#846: Eight Faces at Three (1939) by Craig Rice

Eight Faces at Three

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At the risk of upsetting the accepted order of things, I have a serious question: in placing Queens of Crime alongside Agatha Christie, why is the scope always so narrow?  The Sayers-Marsh-Allingham-Tey debate rages ever onward, but, after reading just two of her novels, I’m going to throw a hat labelled ‘Craig Rice’ into the ring and stand back to see what happens. Her debut Eight Faces at Three (1939) ain’t perfect, and the review will explain in more detail, but to summarise: buy this now, because we need to convince the American Mystery Classics that a full reprint of Craig Rice is something they should commit to. You can thank me later.

The word most commonly associated with Rice’s writing is “screwball” — carrying with it an accusation of whimsical eccentricity — and much is made of the sheer amount of alcohol consumed by her protagonists and their various confrères as they pinball their way around the mysteries they investigate. There’s no doubt that Rice leans into the consumption of alcohol for comedic effect…

“Beer,” said Helene. “Rye,” said Malone. “Coffee,” said Jake. “What the hell?” said Helene.

…and some of the casual references to drunken driving won’t go down well with everyone, but I think I understand why Rice did it. If you’ve ever watched Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing (2012) you’ll appreciate the genius decision therein to have all the characters drinking throughout, so that their increasingly erratic behaviour can be attributed to their intoxication (it makes that play make a lot more sense…). Rice’s world isn’t a million miles from that: her plotting being far from the smoothest, she needs some relaxation of expectation wherein it would be perfectly reasonable for a woman to throw herself down a laundry chute, or for the connections that pull the scheme together to be firstly delayed until the key moment and then to form a cohesive picture when she’s good and ready to finish things.

I’d also suggest, on account of that inchoate plotting, that this book is vastly improved by not reading the opening chapter. Start instead at chapter 2, with bandleader Dick Dayton discovering that his beloved Holly Inglehart stands accused of murdering the overbearing Aunt Alex who has cared for her since childhood, and Dayton’s manager and agent Jake Justus calling upon miracle-working lawyer John J. Malone — “who could get her out of trouble if she’d committed a mass murder in an orphanage, with seventeen policemen for witnesses” — to clear her name. The task is daunting, the evidence being somewhat stacked against Holly, but Malone never met a hopeless case he didn’t like, and he isn’t about to break that streak now:

“I’ll get her out of this,” Malone said confidently. “What’s more, I’m going to find out what happened. What really happened.”

“Impossible,” Jake muttered into his rye.

“Don’t worry, I can do it,” Malone told him.

“I’m not saying you can’t do it,” Jake said; “I’m just saying it’s impossible.”

From here, I’m reluctant to tell you more about the plot, because the fun comes from watching Rice’s narrative swing from tight vignettes (“My God, she’s committed suicide!”) to some bracingly sombre writing (“[S]omebody — he didn’t know who — was going to die, horribly, hideously, and…he was going to watch that person die, helplessly…he was going to hear that person shrieking in the face of sudden death while the very sky ran scarlet and flaming–“) to the pithily comedic (“Jake wondered why anyone with money enough to own such a house would live in it.”) with barely pause for breath. Rice lacks the skill of, say, John Dickson Carr in juggling these disparate tones, which is why the drinking works so well: it covers the gaps and allows for sudden shifts — a fun night out veering into the melancholy before that’s shrugged off and things become jocose, the gamut run with a delightfully lucid unpredictability.

There’s also much to consider from the perspective of history: one character’s late reflection on what constitutes a “successful marriage” is all the more interesting for being written by a woman, as is Holly’s brother’s Glen’s assertion that a man would stand up better to an accusation of murder. And we always know the D.A. has big boots and stomps around making enemies, but Rice’s socially uplifted Hyme Mendel being “inclined to hate everybody” on account of his father’s dry cleaning business serving the rich folk he is now required to deal with professionally is an interesting spin on an otherwise dull archetype. Equally, could you express the sentiment shown in the final lines of chapter 14 without much uproar today? It’s both weird and sort of perfect, even if it does draw you up short for a moment.

