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