"Monkey Business" Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers: Review/Giveaway

Review by Claire A. Murray

Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win an ebook copy of the book and a link to purchase it.

If I had only one word to describe a Marx Brothers movie, I’d jump to the end of the alphabet: Zany

And that’s what editor Josh Pachter dialed when he put out the call for Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers. In his introduction, Pachter gives us the background on the Marx Brothers’ foray into films after their earlier history on stage—in vaudeville and Broadway—and their later efforts on radio and television. 

Some viewers/readers may not appreciate the zaniness inherent in such movies/stories without a reminder that 1918 marked the end of World War I and beginning of the Spanish Flu epidemic. [great depression] The world needed a release valve. The Marx brothers began their foray into movies in 1921. As the years passed, tensions in Europe heated up again—a prelude to World War II, which overlapped with their later movies. 

Reviewing an anthology is not quite the same as doing so for a book. It could too easily pit one story against another as good, better, best, etc. So, I’ll give you the flavor of each story, but will attest now that each hits the mark of feeling “inspired by” the film noted.  

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So here we go…

While most people are familiar with the thirteen films from the five brothers (four after brother Milton (Gummo) left the business), Pachter includes 1921’s less familiar, silent film, Humor Risk. Since the film was never released and appears to be missing, what better way to include it in this treatment than through Barb Goffman’s story of the same title. 

Goffman’s Humor Risk gives us the full zany: a missing Marx Brothers script, down-on-his luck Dominic from Brooklyn, the cousin who’s two-timing on his wife with the wife’s best friend, the uncle who’s done time…  

Dominic owes a bookie, overhears a conversation regarding the missing script, and decides to find and steal it. Pretty soon, it seems the whole family is in on the search. Can anyone in this family keep a secret to themself? But each group is unaware of the other as they search the vacant house where it may hidden. 

Intrigued? Amidst the mishaps and mischief, I empathized with each misstep Dom took and worried that he’d end up on a slab somewhere if he got caught by others in the family.

Leslie Diehl’s The Cocoanuts returns the four brothers to the Hotel de Cocoanuts at the end of the Florida land boom, similar to the musical they turned into a movie. You’ll recognize each brother in the main character (even with Groucho’s character’s gender change), her brother “James,” and the two hired hands, “Cheeto” and “Hardy.” You’ll recognize the play on certain names if you’re familiar with the characters in the movie. And I could totally see Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter in the movie) come to life in Diehl’s Mrs. Duforge.

Wait a minute. What do you mean there are no songs in books? But this was a musical! Ah well, yes, there is no singing, but the story rings true to the zaniness inherent in the movie. Get rich schemes go awry while the one somewhat sane family member figures out how to handle it all. Except, how do you sell a disaster-prone beachfront property during a disaster? You’ll have to read the story to learn how Diehl maintains the Marx treatment. 

Well, well. Turns out there is a song in the anthology. That’s only part of what Joseph Goodrich delivers in Animal Crackers, by far the zaniest story I’ve read in ages. From the butler on up, everyone is a bit whack-a-doodle in this tale of a spiraling dowager, three men who each believe she vies for him as a love interest, and the crazy thieves who plan their plunder—all coinciding, or shall I say colliding, in the process. 

I laughed aloud throughout the whole reading. While the names are changed to protect the guilty, you’ll recognize the brothers and several literary references in these pages of story script. For it is a narrative script you see, and therein lies the author’s genius. 

What would one expect in Monkey Business by Josh Pachter but a monkey? But a monkey named Groucho? In a monkey suit (you know, a tuxedo)? Thought that’d catch your attention, but it’s all there, along with a fading opera diva, financier, gangster, and his half-his-age wife. Throw in a jewel-encrusted necklace purported to have belonged to Maria Callas and dinner on board ship at the captain’s table for more fun. It’s less the zaniness of the plot and more the eyes and mind through which Pachter spins the tale that brings this true to the Marx theme.

