Hulbert Footner wrote two mystery series, one featuring the pathbreaking female detective Madame Rosika Storey, and the other featuring a successful middle-aged mystery writer-turned criminologist named Amos Lee Mappin. But even the latter series showed the author's interest in writing women into his novels, as Mappin's sidekick is his young secretary, Fanny Parran.
Death of a Celebrity dates from 1938 and is one of the last outings for Mappin, who is described as "not a tall man and far from slender." As usual, Mappin finds himself involved in criminal activity among New York's wealthy social circles. The "celebrity" of the title is famous playwright Gavin Dordress, who throws a party for fellow celebrities who all have reasons to hate -- and kill -- their host: an aging actress is enraged when she finds out Dordress didn't create a role for her in his latest play; the playwright's "best and oldest friend" is jealous because he relies on Dordress for handouts to fund a failed career as a novelist; the suitor of Dordress's daughter feels her father is holding her back from marrying; and Dordress's manager thinks his wife is having an affair with Dordress.
As one of the playwright's former classmates and a friend, Mappin is also invited to the party and brings along his secretary Fanny Parran, whose "littleness, her dimples, her blonde curls and her lisp gave her the artless charm of a child, but a man who assumed to talk baby-talk to her was apt to get a shock." The party is anything but jovial, but when Dordress turns up dead the next morning, the police assume it's suicide from the layout of the victim's body. It's Dordress's daugher and Fanny who convince Mappin to consider murder, and as Mappin digs deeper, he uncovers blackmail, revenge, jealousy and a simmering deep hatred that eventually point to one of the party-goers as the killer.
Like many of Footner's other stories, Mappin's investigation involves discovering clues left at the crime scene, which he uses to recreate the timeline and events of the murder. The writing is serviceable, if not particularly memorable, nor are Footner's plots intricate, often not playing fair with the reader in laying out the clues. But his characterizations and the interactions between the characters are entertaining. Considering Footner's focus on strong women in his novels, it's not surprising that the most interesting characters in Death of a Celebrity are female.