Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Mill-Race
E. C. R. Lorac
Originally Published 1952
Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead (US)
Inspector MacDonald #36
Preceded by The Dog It Was That Died
Followed by Crook O’Lune

I have not previously written about any works by E. C. R. Lorac though that does not mean that I was entirely uninitiated when I picked up Murder in the Mill-Race. I own copies of each of the other Lorac titles released as part of the British Library Crime Classics and have made several attempts to read them. Somehow I just could not get into them and so they stay sat on my shelf waiting for me to give them another try.

I had little intention of reading Murder in the Mill-Race but it happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was about to leave for a weekend trip with my family when a bundle of ARCs arrived. I expected to have little time for reading but took the books anyway only to find when we got to our room that it had a really comfortable balcony that was the perfect place to read. The laptop wasn’t charged and the other book was a Bellairs (and I generally don’t read the same author back-to-back) so Lorac suddenly appeared at the top of the pile…

Murder in the Mill-Race begins by introducing us to Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife who have recently relocated to North Devon for the sake of his health. He establishes a practice in Milham and gets to know the locals, including Sister Monica – the warden of the children’s home who he takes a pretty quick dislike to.

Several months later she is discovered floating in the mill-race (for the sake of those who, like me, have no clue what this is it apparently is the channel of moving water next to a mill that turns its wheel – the book and introduction both assume the reader will know what this is). The local authorities would like to believe that the death was an accident and yet no one seems able to explain how she might have contrived to hit the back of her head and fall in the water. Inspector MacDonald is summoned and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, uncovering some local secrets including a previous suspicious death in the same place.

I should perhaps start by saying that I clearly enjoyed this a lot more than the other Lorac titles I tried to read. For one thing I completed this. A totally relaxing environment probably helped a little but I particularly appreciated the way Lorac depicts her setting. She so perfectly captures the stagnation of a rural village setting and the relationships between gentry and villager in that period that I found it a pretty immersive read and had little trouble believing that these locations and characters might exist.

I rarely make notes while reading but I wanted to share one moment that I found particularly effective. Emmeline Braithwaite, in talking to Anne Ferens, tells her how welcome she and Raymond are because they are the first ‘people from the outside world’ to have settled in the area in a quarter of a century. I found this sentiment to be a really interesting one as I don’t think it had ever really struck home with me quite how static communities could still be at the midpoint of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find it interesting how quickly the pair are integrated into village life, seeming to view MacDonald as an outsider themselves (particularly Raymond).

Several other reviewers (linked below) have commented on how they liked Raymond as an investigator and found the sudden switch from establishing his perspective to that of Chief Inspector MacDonald to be jarring. I have some sympathy for this though I think Lorac’s decision to introduce us to some of the personalities within the village prior to the crime being committed was a solid choice. After all, given the way the locals clam up once Sister Monica is dead it is helpful to get a sense of what they really think while she is still living and vexing them.

The actual circumstances of the murder are not particularly dazzling or memorable. This is perhaps appropriate given there is supposed to be considerable question about whether it is even a murder at all but it does mean that those initial phases of the investigation do not feel particularly remarkable.

MacDonald’s arrival gives the investigation some energy and I think sets the story on a more interesting course, though it does not present the reader with much in the way of clearly defined (or rather signposted) clues. Instead we observe the locals, hear what they say and choose not to say, and generally get a sense of the relationships between the different parties involved.

It resulted in a reading experience that reminded me more of Rendell than the more puzzle-focused Christie. I do feel that the reader is given the information they need to work out the killer’s identity (I say that in part because I did just that) but that relevant information tends to be buried and we are given little interpretation of those facts until MacDonald summarizes his findings. In other words, Lorac avoids giving us the opportunity to learn what information MacDonald views as relevant and makes solving the case a little bit tougher.

Rekha comments on finding MacDonald unlikeable and I can certainly see why he might inspire that reaction. Just as we do not follow his investigation very closely, I similarly felt that we get much of a sense of his character from this story. Now, I will say that this was a very late entry in a long-running series so there may have been an expectation that most readers would know him already but I did not get the sense of him as being a particularly dynamic or interesting sleuth off the back of this outing.