Jeff Cohen nailed it in Horse Feathers. I immediately saw Groucho’s cigar, wiggling eyebrows, and sideways glances just from the dialogue. Our intrepid narrator-newspaper reporter-detective is hampered in the search for the missing Cumbersome Ruby by the owner’s two inept security men. Chico and Harpo were easy to spot through action and dialogue—well, only one spoke, naturally.

If dialogue were all, Cohen’s story wouldn’t have been as much fun. But the narrator’s (aka Groucho) POV and the twisting of elements from the inspirational source, Cohen crafted a refreshing tale that ran through my head like an actual Marx Brothers’ film.

Sometimes the better way to do justice to a story is to go in the opposite direction. Rather than slapstick and rapid-fire-repertoire, Brendan DuBois serves Duck Soup and the movie’s hope-to-avert war in a contemporary cauldron of trouble. Our narrator is a US government fixer whose task is to prevent war between Russia and the former Crimean city of Sevastopol, which has declared itself an independent democratic nation. 

Mayhem is largely off-stage and revealed through the fixer’s eyes, ears, and mind. Naturally, there is a wealthy widow who can help if our fixer can make the right deals and placate the right people. The mayor-cum-president and airline field rep-cum-minister of defense are thrust into roles for which they’re clearly not trained. The defense minister ascribes the president’s drunkenness to “riding a tiger that’s threatening to rip off his head.” 

Our fixer’s concern is that the president is said to have “the bomb,” and the entire Crimean Peninsula and surrounding nations are now threatened by this tiny city. And, of course, we’re not sure if anyone is speaking the truth.

Donna Andrew’s A Night at the Opera tracks in a different direction, delivering a story that doesn’t include the zany brothers. Instead, Andrews works from the opera theme, only our narrator is not enthralled with her cousin’s selections of Wagner when they travel together, preferring Carmen or Madame Butterfly to the heavier tones of Die Walkürie. Since the nightly entertainment aboard her cruise ship is largely classical and opera, she takes refuge in her stateroom, amusing herself by spying on her neighbors—two elderly women whom she surmises to actually include a third—a stowaway—exchanging disguises to take advantage of the ship’s offerings for the price of two. 

Andrews cleverly parlays the elderly women’s dilemma, reminiscent of another MB film, as our narrator imagines the physical machinations required to maneuver in their tiny stateroom while she has a room to herself and a balcony. Boredom and greed lead to the narrator’s dilemma, and I’ll say no more else I spoil your reading pleasure.

We get a wonderfully fresh take on Groucho in Joseph S. Walker’s tender A Day at the Races. A day of filming by the Marx Brothers at the heroine’s (Julia) racetrack-of-employment is about to be cancelled due to the murder of the track director. Police, the track’s head of security, an officious secretary of the widow dowager sort, and various suspects complicate the situation, all crowding into an office that reminds Julia of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera

Julia juggles back and forth between that office and her own, somewhat ignoring the stranger who seems intent on hanging out rather than completing the job application she provided. Always in the back of her mind is the surprise she’d hoped to get for her young nephew-now-ward’s birthday party and the murder that may make that surprise impossible.

It’s probably easier to pull off a humorous grift story evoking the Marx Brothers by setting it in the past; movie-goers cum readers can view such antics as harmless fun that’s only at the expense of the rich or a crook—or in many cases, both wrapped into one character. 

However, Sandra Murphy’s Room Service plays on the title’s motif in a contemporary setting with three Marx look-alikes and two female leads (the movie’s Lucille Ball and Ann Miller). One character fakes a potentially-contagious illness so our five leads can retain their suites, for the hotel is filling to capacity due to the PR they’ve created for a barbershop quartet convention. The quartets are costumed as every musical sort imaginable, creating hilarious imagery, including the Harpo/Colombo disguise adopted by one of the leads. Mayhem ensues. Enough said? 

One element of many scripts and stories in the vein of the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, and others is duplicity. There’s often a con going on: to get a free room, sell off a property to a sucker, some sort of grift. Robert Lopresti’s At the Circus works from this premise as well. The RingWing Brothers Circus is no Barnum and Bailey, despite its duplicitous nomenclature. And, as in the movie, there’s a murder that could spell disaster for the traveling circus. 