Pleasingly, too, Rice doesn’t deny her characters agency but does allow for that agency to sometimes be a bad thing: one action in particular (the inciting event for the section part of the book, shall we say) ends up creating many difficulties later on, and the drink-fuddled thinking of one character delaying the necessary question results — as Rice tells us — in at least one more death which, morally, might well be on the conscience of said drinking. While not actively chastising her characters for these events, it’s nevertheless interesting to see the potential for blame laid out so brazenly: HIBK being much more interestingly deployed, perhaps, as HTBK, and the consequences added to all the hobnobbing is a pleasing wrinkle that I’ve rarely seen addressed in this way.

The final revelations might concertina together perhaps a little too easily, but by that point it’s like hanging out with old friends: Malone, Justus, and Helene Brand caroming around inside Rice’s intricate design with open-hearted glee, taking risks, getting it wrong, and always coming back for more. Malone, too, pulls out some subtle clues from the information presented, even if a frustrating amount of final-final proof is gathered off-page — the fatal revelation goes, I’d suggest, entirely the wrong way, with the set up for the…other interpretation having already been established damn-near perfectly, which Rice sails past blithely. The tiny cast, too, might make it easy to guess what’s going on (and it will be a guess, for the reason previously stated), which is why that opening chapter is arguably better skipped: preserve some doubt, it’ll make the game even more fun to play.

So, American Mystery Classics: reprint more Craig Rice — I implore you! Having waited to read the lady’s longer works for years, I can’t be denied more at this juncture, and Lisa Lutz’s wonderfully energetic introduction speaks of a life and a talent that deserve to be better-known. We’ll get her name on that Queens list yet, just you wait and see…


Craig Rice on The Invisible Event

28 thoughts on “#846: Eight Faces at Three (1939) by Craig Rice

  1. Thanks JJ for the review. 😊 I think I’ve only read… ‘Wrong Murder’ and ‘My Kingdom for a Hearse’ from the Rice catalogue, and I confess I haven’t felt especially enamoured. I’d say, however, that the solutions to these two puzzles turned out to be better-clued than one might be led to anticipate by the frenetic and humorous twists and turns of the story-telling. But I wasn’t sure they left me rushing to read another title from Rice. Perhaps I should give this one a go!


    • Having not read Wrong Murder or Hearse I can’t compare them, but the clewing here is not its strongest feature — as I said above, most of the “learning” of the final revelation takes place off-page. The appeal for me was its energy, the enthusiasm Rice brought to something that could have been standard and easily forgotten, and instead is wildly complex and hugely enjoyable.

      So, well, the choice is yours…!


  2. Grear stuff JJ. It would be great if more of her work got reprinted – I remember chortling my way through several of her books in my youth. And the short stories with Stuart Palmer are also well worth a look.


    • Were she more widely available, I can’t believe she wouldn’t be hugely popular. The opportunity to make that happen starts with people buying this so the AMC print another one…!


  3. I have a serious question: in placing Queens of Crime alongside Agatha Christie, why is the scope always so narrow?

    Perhaps because it originally was a marketing device rather than an objective ranking? As I see it the whole Crime Queens thing was built around Agatha with the aim to guide her readers towards other writers they might find to their taste. As it happens the canonical Crime Queens actually have little in common with each other and even less with Christie but hey their books are detective stories set in Britain or in the Empire and besides it sells books so what’s the problem?


    • Sure, but the discussion has moved on since then — people are now “ranking” their top four (for some reason it seems to limit itself to Christie + 3) and it’s always the same four names vying for three spots. It’s become tired, the same names going round and round like heavyweight boxing, and Craig Rice is the Oleksandr Usyk we need right now…!


    • Perhaps because it originally was a marketing device rather than an objective ranking?

      I agree it was mostly a marketing ploy. I think there’s been a bit of an ideological agenda as well, to prove that the golden age of detective fiction was dominated by women.


      • It’s a bit surprising, as I glance over my bookshelf, that aside from Christie and Brand, most all of the golden age novels that I have are by men. Yeah, there’s the occasional Kelly Roos, Roger Scarlett, Helen McCloy, E & MA Radford, Zelda Popkin, etc – and I haven’t bothered getting into Sayers/Marsh yet – but aside from that, it’s pretty much all men. Not exactly astonishing I suppose, given, you know, history, but it is really male-heavy.