I did like the solution Lorac provides for the story and I do think it is both credible and interesting on a character level. I had no problem accepting MacDonald’s reasoning for his summation of the case but I will say that this part of the book struck me as a little dry and drawn out.

I think it’s fair to say that Murder in the Mill-Race exceeded my expectations by being a pretty solid case, even if the telling of that story was, at times, a little dry. What I appreciated most about it was the way Lorac is able to depict a community reacting to tragedy in ways both positive and negative, making those reactions feel credible and interesting. While not perfect, it’s enough to make me give those Lorac paperbacks a second chance.

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his thoughts on this last year which are broadly positive. I do agree with his comments about the sort of false start Lorac gives us where one investigator is replaced by another.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was less enthusiastic, finding Inspector MacDonald’s investigative style grating.

Countdown John falls somewhere in the middle, finding it readable but quite ordinary while Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime felt that the crime was not one the reader could solve themselves.

Finally, if you are looking for an interesting look at the life and career of E. C. R. Lorac I can recommend this overview by Curtis Evans.

A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

A Knife for Harry Dodd
George Bellairs
Originally Published 1953
Inspector Littlejohn #21
Preceded by Half-Mast for the Deemster
Followed by Corpses in Enderby

A little while ago I made a list of how often I had reviewed works by particular authors and I was surprised to see that George Bellairs had come in second place. While nearly half a year has passed since I read anything by him, I have been looking for an opportunity to return to his work and when I saw that Agora were planning to reissue this one I couldn’t resist requesting a review copy.

Inspector Littlejohn is asked to investigate the death of Harry Dodd, a man who was discovered stabbed in the back when apparently on his way back from the pub. It turns out that Harry’s brother is a Member of Parliament with ambitions for very high office and while the crime itself seems like the sort the local police might handle, he desires for it to generate as little scandal as possible.

When Littlejohn arrives in the village he learns more about Harry’s somewhat unusual living arrangements. It turns out that he had a one-night stand with his typist that had been discovered and he had been divorced and given a payoff to leave his position with the family business. While he had no feelings for the woman, he decided to stand by her and acquired a cottage where he lived with her and her mother, making her a regular allowance.

Initially it is hard to understand why Harry might have been a target for murder but Littlejohn, in pursuing a few loose ends, uncovers more about his life which considerably broadens the scope of the investigation. What follows is a story that feels more procedural as we try to sort out the nature of relationships and understand how the various plot threads connect to each other.

I have often remarked on how one of Bellairs’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to create credible characters. This skill is once again clearly in evidence here not only in the array of suspects he presents us with but in the character of the victim himself who really looms over this whole narrative.

Harry Dodd is not a character who gets murdered and then fades into the background. He is clearly an eccentric but also deeply complex man. At first I was a little skeptical about the way that he had been imagined here, finding some contradictions in how he was being presented. I soon realized that these were entirely intentional and that a significant part of the story would deal with resolving these different images of Harry to understand exactly who he was and what his values were.

That journey was, for me, a deeply satisfying one, revealing him to be a complex and layered figure. In her review (linked below), Kate at CrossExaminingCrime remarks on how complicated a portrayal it is of a man who has been unfaithful to his wife. While I would point out that Bellairs is not necessarily flattering in the way he depicts Dorothy Nicholls or her mother, I agree that it is far more candid and clear in its discussion of these issues than I might have expected (though he uses the phrase Menage a Trois in a way I have not encountered before which caused a little confusion on this reader’s part at first!).

The cast of characters that Bellairs creates to be suspects and witnesses are just as memorable and come from an interesting mix of social classes and professions. Each feel well observed, particularly Dodd’s politician brother who as a socialist is embarrassed by his family’s links to industry and marriage into one of the county’s oldest families.

Bellairs develops his story well and there are a number of interesting and unexpected twists, even if I felt that the guilty party was clear long before any evidence turned up to link them to the crime. Part of the reason for that is because the narrative is complex with a relatively large cast of characters and a winding focus, there are relatively few figures who are around long enough to be truly credible. For that reason I think it’s helpful to think of this as a procedural – the destination is no more important than the journey to get to that point. Thankfully that journey turns out to be a fascinating one.

