I have often professed my undying love for American detective stories from the hands of such artisans as Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos, Patrick Quentin and Stuart Palmer, but there's a special nook in my heart that glows for the animated, alcohol fuelled, soft-boiled screwball mysteries dreamed up by the very offbeat Craig Rice. Her books are unapologetically fun to read, vigorously plotted, populated with off-the-wall characters and linkup the puzzle orientated mysteries of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen with the tougher, hard-bitten private eye tales of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The Wrong Murder (1940) is a particular good example of her taking the traditionally constructed detective story by the scruff, and force enough booze done its throat to make even the reader feel tipsy – and overrun it with feisty mobsters, speeding cars, tight situations and occasional fisticuffs.
The Big Gamble
The story picks up where the previous one left off, namely The Corpse Steps Out (1940), which I, by the way, haven't read yet, and Helene just left Jake at the after party of their wedding to rush her father to the airport – when Mona McClane enters into the picture. She's a betting woman who won a casino from a notorious mob boss, Max Hook, who's a semi-regular character making his first appearance in this book, and she wants to stake her priced casino in a bet with Jake Justus. What are the terms of the wager? Well, she's going to knock someone off, "(...) in broad daylight on the public street with the most ordinary weapon I can find... promise you plenty of witnesses," and if he can pin the murder on her the casino is his.
Nobody at the party takes her very seriously, but they begin to have second thoughts when the next day news headlines carry the story of a shooting, at a busy street corner during a shopping rush, that left the unidentified remains of a nondescript man on the pavement – and Mona McClane was seen near the scene of the crime! Here's Jake Justus, recently married and unemployed, presented with an opportunity to earn himself a well-run, money making casino simply by tagging its current owner with a first-degree murder charge.
Simple, eh? Well, not really. With Helene and her dad in tow, who never made his flight due to being arrested and thrown in the can with his lovely daughter, there's bound to be trouble along the way – and their friend and drinking buddy, the unscrupulous criminal lawyer, John J. Malone has to drag them from a police jail on more than one occasion. They also have to shake a few gangsters off their tail, guaranteeing a few amusing sequences in which you slowly start siding with the poor thugs, who really never stood much of chance against Chicago's terrible trio, while also trying to make sense of a whole bunch of coincidences, tramping about for clues and plenty of rest stops along the way for drinks.
There's a second murder, committed under identical circumstances, later on in the book and throws a fairly original impossible problem at the reader: how's it possible that the body was miraculously stripped of all its clothing during the ambulance ride from the crime-scene to the city morgue? The solution isn't overly ingenious and it's only a single strand in the plot, but it added a little extra to the overall story – and shows how adept Rice was at intertwining certain, contrasting elements of the mystery genre.
The book has some disadvantages, though. First of all, the title of the story and the fact that there's a sequel to this book, The Right Murder (1941), exonerates Mona McClane from the outset and its plot isn't the cleverest one she has ever conceived. It's not bad, far from it, but it suffers from the same problem as Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and Christie's After the Funeral (1953): you tend to think less of them because they sprouted from the same, ever-inventive minds that turned out several novels that became landmarks of the genre. They are excellent detective stories in their own right, but are dwarfed when compared to monuments like The Hollow Man (1935), The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Home Sweet Homicide (1944).
If the name of a lesser author was slapped across the front cover, this book would've received a standing ovation, but now you just shrug and say, "meh, not bad, but I've seen her do better than this." And it's really a compliment, when your readers mark a well-crafted and briskly told story as an average effort only because your other books were even better.
This book is as a good a place to start as any, but if you want to know what Craig Rice was capable of doing, when she really was swinging for the fences, you should begin with Trial by Fury (1941), My Kingdom for a Hearse (1957), the Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak trilogy and the aforementioned, non-series masterpiece, Home Sweet Homicide. I'm also fond of Having Wonderful Crime (1943), which reads like one long love-letter to Ellery Queen and seems to have drawn its inspiration from The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). The book even drops off Malone, Jake and Helene in New York.
On a final note, I was hoping to read The Wrong Murder and The Right Murder back-to-back, but I sort of promised someone a review of Bill Pronzini's Shackles (1988) and yesterday the first pile of specially selected impossible crime books arrived – which I will be dipping into after the next review.
So that's what in store for this blog in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!