Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Mask
A few weeks ago I reviewed Home Sweet Homicide by Rice (1944) where a trio of wise cracking children solve the murder of their next door neighbour. It was a book to be enjoyed for its fun escapades and wry sense of humour. However, The Corpse Steps Out (1940) (the second book in the Jake Justus, John Joseph Malone and Helen Brand series, the first being Eight Faces to Three (1939)), more comfortably fits the comic hard boiled style, though I do think Rice occasionally adopts tropes from suspense novels. This is visible in the opening of the novel where Nelle Brown, a socialite wife and popular singer on the radio, is searching a flat for an item, even resorting to searching the pockets of the flat’s owner, who just so happens to be dead… But of course this information is revealed to us gradually and the suspense genre feel can be found in sentences such as this:
‘Suddenly she shuddered, one hand grasping a sharp corner of the mantel for support, remembering the last time she had seen it, when she had walked out swearing it was the last time.’
The narrative then rewinds about an hour when Brown’s press agent and manager, Jake Justus is informed that she is being blackmailed over some romantic letters she wrote. A quick guess leads Justus to visit a certain flat, owned by Paul March and boy is he surprised to find him shot and in the possession of a considerable amount of money. Justus immediately wonders whether Brown did the deed to silence her blackmailer, a fear which is heightened when he returns to the radio studios and sees her clutching a blood stained handkerchief.
Of course when Justus gets a chance to ask her about the body, she denies having killed him and is more concerned about the missing letters, as she still hasn’t found them yet. Did the person who killed March take them? She is desperate to find them as in the wrong hands they could destroy her radio career (with her contract up for renewal in a few days) and her marriage. Determined to look after his client Justus agrees to help her out and wonders whether someone else on the radio production team may be responsible, as they would be the only people to know about her affairs. Yet events take a strange turn when March’s death is not reported in the press. Justus and Brown later realise that this is because the body is no longer there (which made me think of another comic crime writer, Phoebe Atwood Taylor whose fictional corpses never stay put). Justus therefore turns to his old friend the criminal lawyer John Joseph Malone, who he met whilst working as a news reporter in the first novel Eight Faces to Three. This action though makes him think of Helen Brand, another person he met and fell in love with in the previous story. She is a well off socialite and a dissipated party girl, who Justus wants to marry. But apart from the fact she is out of his league there is also the issue that she disappeared. Although this state of affairs does not remain like this for long as Brand bumps into Justus after an all-night party and after a brief nap is raring to go sleuthing, though not before admitting her love for him and proposing to him (a busy morning).
However, Justus and Brand’s wedding plans have to take second place as events in the case take precedence with other blackmailing figures and corpses littering the scene, inconveniently making Brown look guiltier than ever. This romantic element of the novel adds to the sometimes screwball comedy feel of the book with Justus mournfully saying after another event interrupts their wedding plans that ‘I’m beginning to have a feeling the wedding will be held in the old people’s home.’ The final solution is revealed at the radio studios and in one sense it was kind of expected as I had my eye on the culprit for a while, but the solution was also unexpected in other respects, reminding readers that Rice’s characters are not stock types or card board cut outs.
The style of this book was definitely reminiscent of Taylor’s work under the penname of Alice Tilton and Pamela Branch’s as like both these authors, Rice creates a world where morality and right and wrong are determined by different rules. This leads to characters moving bodies, lying to the police or withholding information from them. Taking the law into your own hands is a matter of course in stories such as this. Although containing hard boiled elements this story is quite upbeat in tone, so the potentially darker side of this genre is diluted by humour such as when Justus says ‘she needs a drink to help her think clearly’ and in regards to alcohol consumption in this book I am fairly surprised no one got liver cirrhosis.
One of the biggest puzzles of this book is Nelle Brown as she is morally ambiguous and not someone you feel immediately sorry for. On the one hand she consistently cheats on her much older husband, Tootz who she married for his money. Yet on the other hand she didn’t leave him when he lost all his money and began to show signs of madness. Whenever she is around him she is attentive and kind, but this doesn’t stop her having a continual string of boyfriends who Justus says she never truly loves, as her heart is really Tootz’s. If nothing else this reveals how relationships are not completely conventional and are never simple in this story. Her occasional deployment of racist language also may make it harder for a modern reader to sympathise with her and moreover, during the early parts of the story when Brand and Malone aren’t involved in the case, her decision making and behaviour borders on stupidity, which again can make it harder to like her. However, her role in the story reduces as the other characters get involved, which I think helps readers to assess Brown as a whole, as it is during these times that her kinder nature towards her husband and others becomes more apparent.
All in all I thought this was an entertaining blast of a read, with an array of quite maverick characters and the writing style (un-PC comments excluded) made the story engaging and amusing. Moreover, I think readers new to Rice don’t need to start from the beginning of this series, as any important details from the previous book are included in this one.