There are perhaps one or two too many murders, leading to a few feeling rushed and overshadowed by the more important ones. Still, they do at least contribute to the main thrust of the narrative and one does spin the story off in a really interesting new direction.

I also felt a little frustrated that a few characters’ fates are essentially left unresolved with them disappearing from the narrative after a while. I could understand why this would be desirable given they had no direct role to play in the case as it changed but it would have been nice to have at least a little information about what happened to them.

On the other hand, I think the ending packs some real emotional resonance and I was pleased to find that a few things I felt were sure to be loose ends were wrapped up more tidily than I could have hoped. It made for a very satisfying conclusion to what I would regard as one of the best novels I have read by Bellairs, sitting comfortably alongside The Dead Shall Be Raised (this is the more interesting case, that had the more interesting setting).

A copy was provided by the publisher, Agora Books, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of murder in the title (What)

Further Reading

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked the book a lot saying that the mystery becomes “bigger and more intricate than you expect”. She also praises the complex depiction of Harry Dodd.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was also full of praise for this book saying that the “the quirk factor and the humor was at an all-time high”.

The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen

The American Gun Mystery
Ellery Queen
Originally Published 1933
Ellery Queen #6
Preceded by The Egyptian Cross Mystery
Followed by The Siamese Twin Mystery

To my enormous frustration the past few months have presented some challenges that have caused me to take an unexpected break from blogging. Nothing bad, mind you, but just the sort of stuff that keeps me from finding time to read. The good news is I think that I have got those issues sorted out now, more or less, and I am anticipating being able to get back to blogging.

Given that, what better way could there be to relaunch the blog than with another installment in my long-running series in which I read the Ellery Queen stories in order. For those who have not been following these posts I think it is worth pointing out that this “monthly” series began back in November 2017 and I am only now getting to book six.

Clearly it hasn’t been going too well.

I think it would be fair to say that my experiences so far with this series of books have been somewhat mixed. I have liked some parts of the books and can see the elements of the character and the approach to mystery construction that have appeal and yet I found elements of the execution in most of the stories frustrating.

Lest you think I am preparing you for another bout of negativity let me start out by reassuring you that in many ways I think this is the most entertaining of the six EQ stories I have read to date. While I had some issues with the way one aspect of the mystery is wrapped up, the book is lively, colorful and poses some interesting questions for the reader to solve.

So, what’s it all about?

The American Gun Mystery begins with the Queen family attending a rodeo being held in a New York arena for the sake of their young housekeeper Djuna who is apparently loves cowboy films. Among the performers is Buck Horne, a movie star who had been a star in the silent era but who shot his last picture some eight years earlier. The evening is something of a comeback performance for him and there is talk that if it proves successful it may lead to his return to the silver screen.

Things seem to be going well when Buck leads dozens of horsemen in a gallop around the arena but he suddenly falls to the ground and is trampled by the horses following him. When the body is investigated the body is badly mutilated but it is clear that the cause of death is a gunshot to the chest. When Inspector Queen and his men search the arena, the performers and all 20,000 spectators they are unable to find the murder weapon.

While this makes for an exciting opening for the story I must confess that I was a little concerned when I realized that it seemed likely we were headed for a repeat of the Ellery spends forever searching for an object problem that dragged down The Roman Hat Mystery. Happily this does not repeat the mistakes of that story, in part because it is so much clearer why the murder weapon is such a point of interest but mostly because the authors decide not to describe every step of the search.

There are similar moves towards economy in storytelling and plot construction throughout the story to strike out any lengthy sequences in which Ellery fails to move forward. This results in a narrative that feels much slicker and more focused than its predecessors, allowing our attention to be focused on the situation and the characters involved.

The circumstances of the murder are somewhat complex logistically, particularly given there are at least forty three moving parts to track inside the arena, and yet I had no difficulty grasping and visualizing the key aspects of the crime itself. The authors were always good at relaying detail but here they manage to summarize action very effectively, helped by Ellery being at the scene at the point at which the murder takes place. We have already had the venue and the action of the show described in some detail and so when the time comes for the murder it is pretty easy to follow what happened.

