As a rule, I start getting a bit nervous if it takes me more than three days to finish a book. I read Home Sweet Homicide (1944), the first of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig’s novels I’ve ever attempted, over one week and one day and, quite honestly, would have happily kept reading it for another month or two. I’ve never gotten a sense of her as an author from her short stories — largely, I’d imagine, because of the need to cram in character and plot in less space — and, if I’m honest, didn’t relish the screwball antics her reputation seemed to promise. Well, no fear. This isn’t screwball, it’s not especially tightly plotted, and it’s possibly the best book I’ve read in a long ol’ time.
Ostensibly about the murder of Flora Sanford and the attempts by the young children of detective fiction author (and victim’s next-door neighbour) Marian Carstairs to solve the murder so their mother can get the credit and associated publicity, to claim that as the focus of the book would be to do it a severe injustice. The murder happens on page one, but the mystery element doesn’t really kick in until the halfway stage. Prior to that, there’s plenty of talk about wanting to solve the murder, and a few sallies forth on attempts to glean information deemed pertinent from either interviewing or misleading the poor cops attached to the case — Lieutenant Bill Smith and Sergeant O’Hare — but it’s mostly about the Carstairs family, their tight-knit ways, and how they fit into the slightly off-kilter universe that Rice has created for them.
Man, I hate writing rave reviews. I am not going to do this book justice.
The fun of eldest Dinah (aged 14), middle child April (aged 12), and youngest Archie (aged 10) is not so much that Rice has tried to created nuanced, realistic children; it’s that the world in which they exist fits them perfectly. Witness the equanimity with which Archie heads off to burn down a house when his sisters (rather rashly) give him that as an example of a diversion to cause, or April and Dinah heading out into the dark to possibly apprehend the murderer each simultaneously thinking “I mustn’t let her know I’m scared”, or how any one of them is ready to jump in without warning with a story to back up the others in whatever corroboration they need. It’s weird that the book starts out with these youngsters actively creating false trails for the police — reaching its apotheosis at the halfway point — and yet still succeeds in making them so gosh-darned lovable, and that Rice stops just short of making it schmaltzy in doing so.
If I have to pick a favourite, it’s going to be Archie. Sure, there’s a lovely moment late on where the ever-competent Dinah is suddenly left alone to deal with a situation she has no idea how to manage which makes her far more of a human being than Rice introducing yet another of her in-universe coincidences would, and April has some great moments with a news reporter and, later on, with the actress found at the scene of the crime when the shots were fired, but Archie…man, Archie just wins it. Whether stomping around expostulating “Shambles!” or calling on The Mob — The Mob, it has to be said, is probably the single-most brilliant conceit yet invented in fiction — or the delicate pride he takes in presenting his (unconsulted) Mothers’ Day gift to Marian…whenever I need cheering up, I shall think of Archie Carstairs.
The challenge, then, is to make the threat threatening without actively putting these kids into alarming situations, and again there’s a good balancing of light and shade: the girls being present when someone is (possibly…?) shot in another part of a house, or the moment April is moved to reflect on the presence of a mysterious stranger:
The man sitting in the car might be the murderer of Mrs. Sanford… He might be planning other murders, if he had to destroy any evidence against him. He might be sitting right there with a concealed gun in easy reach, waiting for her to get into range. Maybe she ought to turn around and run. Maybe she ought to yell for Dinah. Maybe she just ought to yell.
That this can sit so easily in a book alongside patrolman McCafferty being shanghai’d by The Mob and then running the boys to ground and encountering Slukey, who has “recently lost a tooth in honourable combat”, and The Admiral, who doesn’t want his peers to know that he has to do the washing up at home, is just part of its genius. I don’t know how Rice does it, but the whole comes together magnificently — the mystery ain’t dense, but the detection is solid and there was a moment I really should have picked up on which gave the whole thing away, and I was delighted to have missed it amidst all the fun. There’s a good balancing of adult point of view which helps, I’d say, when at times we’re allowed to see events from Bill Smith’s or Marian’s point of view — mainly how they feel and think about each other, which the children seem unconcerned with at first, intent on simply piloting them into each other and trusting that Romance will happen — which stops the whole thing being too helter-skelter for only featuring a childhood perspective on worlds it doesn’t quite grasp.
In his introduction, Otto Penzler hints broadly that more Craig Rice novels may be forthcoming from this American Mystery Classics line, and I for one am very excited by that prospect. Sure, I’m told that the rest of her material doesn’t quite match this one, but she’s built up so much goodwill on this performance that I’m willing to risk reading further — hell, try and stop me! If Rice produced something with even half the charm, half the gentle comedy, half the surprising ways of looking at events, and half the invention she showed here, it’ll still be miles ahead of a lot more famous names in the genre. I’m intrigued to see how Rice applied herself to the longer form of the mystery, and am stoked to see what Otto Penzler has lined up for us in future. In the meantime, if you haven’t read this yet, holy hell go and get a copy.
Jeffrey Marks @ January Magazine: Unlike Rice’s usual broadly written characters, the players in Home Sweet Homicide were real to her and subsequently vivid to the reader. The fictional children are thinly veiled interpretations of her own brood. Marian’s children are realistically portrayed as adolescents, a difficult task for any writer. They are shown as tight-knit through their use of a private code language. As this story develops, the trio question the neighbors about Flora Sanford’s fate, check alibis, bewilder the police with their stories and finally uncover the killer. (In true, traditional mystery fashion, most of the neighbors had motives for Flora’s murder.)