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
Eight Faces at Three (1939)
Home Sweet Homicide (1944)