In terms of the characterizations of the victim and suspects, I had no significant complaints. Each are portrayed quite colorfully and while they sometimes seem a little larger than life, I found them fairly entertaining and distinctive. The only real problem is that the authors do not really take the time to develop a clear set of suspects with motives, reflecting that there is not much opportunity for misdirection for readers. Once the reader gets on the right train of thought (and I think something we learn early in the investigation is likely to stand out to many seasoned detective fiction fans) there is really little here to divert readers from those suspicions.

Ellery is in pretty good form though and I did appreciate that we get to spend a little more time here with Inspector Queen than we did in the previous installment in the series. The relationship between the two detectives is not particularly dramatic or fiery and yet I find it immensely pleasurable to follow the two as they needle and push each other towards a solution.

So, let’s talk about that solution because it is really only here that I have a significant issue with the story. The problem is that an aspect of the solution, the location of the murder weapon, requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. I can’t quite complain that the answer isn’t clued properly because I think the authors make a point of telling us something relating to the solution but I could not possibly have extrapolated from A to B because B is such a ridiculous idea. Throw in that it seems comically unlikely to work and you have a recipe for dissatisfaction.

There are some other issues too – a few clues lead too strongly to the solution without any real effort to misdirect the reader. And then there is Ellery’s assertion that he knows the guilty party and then does nothing to prevent a further murder. That one, I must say, does not cast him in a particularly strong light even when we are given his justification for that near the end.

Still. while a few elements of the resolution leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, I have to say I did enjoy the process of getting to that point. The story is one of the most colorful and lively of these early Queen tales and I am hoping that its relative tightness and evocative action bodes well for my experiences with subsequent installments.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a performance of any sort (When)

Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts

Many A Slip
Freeman Wills Crofts
First Collected 1955
Inspector French #29
Preceded by French Strikes Oil
Followed by Anything to Declare?

While I enjoyed reading through Crofts’ four inverted mystery novels, I felt quite disappointed when I realized that meant I had no more left to read. You can imagine my delight then when I finally got around to reading this short story collection and found that it was entirely made up of inverted puzzle mystery stories!

Most of these tales are very short as they were written to be published in newspapers – a fact Crofts references in his introduction where he comments that he had to flesh some of them out for inclusion here. Accordingly most are designed to feature few characters and comparatively simple situations, though most feature either an apparently perfect crime or unbreakable alibi.

The ‘Many a Slip’ of the title refers to the idea that one small mistake can allow a diligent police detective to unravel even the most complex of alibis. After presenting us with a description of the events leading up to a murder, Crofts then provides a short epilogue, most of which feature his series detective Inspector French, in which he comments on how the case was solved. The format is a little reminiscent of the adventures of Boy Detective Encyclopedia Brown with most cases relying on some tiny incongruous detail, usually not directly related to the murder.

Many of those solutions are quite ingenious but they are not without their issues. A pretty common issue is that a few stories rely on information that may go a little beyond common knowledge as few stories directly describing the crucial clue. This isn’t a problem if your interest is chiefly procedural of course and in many cases you could probably work out what the issue is likely to be based on Crofts’ habit of using the principle clue for his titles. On balance I think most of the stories are fair and would have been even more so at the time they were written.

For the most part I found this to be a pretty entertaining collection but I do suggest that these may be best dipped into rather than read in one or two sittings. Crofts picks on several murder methods and themes and returns to them repeatedly. Usually he presents a different or interesting twist on those ideas but I think they would have more impact in small doses.

I would suggest that Crofts’ skills were perhaps better suited to the novel rather than short story format but in spite of that I think this is a solid collection with some highlights. A couple of stories stand out as particularly strong efforts. Mushroom Patties stood out for its fair play solution which I am happy to report I missed as did The Aspirins and The New Cement. My favorite tale in the collection though is The Photograph which I felt was exceptional, putting its inventive solution in plain sight.

Continue reading “Many a Slip by Freeman Wills Crofts”

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)

Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.

