“Now you take this guy who was killed New Year’s Eve. If he was gonna be killed, why couldn’t he have had his passport on him, or a driver’s license, or even a calling card? No. Not a damn thing. So I have to go to all the trouble of finding out who he was. When I do find out, then what? More trouble.” Homicide Captain Daniel von Flanagan has a point, as there’s also the matter of the dead man staggering into a bar where lawyer John J. Malone was drowning his sorrows and croaking out “Malone!” before expiring on the floor, added to Malone’s insistence that he’d never seen the man before. And what of the key numbered 114 the man slipped to Malone…a key that was apparently stolen from the lawyer only moments later?
The Right Murder (1941), the fourth book by Craig Rice to feature her ingenious lawyer-sleuth John J. Malone and his drinking-partners-in-crime Jake and Helen Justus, picks up mere days after the conclusion of third title The Wrong Murder (1940), with — due to the events in that previous book — Malone “[finding] himself in the uncomfortable position of knowing that a murder had been committed and knowing the identity of the murderer, without knowing the identity of the victim”. And, where Jake and Helene might ordinarily be expected to provide some assistance in tracking down the unknown corpse, Malone is having to go it alone since the recently-married couple are on honeymoon. So an unknown man stumbling in, croaking Malone’s name, and dying on the spot is both a welcome and an unneeded distraction.
If you’re aware of Craig Rice — and, if you’re not, become so — you’ll be unsurprised to learn that this very quickly develops into a farce of sorts that nevertheless retains something serious at its core. The copious drinking that betokens this series doesn’t feel quite so heavily leaned upon this time around (or maybe I’ve just become inured to it…), with only an extended sequence in the middle of the book — where they try to get a man drunk enough to remember why he had previously confessed to two murders while drunk — really needing the alcohol to function. The rest of the time, this is played with a pretty straight face…or, well, as straight a face as you can ever imagine this style of slightly screwy mystery adopting.
Helene Brand — no, Helene Justus now — stood by Maggie’s desk, exquisitely gowned and furred, her blonde hair beautifully and perfectly in place. Her small-boned, patrician face was deathly pale, her ocean-blue eyes were shadowed, and heavy with weariness. What worried Malone most, however, was the fact that she seemed entirely sober.
Because, yes, Rice wrings as much humour as she can from a situation, but without ever resorting out out-and-out jokes and, crucially, without ever neglecting the intricate plot she has broiling throughout. The sacred and profane go hand-in-hand so easily here with absurdities — a cop who “takes too many bribes…to be anything but honest”, the ever-jumbled turns of phrase (“I’ll just spit on my sleeves and roll up my hands and go to work”), the “mulberry/raspberry” allusion — rubbing elbows with wider serious considerations like American nationals fleeing their settled lives abroad to return to the safety of the homeland following the outbreak of the Second World War, and that straight face rarely slips, content to nudge those elbows into your side and then sidle on as if nothing has happened.
“Tell me something. What do they do to murderers in this country?”
“Not a damned thing,” Helene said soothingly, “when they have Malone for a lawyer.”
Rice keeps her focus on a tight group of suspects, and an ever-increasing roster of victims, as murder after murder erupts, with no seeming pattern or reason to any of it, but then she’s very good at this type of plotting (“Anything that seems as crazy as this is bound to make sense,” Malone insists at one point) and has a very tight hold on what develops. Sure, there’s that extended drinking sequence in the middle, complete with a redundant visit to psycho-psychologist Dr. Leonardo Hennessey, but for all its busy-ness you never lose track of what’s happened or who the people involved are, and Malone’s explanation come the end is an ingenious piece of double reframing that must surely set the record for brevity in reasoning out a puzzle plot. “Coincidence has a long arm, but not quite that many elbows” is a neat summary of what unfolds here…in fact, it’s so perfect, I might start using that in real life.
On the serious side of things, Rice is never out of her depth, either. The final line of chapter 9 heralded a development I had not seen coming, the final line of chapter 14 is a striking one, and Malone, for all his flexible morals, has a sense of obligation and the underlying seriousness of lives being at stake:
The flashlight caught his face for a moment, and Jake saw that it was gray white and very tired.
“I shouldn’t have let this happen,” Malone said slowly. “I should have known… I’m to blame. This one is on me.”
As I’m starting to realise is standard for Rice, the characters are easy to invest in because they’re easy to buy as real people. From Mona McClane, who “wouldn’t suffer from shock after a mass dynamiting”, to the possibly too chic and demure Lotus Allen (“Any man who did take a second look at her would probably take a great many more, and approving ones. It was the second look that would be the hurdle.”) to amateur photographer Pendley Tidewell who has apparently never photographed anything before, to the mysteriously unhelpful ladies’ help Louella White, Rice always finds a way in to make these people more than simply interesting, as if there’s a life behind them which a longer book less focussed on so neat and tight a plot would have time to explore. And clearly Rice liked something about one of them, adopting Michael Venning as a nom de plume for three novels in the years after writing this.
I’m fighting the urge to pepper the end of this review with more quotes, but there’s so much here to enjoy not to, though I’m having trouble choosing between Malone waking up after finally catching up on a sleepless night (“One arm and part of one leg were paralyzed. Probably for life.”), Jake — living apart from Helene for reasons I’ll leave you to discover — having “managed to make [his apartment] look like the bottom of a squirrel cage”, and countless others…
“Do you know how long it’s possible for a human being to exist entirely on alcohol?”
“No,” Jake said. “Someone always sobered me up before I had a chance to find out.
…that perhaps I should leave it there. No doubt Rice is an acquired taste — find me an author who isn’t — but, having acquired it, I’m loving encountering her in novel length. And even though aspects of the ending come out of nowhere here, there are even some actual proper clues for you to completely overlook…manna from heaven! I’ll repeat my standard refrain of being baffled, in these reprint-rich days, as to how no-one has got round to making these books readily available in lovely paperback editions, and I’ll just have to console myself with how happy it will make me when someone finally sees the light and brings her back into print. For now, I’ll just read one of her expertly-plotted, superbly-cast, hugely enjoyable mysteries every few months and bang the drum on here for anyone who might be paying attention. Hope springs eternal…
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: Ultimately the ending is satisfying in some ways as it is very clever and has a good twist, yet I don’t think this is the sort of solution you can figure out for yourself, as it relies a lot on information that Malone receives from certain telephone calls and meetings that we don’t really get too much access to. Rice’s satirical and witty writing style and characterisation fortunately prevent this book thereby becoming annoying and disappointing.