Polygonics Murder Case

THERE'S A NEW paperback filled with quips from the characters who made up the Algonquin Round Table -- the coterie of wits who gathered for lunch at New York's Algonquin Hotel in the 1930s. Here's my favorite one. The theater critic Alexander Woollcott and a companion are observing the entrance of an obnoxious and physically repulsive English couple who are members of the nobility. How does one refer to them, asks the companion. "I," responds Woollcott, "call them it and that."

This rude remark is one of dozens of such lines in The Dorothy Parker Murder Case, by George Baxt, just released in paperback by a publishing firm with the odd name of International Polygonics Ltd. that specializes in reprints of mysteries. And the amazing thing about the puns, quips and wonderfully snide comments in the book is that they are all made up by the author.

"Everybody's heard the Algonquin lines so many times that I wanted to do something fresh," says the 62-year-old Baxt, who's had a four-decade career in show business as a scriptwriter, playwright and actor's agent (representing such grand old names as Ernest Truex, Ramon Novarro and Oscar Homolka). His story turns Woollcott and writer Dorothy Parker into detectives after the body of a showgirl is found in the apartment of fellow Algonquin wit George S. Kaufman.

The Dorothy Parker Murder Case was originally published in hardback by St. Martin's Press in 1984. St. Martin's has also just issued Baxt's latest, The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case, which is chockablock with references to the master's films, starting with a scene in which there is a stabbing in the shower. The unsolved murder happens in Munich in 1925 while Hitchcock is making his first movie and the events come back to haunt him when he is directing The Lady Vanishes in 1937. International Polygonics Ltd. will be putting out The Alfred Hitchcock Murder Case in paper next spring, but meanwhile it will also be reissuing the mystery series for which Baxt is primarily known, featuring Pharaoh Love, a gay black detective. Titles include A Queer Kind of Death and Topsy and Evil.

International Polygonics sometimes attracts attention in the publishing business because of its colorful name. "It was a choice between that and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich," says company president Hugh Abramson, "and I thought International Polygonics sounded more euphonious." You can see why he gets along with Baxt. The real reason behind the moniker is that the company began in the late 1960s by trying to market reproductions of commissioned works of sculpture. "Those were the days when I was trying to save the world," says Abramson.

Finding no profit in sculpture, International Polygonics moved into the jigsaw puzzle business and obtained rights to do puzzles based on the Middle Earth murals painted for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. "I was doing most of my jigsaw business with department stores," says Abramson, "but I found out that the older set had never heard of Tolkien, so I wasn't doing too well. I started selling the puzzles to bookstores instead, and I noticed that they had a lack of classic mystery titles so I decided to do some reprints. My first was Baroness Orczy's The Man in the Corner, a classic whodunit. That was in the public domain, but nearly everything we do now is under contract to an author or an estate. My first success was our third book, Richard Hull's The Murder of My Aunt. By the end of this year, we will have published 53 books, with 51 still in print. Our most popular authors are John Dickson Carr and Margaret Millar. She is the widow of Ross Macdonald and a fabulous writer. I believe her 25th novel will be published this year by Morrow. We'll be doing the 12th reprint by her this fall. Whenever it's time to issue another one, I just call up Maggie and ask her what she wants done next."

Also among Abramson's leading sellers are three collections of stories by Lillian de la Torre in which the detective is the Great Dr. Samuel Johnson himself. "She startled everybody in the 1940s when she started writing these stories in the magazines," says Abramson. "Nobody'd quite done it before. We reprinted Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector and The Detections of Dr. Sam Johnson and then did another collection that we gathered ourselves, The Return of Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector."

Abramson shies away from giving exact sales figures, but acknowledges that none of his reprints (which cost $4.95, a bit on the high side compared to most mysteries) has ever sold as many as 50,000 copies. "Most trade paperback houses need sales of about 35,000 on a book to break even," says Abramson. "But in a low-overhead operation like ours, I can make a profit on a sale of 5,000." He also has not abandoned his jigsaw puzzle roots. He marketed Garfield the Cat puzzles for several years and this fall will be combining his interests in mysteries and jigsaws. The puzzle will be accompanied by a short mystery that can only be solved by completing a jigsaw puzzle that is part of the same package. Polygonics Ltd. marches on.

Originals

SPEAKING OF funny lines, I found one in a new reference book called The Originals: An A-Z of Fiction's Real-life Characters (Little, Brown). The author, William Amos, has identified almost 3,000 fictional characters based on real people. But the book is not without its problems. One difficulty is that the book is a reprint of a British edition and it deals largely with minor and long-forgotten British works. The fact that James Forth in Rhoda Broughton's Belinda (1883) was based on Mark Pattison, an Oxford don, is just the kind of arcana it contains. A second problem is the book's index. This is supposed to be a quasi-reference book, but its only index consists of the names of the real people on whom the entries are based. There are no index citations for the authors who employed the real people, thereby eliminating the chief source of interest for most readers. The only way you can find out whom James Joyce used as models for his characters, for example, is to read the whole book. The index won't reveal it.

You'll be interested in knowing -- won't you? -- that the character of Dodo in E.F. Benson's Dodo (1893) is based on Margot Tennant, second wife of the politician Herbert Asquith and mother of the film director Anthony Asquith. She must have been a woman of some wit for William Amos relates a comment she made about David Lloyd George: "He could not see a belt without hitting below it." It's a line that might be of use to some members of Congress this November.

Our History

NO, HARLAN Davidson does not make motorcycles. That's some other Davidson. It's a publishing house in Arlington, Illinois, which does college textbooks, notably an interesting line called the American History Series, edited by John Hope Franklin of Duke and Abraham Eisenstadt of Brooklyn College. The series has already produced 21 titles and has announced 18 more, and several Washington-area authors are among those involved.

The paperbacked volumes, intended for use in basic and advanced classes in American history, generally run less than 200 pages. In addition to succinct summaries of the historical events, each has a thorough bibliographical essay.

The three volumes published so far in 1986 include a second edition of From the Old Diplomacy to the New: 1865-1900, by Robert L. Beisner of American University, The United States at War, 1941-1945, by Gary R. Hess of Bowling Green and Home Front U.S.A.: The United States in World War II, by Allan M. Winkler of the University of Oregon. Among the titles already published in The American History Series is The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921, by Alan M. Kraut of American, and Black Americans in the Industrial Age, 1865-1920, by Barbara J. Flint of Howard is one of the forthcoming titles.

In the Margin

GEORGETTE HEYER, of course, is best known as an author of historical romances. But she also wrote 12 mysteries. Berkley Books will be publishing eight of them over the next year in paperback and has just released the first, Footsteps in the Dark . . . In the fall, Crown will be publishing a biography of the late Simone de Beauvoir by the British writer Margaret Crosland. Crosland previously wrote biographies of Edith Piaf and Colette . . . Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, will deliver a lecture on Wednesday, May 28, at 8 p.m. in the Mumford Room of the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress. It is sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book and admission is free.