Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Magnifying Glass
The only other Rice novel I have read is 8 Faces at 3 (1939), which I really enjoyed, so I thought it high time I read another of her works. As the title intimates, Home Sweet Homicide (1944) is a madcap mystery comedy which revolves around a family, the Carstairs. Marian Carstairs is a widowed mystery writer, whose absorption in her work leads to her taking absentmindedness to a whole new level and her three children, Archie, Dinah and April, aged between 10 and 14, spend a lot of time by themselves. The story has two plot strands which intertwine, that of a murder (which I will get to, I promise) and that of Marian’s children match making for their mother. Marian’s children seem convinced that they ‘need a man around the house’ and they ‘wish Mother would get handcuffed again.’ Although you can tell this wish comes from the best of motives, e.g. they don’t want their mother to be lonely and they want her to have to work less, the metaphor they use for marriage, ‘handcuffed’ does seem a little troubling. But perhaps I am just reading too much into this. On the whole you could say they are precocious children, due to the lack of supervision they receive. Their choice of a Mother’s Day present also amused me, as they buy their mother a book entitled How To Cope With A Growing Child. Marian inquires whether this is ‘a delicately implied criticism of the way’ she is caring for them, but her children respond with, ‘We’re more than satisfied… we like the way you bring us up. But we thought, just to be on the safe side…’
But anyways back to the murder. Just as Marian’s children are wishing she would have the chance to ‘solve a real life murder… [so] she’d get a lot of publicity,’ they hear two shots coming from their neighbour’s house, the Sanfords. With Marian oblivious to anything but her typing (she managed to not notice an earthquake once), her children go off to investigate. When they arrive at the Sanfords, they see a well-known actress, Polly Walker enter the house, only to exit screaming. It seems Flora Sanford has been murdered and Walker whilst waiting for the police suitably incriminates herself, wailing about a man called Wally. In contrast Marian’s children seem un-ordinarily serious and worldly, with April spoofing hard boil detective fiction dialogue:
‘You’re going to have to make with fancy answers to the cops practically any minute now and you can’t go into that ‘How could you’ routine. In the first place, it’s corny and in the second place he didn’t do it.’
Archie, April and Dinah to add to the at times self-conscious air of the novel, refer back to their mother’s various mystery novel series, as sources of information on what to do next and how to interpret evidence.
‘There’s always somebody the police suspect of the murder. Like poor Mr Sanford. But it never turns out that he did it. Somebody else has to find out who really did. Not the police.’
And as this example suggests Flora’s husband becomes prime suspect, especially since he disappears. Moreover, there are hints that his relations with Polly were less than innocent. This example also indicates the children’s desire to involve their mother in solving the case, though in this matter they do not succeed. Although having said that, the ending of the novel implies that Marian knows a lot more about what has been going on than is first realised. Lieutenant Bill Smith and Sergeant O’Hare are the main police detectives involved in the case and Marian’s children from the get go are keen not to reveal what they know to the police and in the case of April, not above feeding false information (which leads to a great deal of irony) and tampering with evidence. Moreover, Marian’s children are set on pairing the Lieutenant with their mother, leading to some humorous comments:
‘Is he a dope!’
‘Don’t talk that way about your future stepfather.’
Although their matchmaking initially seems like an insurmountable task due to their mother’s dislike of the police and Bill’s low opinion of mystery fiction.
The central mystery is good, centring on Flora’s profession as a blackmailer, a profession which seems to have touched many individuals in the neighbourhood and further death indicates an even longer history to this case, a history which brings the crime much closer to home than Marian’s children suspect. Their approach to amateur sleuthing is endearing and rather resourceful, using stereotypes and assumptions about children to their own advantage. However, alongside finding their actions engaging, part of me was slightly concerned about the kinds of information they come across during their investigation, and the slight if at all effect it seems to have on them, though I think to read a book like this you need to not take it seriously. This is not a psychological thriller after all. Furthermore, although they often act older than their years (especially Dinah and April), there are amusing moments when their age does show, especially when they try to act normally around their neighbours who were also Flora’s blackmail victims.
I also found this to be a novel with an unexpected darker side or note to it, which is found in the backstory of Marian’s deceased husband, Jerry. It seems they were both journalists and there’s was a relationship on the road, with Jerry even proposing to Marian in a rowing boat whilst reporting on a warehouse fire. Their three children were born in far flung places across the globe under less than perfect circumstances (such as Marion giving birth to one of her children in a taxi, whilst trying to find her husband in Spain.) The darker element as I saw it was in Jerry’s irresponsibleness, leaving at a moment’s notice, expecting Marian, with babies in tow to try and catch him up from country to country.
Even once they settled down in America, Jerry was forever leaving to chase a story, leaving Marian to deal with the children, a situation which left her bored and restless and led to her beginning her writing career. When Jerry dies of pneumonia, Marian is left in an incredibly difficult position, having to take on the financial provision of the family as well as look after her children. This image of how Marian’s life ends up becomes a bit more haunting when you remember the phrase the children use for marriage, ‘handcuffed,’ as her marriage to Jerry did tie her down in many ways and curtail her own career ambitions. Moreover, although Bill seems much more responsible than Jerry, as a prospective husband, there is a still a feeling for me that Marian’s life (even less of a career and more domesticity) won’t be entirely satisfactory and being a modern reader, the way the children reinforce patriarchal attitudes is a little perturbing.
Overall this is was an enjoyable read full of twists and surprises. People are not who they say they are and things are not what they seem and even then they are not what they didn’t seem, such are the twists that Rice piles on. Having children amateur sleuths was a good device as it provided an alternative perspective on crime solving and the reader is left wondering whether they are good enough at judging who is telling the truth and who is lying. Of course there is also the added comedy of the will they won’t they romance of Bill and Marian, which Marian’s children try to engineer. In many respects this is a larger than life sort of story, where you wonder how the children have the energy for all they do (house work, school, dramatic crime solving, burgeoning social lives) and consume all the food that they do. But on the other hand this is actually a much more clued mystery than I first realised and only retrospectively could I see the clues Rice left for her readers.