He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.

Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.

On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.

Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).

If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.

I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.

Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.

With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.

Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…

This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.

This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.

This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.

Golden Ashes by Freeman Wills Crofts

Golden Ashes
Freeman Wills Crofts
Originally Published 1940
Inspector French #20
Preceded by Fatal Venture
Followed by James Tarrant, Adventurer

I have generally had good luck with Freeman Wills Crofts’ mysteries. While I have sometimes grumbled about Inspector French being a little dull as a character, I have never found the plotting to be dull. You can hear the “until now” coming, can’t you?

Golden Ashes begins by introducing us to Betty Stanton, a woman who has had the misfortune to face financial calamity twice as the result of the profligate men in her life. The first time was when her father died leaving little but debts. She found temporary happiness when she was married but discovered that history had repeated itself when her husband died. After much searching a friend puts her on to a position as a housekeeper at Forde Manor.

The homeowner is Sir Geoffrey Buller who unexpectedly inherited his title when several people ahead of him died. He has recently arrived in England after living in Chicago and hopes to integrate himself in English high society. He is quickly disappointed, having little taste for the home, and within six months he is looking to sell the estate and move to the continent. The house is emptied except for its galleries of valuable paintings which Sir Geoffrey had recently had cleaned on advice from an artist friend.

While Betty is disappointed, she is pleased when he arranges for her to stay on the grounds to show around potential buyers. One evening she discovers that the building is on fire and tries to rescue the paintings though only a fraction of the collection is saved. Before long an insurance company representative is on the scene to investigate and then Inspector French arrives to ask Betty some questions about the disappearance of an art director friend of hers that had looked at the restoration work only a short time before the fire. Recognizing their common interests, French and the insurance rep pool their efforts to try and make sense of what happened at Forde Manor.

It is possible that a solution to what has happened may have already occurred to you. It certainly did to me. This is not the first time I have immediately guessed at a solution but it is unusual to find so little effort on the part of the author to make me at least doubt myself or consider an alternative. While a few details are introduced after the investigation begins, most just help flesh out the mechanics of how the crime was committed and all stand out pretty much instantly as important on being introduced. You just are left waiting for French to figure out the question to which that element will be the solution.

While this may sound as if it at least promises some technical, thoughtful investigation on French’s part the reader will likely feel underwhelmed on that point too. There is little of the technical detail, careful testing of hypotheses or considered speculation that I have found in most other French stories. Here he just makes several journeys to France and back to check on details and conduct interviews. It makes for decidedly dull reading and feels quite rushed.

This is all the more unfortunate because there are some aspects of the story I thought showed some promise and that may well have held my interest if they had been introduced differently. The art angle, for instance, is at least quite clever even if the reader’s attention is drawn to it far too early in the text.

While French’s methods were not particularly interesting, the sleuth himself was in fairly good form. One of the brightest spots in the book is the warm relationship he forms with the insurance investigator who he previously knew, though I had wished that their investigations had placed them into some sort of conflict with one another either personally or in terms of their aims. The most we get is a little complaining that French could achieve more if he was willing to bend the rules a little.

The biggest problem with the book for me is that it feels too neat and tidy. The best French stories seem to feature the detective working chaos into order but from the beginning the interpretations feel fairly clear – it is just a matter of working through them to be able to prove the conclusion. That may be an accurate representation of police procedure but it is far from gripping reading.

Throw in that Crofts spoils a major aspect of his earlier (and far superior) The 12:30 From Croydon for no good reason and you have what strikes me as easily the most disappointing reading experiences I have had from this author. It is not that it is badly written – but rather that it is really dull. He was capable of much, much better than this.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)

Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice

Home Sweet Homicide
Craig Rice
Originally Published 1944

Apparently a new batch of American Mystery Classics titles are just a few weeks away so it’s probably time I did something about the stack I have sat on my bedside table. After all, I have to find room for those six new paperbacks…

Home Sweet Homicide is a standalone novel by Craig Rice who I have probably encountered before as a ghost for George Sanders. This work however is unquestionably hers and for that reason it offers a clearer sense of her style.

