Murder By the Book, 1987 — A Little Jewel of A Detective Spoof

This satirical take on the hard-boiled detective novel is rich in humor and the gags paint the genre with a broad, sweeping brush. Spoofs are very hard to do, and I can’t say I’ve enjoyed very many. They just don’t work because they try too hard, and the actors look like they are mugging for a laugh — as in, “Look at me. This is funny. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh.” Murder By the Book, a 1987 made-for-TV movie, hit the satire trail flat out without missing a beat, played it straight, and it worked.

The scene opens with a surreal setting — a bad guy silhouetted in the doorway, Biff Deegan holding a gun and spouting hardboiled detective drivel with a voluptuous blonde entwined at his feet. This is not just a dream for his writer/creator D. H. Mercer, (Robert Hays) it’s a nightmare. Mercer’s fictional character has literally taken over his life and is so popular with the public he can’t get rid of him (i.e. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes). Even though Mercer knows Biff is a manifestation of his subconscious, the author can see him and hear him as a full-blown alter-ego and it’s driving him crazy. Nobody else can see Biff, so people stare as Mercer talks to empty air.

Mercer — Get out of my life. Go away. People are staring. I cannot be standing on Fifth Avenue talking or arguing with a figment of my imagination.

Mercer wants to play in the big leagues. He wants to kill off Biff Deegan. Biff laughs broadly. “You can’t kill me, Mercer. I’m indestructible. You made me indestructible.” The writer contacts his agent. He wants to write a new detective character. One who is not as “crude and insensitive” as Biff. One who has more savoir faire. Private Eye Amos Frisbee. When he pitches his idea, character, and plot to his agent, he scoffs.

But shortly thereafter, Mercer finds himself embroiled in the very plot he had pitched. And finds he is not the detective Biff Deegan is. In fact, without Biff’s savvy asides, the clumsy writer could never save the beautiful femme fatale, Marissa (Catherine Mary Stewart) and would have been fitted with concrete overshoes by the over-the-hill bad guy, Victor Greville (Fred Gwynne).

Partly convinced by Mercer’s mother (Celeste Holm), that he should write something besides “escapist trash” he tries to make Biff understand that now he is a wiser man. He has been “leavened”.

Mercer – For the first time in my life I understand the fragility of the life force. And that’s what I’ve got to write about now. A real book. Amos Frisbee would have been even more trivial than Biff Deegan.

Biff — Making people laugh and cry. Not wanting to put the book down. What’s so trivial about that?

Mercer — I’ve got to speak to the ages now.

Biff — Mercer. That is truly nauseating.

Based on a novel by Mel Arrighi titled “Alter Ego”, Murder By the Book should have been at least memorable for two things: (1) the “novel” story and (2) the excellent double role of Robert Hays — remember him in Airplane? — as author D.H. Mercer, and his fictional detective Biff Deegan. In fact, the alter ego, Biff, is the true star and “leavening” of this movie. He’s got the get-up, the moves, the cracking wise, and the PI look. Loved him. To me, it beat the heck out of Steve Martin’s detective spoof, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, 1982. Too silly for me. However, my husband loved it. There’s just no accounting for taste.

And yet, it’s hard to find anything in the way of reviews, pictures, etc, for Murder By the Book. (There are tons of other films with this title, so be aware). I found one review at the time the movie aired on CBS, which gave kudos to Robert Hays, but not much for the writing.

The main sources treat the movie as a straight mystery/thriller instead of a spoof. Even the full cast is not available. It’s like nobody ever watched it. And that’s a shame.