To avoid spoiling the plot, I’ll just say there are no wild animals in this circus unless you count the two-legged variety. Our narrator is the three-foot-tall Madame Matilda. The intrepid trio of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are evident in the lineup—with the inclusion of Gummo (who was not in the movie), and the lead-up to the murder involves a gorilla suit intended to fake the suckers (err, audience) into thinking the show has wild animals. How the murder is solved and what happens to the circus as a result is best left for your reading enjoyment. 

You might expect Go West by Robert J. Randisi to take place out west. Instead, Randisi sets Eddie, a pulp fiction writer at the time of the movie’s release, in New York City. Eddie believes the movie is a rip-off of his previously-published story, Dead Man’s Gulch.

This is not zany or slapstick. Randisi’s dialogue and descriptions plop us right into Brooklyn in that era of pulp writers who spent years working their way up to respectability and a better paycheck, all the while keeping us grounded to Eddie’s dilemma—do I sue the largest movie studio and the screenwriter of a Marx Brothers film, or do I let it go? Eddie’s discomfort with people thinking he’d be suing the Marx Brothers themselves is further complicated by the murder of the lawyer who just agreed to represent him. 

The Big Store by Terence Faherty is another laugh-out-loud trompe de farce. From the clothing, names, and dialogue, there’s no question these are the three brothers, as store detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho) tries to save a department store from a hostile takeover—and I mean hostile—while keeping the other two out of his way, all while scheming to get the rich store owner to marry him. If the Marx Brothers were alive and filming today, this could be their next hit.

I wasn’t quite prepared for A Night in Casablanca, at least, not Marilyn Todd’s rendition. Witty, yes. Entertaining, check. A satisfying and unexpected ending, of course. 

Part love story, stir in some mayhem as the slew of family, coworkers, and friends sling one-liners that fit each of the Hotel California room’s identity from a different classic movie. Of course, our main couple has booked the Casablanca Suite, with plans that this will be a raucous re-wedding vows ceremony. And Todd’s hotel clerk, Hans…Herman…something German…reinforces the Casablanca theme. 

Everyone vies to be the one who has the most fun, until… As with any wedding, first or other, are there seeds of doubt that dull the pleasantries? Does the happy couple see it through? I’ll leave you here to book your flight and catch up with who does what, when, where, and why. 

In Frankie Y. Bailey’s Love Happy the precious diamonds of the movie become a treasure map, but the intrepid detective Sturgeon (Groucho’s detective Grunion) is there with all his irreverent repartee. Another script-like story, this gives us less zany and more plot. Chico’s movie role morphs into a Marilyn Monroe-like character (she was in the movie) as Mrs. Jordan. 

The banter between Sturgeon and Jordan is spot on. Bailey gives Jordan a sister whose name is Norma Jean. Nice play on names, Bailey. But this is truly Grunion’s story, unlike the movie which featured more of Harpo, and we can imagine Grunion staying in the picture after the lights go out.

This is a book I’m glad to have on my shelf as each of the fourteen tales lives up to its inspiration. Right now the world needs a dose—or fourteen—of irreverent, sometimes silly, make-you-laugh-out-loud humor to let ourselves shake off the grim that has surrounded us.

May you chuckle, giggle, and laugh out loud with freedom as you read Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Movies of the Marx Brothers.

To enter to win n ebook copy of Monkey Business, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line "monkey,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen November 6, 2021. US residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter.If entering via comment please include your email address so we can contact you. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.

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Claire A. Murray is a fiction writer who transplanted from New England to Arizona mid-pandemic. She has twelve published short stories with another coming out in January 2022. She is completing a novella so she can return to her trilogy, and has two novels awaiting revision. Find her at cam-writes.com

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. What a wacky premise! Count me in!

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the chance.

  3. Love the Marx Bros, this collection sounds great


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