        • It’s a bit surprising, as I glance over my bookshelf, that aside from Christie and Brand, most all of the golden age novels that I have are by men.

          Same here. Golden age detective fiction was in fact dominated by male writers. Apart from Christie the giants of the genre were male writers. The only woman writer apart from Christie who was really in the absolute top rank was Brand and some people think she doesn’t count because she arrived on the scene too late.

          Sayers was second-tier although a couple of her earlier books are very good. Marsh and Tey barely even qualify as second-tier. I’ve only read one book by Helen McCloy and I thought it was very mediocre.

          Women started to become a big noise in crime fiction after the golden age ended and suspense/psychological crime novels took over.


  4. We’ll get her name on that Queens list yet, just you wait and see…

    Rice was an American. So wouldn’t that make her a First Lady of Crime? But agree Rice deserves to be fully reprinted. She was a blast!


      • New Zealand is part of the British Commonwealth with most of her novels taking place in Britain. Marsh was basically an overseas claimant, like Arthur of Britanny, to Christie’s crown. So it makes sense to throw her in the fight, again and again, but American mystery writers should (if deserved) be referred to as Presidents and First Ladies of the American detective story. It just makes sense.


        • Not if it results in their exclusion from any discussion about the meaningful contributors to the genre. Queen of Crime is a made up concept, but at least it’s a familiar one; makes more sense to use that to talk about meaningful contributors than ro invent a new, unfamiliar title to no effect.


  5. I have been a fan of Rice’s work for years, so it is great for us to have an author we both love, as usually our mystery reading tastes differ a lot. I am all in favour of a full Rice reprint, as there are many I have not read across her series. She also wrote under the name of Michael Venning, if you happen to see any of those titles. I reviewed one earlier this year.
    I like Tomcat’s idea of calling Craig rice the First Lady of Crime. It also got me thinking if you were going to do an exclusively American version of the Queens of Crime, aside from Rice who else would you pick?


    • Thanks for the tip — I got To Catch a Thief on Kindle recently, which I believe is one of the Venning books, or at the very least was published under a pseudonym.

      I’m also hugely irritated with myself for not reading her sooner when the Rue Morgue editions were more readily available. There were always other authors in their stable — Carr/Dickson, Kelley Roos, Catherine Aird, Eilis Dilon, Michael Gilbert, Clyde Clason, Constance and Gwenyth Little, Torrey Chanslor, Stuart Palmer, etc — I was more eager to try…and I’m not sure any beyond Carr hold a candle to Rice a mere two novels in. Dammit!

      As to American female crime writers…you don’t expect me to commit to that off the cuff do you? Good heavens! I need to obsess over a question like that for at least three weeks… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. People keep recommending her so I guess I’ll have to give her a try. Does anyone have any particular recommendations?

    I’m assuming that copies of her books are going to be a bit on the pricey side?


    • I think Home Sweet Homicide is charming and magnificent — you’ll probably hate it 🙂 That and this are the only ones in physical print; most of the rest are currently available as ebooks…


  7. “Screwball” is an interesting term. It has, alas, come to imply something like zany or manic, but that’s not what it meant when first applied to “screwball comedy”. The screwball was the eccentric, unconventional, or unusual character who disrupted the proceedings. So mania was not part of it. One example was a woman from a small town who wrote an “adult” novel.

    I have Home Sweet Homicide on the TBR.

    At least in the US there is a lot of Rice available in Kindle. If you are patient you can probably get a copy for a couple bucks as they go on sale regularly.


    • That makes sense in regard Rice’s writing, then, since every single one of her characters is liable to disrupt proceedings at any moment — that’s part of what appeals to me about these two, if I’m honest: you think you know where you’re going, and then someone (completely in character) manages to wrest control of events and suddenly spiral away into something else.

      It’s…harder than it looks, especially when done as well as she has.


  8. Pingback: Eight Faces At Three (1939) by Craig Rice – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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