Home Sweet Homicide is styled as a light-hearted, comedic adventure. Rice creates three precocious child protagonists in the form of the siblings April, Dinah and Archie. They are the offspring of Marian Carstairs, a hardworking novelist who seems to always be hard at work on a manuscript.

The three children adore and appreciate their mother but wish that she did not have to work so hard to support them. One afternoon they discuss how they wish that she could solve a real murder, thinking that the publicity it would bring could boost her sales and allow her to take a little more time off. Of course, no sooner do they have this idea than they hear gunshots coming from the house next door.

The children investigate and arrive to find an actress, Polly, enter the house and leave shortly afterwards screaming. The children decide to follow the examples of some of the fictional detectives their mother has created, dropping false leads to trick the police and lead a trail away from Polly and the victim’s husband while trying to find clues as to what really took place in the Sanford home.

Meanwhile two real detectives are also on the scene – Lieutenant Bill Smith, a single man who the children soon identify as a possible target for some Parent Trap-style antics, and Sergeant O’Hare who reminds everyone that he has raised nine children in a recurring gag that becomes a little tedious through overuse. The children make use of their innocent appearances to manipulate and trick the detectives at every turn, spinning elaborate stories to send them off searching in the wrong places.

This setup is designed to produce plenty of silly, screwball moments and I think it does a pretty good job of delivering these. I found the children’s interactions with Smith to be entertaining and sometimes quite creative. For instance, I enjoyed the way they manipulate the policemen to learn more about the bullets found at the crime scene. This is not only quite comical, I think it finds a credible level on which these children can operate and be effective.

In the normal run of things you would not expect pre-teen children to be able to out-think professional detectives. The reason I think it works here is that Rice acknowledges this in her premise, making it clear that the reason these Police officers are manipulated is that they underestimate the children. They want to believe that they have out-thought the children or used their tact and skills to convince them to help while the kids, in turn, are smart enough to know to flatter their egos and make them feel that they have convinced them.

The other advantage of this approach in which the children spread their disinformation is that it allows Rice to craft a crime that the children could feasibly solve. Sure, I find it a little dull, but I think that the logic tracks pretty well and the solution does not require many components. The crime is a simple one, it is the false leads that make it a tough case to crack for Smith and O’Hare.

The book is consistently light-hearted and amusing and while it does not pack many surprises, there is a great one related to a lead the girls plant early in the novel that delighted and puzzled me. The amusement is increased with an entertaining secondary plot in which the children attempt to play matchmaker for their mother without her knowledge. This element of the novel can feel a little dated, particularly with regards the children’s social attitudes to gender roles, but I think it can be quite charming.

The children similarly walk a fine line with their actions sometimes reading as cute, at others quite self-satisfied and precocious. I think the latter is necessary in order for them to be credible sleuths but I will admit to finding their antics a little exhausting at points in the story.

Of the three, the child I enjoyed spending time with the most was Archie who was enthusiastic but easily led by his two sisters. He struck me as the most recognizable of the three in the way he hoards his pocket money and runs with a ‘mob’ of unruly boys. April also makes a strong impression because of her ability to take over and organize everyone – only Dinah fails to make much of an impression. They all get a moment to shine in the story however and I thought their use of a secret code to talk to each other was good fun (if, once again, used a little too often).

As for Marian, I found her an entertaining and fairly self-aware creation though she spends most of the story in the background. I particularly appreciated the little tastes we get of her mystery novels in short descriptions or from the attempts of the children to emulate aspects of them.

Turning back to the mystery itself, I think Rice does a pretty decent job of clueing this adventure and building to the ending. I happen to think that the final chapters are a little over-stuffed, becoming a little hard-to-follow, though they are usually pretty entertaining.

Read as a mystery, Home Sweet Homicide may disappoint readers a little. The case is a little dull and the suspects don’t really stand out or stick in the memory. If assessed as a comic adventure however, I think it pretty much hits the mark. I certainly laughed more than I expected to and there are some parts of the end that still have me smiling to think of them a week or two later.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by shooting (How)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime calls this “an enjoyable read full of twists and surprises” in her review.