It’s the Celebrity Sleuths Mystery Series, by George Baxt — 13 books, published between 1984 and 1997, with creative titles like The Greta Garbo Murder Case or The Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers Murder Case.
Going by online summaries, it looks like they all have the basic formula of “somebody gets murdered, and a star-studded lineup of Golden Age celebrities, led by the one name-checked in the title, needs to solve it.”
I noted the pattern while shelving people’s returns at the library, but didn’t feel compelled to pull any of them and read further.
And then I saw The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and snapped it up to check out as soon as my shift was over.
Plot twist! This isn’t part of the George Baxt series. Doesn’t even follow the same formula. This is Philo Vance mysteries by S. S. Van Dine — 12 books, published between 1926 and 1939, with titles like The Canary Murder Case and The Winter Murder Case. Here, “Gracie Allen” is the only celebrity name (and, indeed, the only two-word phrase) ever slotted into the formula.
Philo Vance, the central detective, is the one who does all the mystery-solving. It’s like if Sherlock Holmes was a much-less-memorable dandy from New York. (He’s even been portrayed by Basil Rathbone.)
The Gracie Allen Murder Case isn’t about Gracie-the-celebrity…but it’s not just using a famous name as a gimmick, either. Instead, it’s an RPF AU. Gracie and George are perfume-factory workers with a budding romance, who get drawn into a mystery when Gracie’s brother is murdered.
Vance first meets Gracie by accident, and is instantly charmed — in a platonic way; one conversation is enough for him to deduce that she’s into George. As the investigation picks up, he sends her on “clue-finding missions” that are supposed to just keep her occupied somewhere out of harm’s way.
Naturally, she happens to bring back the clue that cracks the case. Van Dine does a great job integrating her canon-typical “illogical logic” along the way.
…there’s also a moody chapter-long monologue by a villain who I could only picture as Oswald Cobblepot, the Gotham version. That part was very skippable.
Here’s Vance providing AU Gracie with Very Serious Instructions on how to be an apprentice detective:
“For instance, if someone had gone to commit a crime in a house where there was a watch–dog, and you knew that the dog had not barked at him, then you could conclude that the intruder was a friend of the dog. Dogs, y’ know, do not bark at a friend.”
“But suppose,” the girl interposed, “the people kept a cat instead of a dog. Or maybe a canary. What do you do then?”
Vance could not help smiling.
“In that case, you’d have to look for other things to identify the culprit….”
“That’s where the footprints would come in handy, isn’t it?… But lots of people wear the same size shoes. My shoes fit mother perfectly. And, what’s more, her shoes fit me.”
“There are still other ways—-”
“I know one!” she broke in triumphantly. “What about perfume? For instance, if we found a lady’s handbag, and it smelled like Frangipanni, then we’d look for a lady who used Frangipanni–not one who used Gardenia…. But I wouldn’t be very good at that. Would you? I’m always getting scents mixed up. It makes George just furious. But he would be simply wonderful at smelling. He can tell any kind of perfume right away, and what it comes from, too, and all about it–even when I don’t smell anything at all. He just has a sort of gift–like when he smelled his cigarette–case this morning…. But please go on, Mr. Vance.”
When Miss Allen had gone, Vance said to me: “The feeling of having something to lean on, as it were, will do the child a world of good at present. She’s really most unhappy, and not a little frightened. Her imagined new occupation should prove a much–needed tempor’ry tonic….Y’ know, Van, I have a suspicion I’m growing a bit sentimental as the years go by. Mellowin’ with age–same like the grapes of France.”
If you want to read the full text, Project Gutenberg of Australia has you covered.
Wikipedia says contemporary critics thought Van Dine’s writing had been going downhill for a while, and this book was even worse than the last. I can see how it would’ve been a pretty unsatisfying Philo Vance novel. The earlier installments couldn’t have been anything like it.
But as a piece of Burns and Allen fanfiction? It was pretty fun.
So yeah, there’s RPF about Gracie Allen, published during the lifetime of Gracie Allen, which was popular enough that it got a movie adaptation starring Gracie Allen as Gracie Allen.
…I’m halfway tempted to post the whole text on AO3. Tag it “Burns and Allen Show” and “Alternate Universe – Perfume Factory.” Might get TOS’d on copyright grounds, but, as with the person who posted the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice as a Lizzie Bennet Diaries AU, it sure would be entertaining.