag users called @welovemarilyn. He/she (there’s no personal info associated with the account) was posting the same kind of photos as I was, putting up one or two every day, and was by then up to number 425 – probably over a year’s worth of dedicated uploading. For @welovemarilyn it was really working. Within 25 minutes of putting a picture online he was getting around 2500 likes.
That’s a hundred people a minute hitting the like button. How many more viewing? Within a couple of days, as dawn swept around the globe, he was regularly accumulating over 10,000 likes per photo, and for some photos where Marilyn is wearing an especially décolleté dress over 25,000. By daily posting of a picture of Marilyn Monroe @welovemarilyn has accumulated over 200,000 followers. And why not – Marilyn was a very attractive woman.

So if I kept up the campaign to promote my book for a year would I accumulate that many followers? Equally important, since instagraming is not my main occupation, how many book sales would it translate to? The followers of the #MarilynMonroe hashtag seem, in the main, to be nice people, sincere in their fandom, mostly gentle souls compared to many on the internet. But I don’t get the impression they’re great book buyers.

So would it be more effective to target my marketing at a more serious audience? There are currently 107,088 posts on Instagram with the hashtag #MarilynMonroe. There are 18 with the hashtag #CubanMissileCrisis.

The Free Weekend


The weekend of free Kindle downloads has just finished. So far it looks to have worked well. With a mini publicity campaign on Twitter to alert as many people as possible, the eBook version went free just after 1am Pacific Time Friday morning – yes, I was up to watch the computer screen. Amazon do say their servers can take a couple of hours to roll out a price change. It went free on their European stores at exactly the same time (I monitored that too) which would be about 9am local time.

Really I didn’t know what to expect. Would no-one download or would tens of thousands grab the freebie? I’d associated the marketing with Marilyn Monroe’s birthday so June 1 was the big day. By Saturday about 350 people had downloaded and it was showing as number 13 in the top 100 of the hardboiled Mysteries list. I was happy with this as a viral seed so I halted the tweet campaign. It would have been good to try for number 1 but I didn’t want to discourage the tens of thousands from paying for the book later.

On Monday morning the final results were in: a total of 455 free downloads from the US store, 40 from the UK, and 2 from the German store. Italy and France zilch, although they do have the excuse of not speaking the language. The English don’t, and going by population they seem only half as likely to read a book as an American. Wonder why?

In total though I’ll call it a round 500, some of whom may recommend it to their friends, and some, most importantly, may give it positive reviews on Amazon. I’m anticipating those will take a while to come through, so it could be a month before I can really assess how successful the marketing tactic was.

A Birthday Present

The Kindle Edition

My mystery/thriller novel Watching Marilyn has been out exclusively on Kindle for a while with sales showing a steady growth. Now the paperback has finally appeared on Amazon (US and UK) and apart from a peculiar color glitch with the “Look Inside” illustration everything looks good.

The story, set in 1962, is something of a homage to Hollywood noir, to my literary hero Raymond Chandler, and to a lost era of hope and paranoia. It features a private eye mixed up in the murky circumstances of Marilyn Monroe’s controversial death.

So, to jointly celebrate the paperback publication and Marilyn’s birthday on June 2nd (she’d have been 86!) I’m making the Kindle edition free to download over the weekend starting Friday 1st through to midnight Sunday 3rd.

Those are Pacific Time Zone dates by the way. It’s not clear if the Kindle store adjusts for European time in it’s other outlets, I’ll have to log onto Amazon and check for future reference.

According to expert opinion limited free downloads are supposed to be a good marketing move – they don’t earn royalties obviously but hopefully readers will put up some good reviews to encourage future purchases.

The paperback

The Devil to Pay

I like those classic pulp detective novels. The plots are original (they did come first) and the style is not as gratuitously anatomical as a lot of modern slasher stories. Also there’s the pleasure of the vigorous cover art. But for mystery novels which famously pride themselves on giving fair clues to the reader – how much can you trust the pictures?
Not much going by the many editions there have been of Ellery Queen’s early whodunit The Devil To Pay.
It’s not a particularly good detective story by the way. Queen seems to have worked harder on the romantic sub-plot than the crime itself. It’s his first mystery set in Hollywood and perhaps he was inspired by the Ronald Coleman, Loretta Young and Myrna Loy movie of the same name which had been released just eight years before in 1930
There is no connection at all between the movie and the book, it’s just a very popular title. In fact there had already been two previous movies with the same name, all with different writers and storyline. But this movie poster is a good starting place to get a serendipitous flavor of Queen’s book. Perhaps the first and only time a movie has given a fair representation of a literary theme, and quite by accident.
From the outset the covers of the book have been misleading. The earliest examples show a somewhat reptilian, almost claw-like, hand. In modified forms this illustration has probably been the most common cover used over the years.
Is it the Devil’s hand? Who knows. No such claw-like hand is in the book – the clue EQ writes about is actually a print, found on a dusty table, of what seems a normal hand except it has only two fingers! Two not five. Do illustrators and publishers ever read these books? Not often apparently. This was the first edition of the book. A similar hand reappeared on the 1941 paperback
My favourite cover, for purely artistic reasons, is this 1971 edition showing a Austin Powers-type dollybird holding a rapier. From her blond hair and pet monkey this is a minor character, Winni Moon, the girlfriend of the victim. Without giving too much away the monkey is a red herring. It plays no significant part in the plot (a sadly missed opportunity on EQ’s part). Winni does appear in the same room as the sword at one point but never actually handles it. And though her mini skirt and kinky boots may have helped sell copies they are totally anachronistic for a novel unambiguously set in 1938.
And by1966 the rapier has been replaced by a gun. No one got shot in the making of this book.
Meanwhile in Germany they had to contend with this. Playing cards? Not featured in the story. Statue of the Venus de Milo? No. Twin sisters? No. Twin men in hats with dark glasses? No. Oh, look very closely and spot the five fingered hand in there.
At least the Finns kept it simple – back to that claw.
This is wrong! Not factually, just ethically. This surreal Brazilian cover is a massive spoiler giving away Ellery’s last chapter surprise revelations. They’ve read the book but they don’t understand the concept of mystery. Not much point reading the second half of the book. Look away now.
To be fair the Italians did a respectable job with this 1990’s offering. Ellery really does dress like this (he’s in disguise). Though why change the title to the pedestrian “Hollywood in Confusion”?
But this is a book which is still in print in English. Have things improved? Sadly they’ve got worse. My least favorite cover of all is on a modern edition which has abandoned eye-catching sensationalism in favor of complete dullness. A sepia-tinged illustration of an attaché case full of dollar bills. Yes money is central to the plot but is there any such attaché case stuffed with cash in the book? Nowhere.
We have to wonder at the varied and inconsistent concepts publishers have of their target readership. But what’s obvious is that consistently over the years Ellery Queen’s The Devil To Pay has proved you can’t judge a book by its cover (except of course in Brasil)