This is my third Craig Rice read of the year and The Wrong Murder (1940) sees a return to Rice’s serial characters Jake Justus and Helene Brand, who despite the odds, (something always seems to crop up), are now finally married and are ready to enjoy their honeymoon in Bermuda. Yet unsurprisingly these holiday plans are thwarted, initially by the fact that Helene gets arrested for dangerous driving, but mostly because of a certain bet which takes place at wedding reception between Jake and Mona McClane, a woman with a fair amount of notoriety. She has had a string of marriages, achieved a number of flying records and quite enjoys a spot of exploring and hunting wild game on the side. Ever after a new experience Mona says at the party, ‘I wonder what it feels like to murder someone. One of these days I’m going to find out!’ People assume she is joking and Jake goes so far as to make a bet with her that she can’t murder someone she’d genuinely have a motive to kill, in public and in broad daylight without being caught. Yet the following day whilst Jake is reunited with Helene after her stint in jail, he is jolted by a newspaper report detailing the murder of a man taking place on one of Chicago’s busiest streets, in the middle of a swell of Christmas shoppers. Of course Jake immediately assumes that this murder was done by Mona and honeymoon plans are jettisoned for a fun family trip to the morgue to identify the victim.
Having recognised the victim events rapidly unfold over the next few days, with Jake, Helene and their friend and lawyer John J Malone sleeping and eating little in between drinking sessions and maverick actions to unravel the mystery behind the murder. As they dig deeper into the victim’s life they soon discover that many of their wedding reception guests have a good reason for wishing the man dead. All except Mona it seems. Of course during their investigations they often get entangled with the police and even some local gangsters. This is a fast paced story which accelerates to a grand finale and a killer closing line, though it’ll be a miracle if Jake and Helene can avoid ending up in jail permanently and eventually go on their honeymoon.
I really enjoyed this book and it is clear a lot of skill has gone into the construction of the story. It opens well with a slow trickle of information about the first victim, before switching to Jake and Helene’s wedding reception. Like in Patricia Wentworth’s The Key (1946), it is suggested that but for a single event, in this the wedding reception, a man’s life might have been saved. I also think the book’s central mystery has a strong puzzle to it. Although the central characters fly by the seat of their pants there is actually a good puzzle for the readers to unravel and follow. As I mentioned earlier the pace of the story is effective and Rice has a number of surprises in store for her readers, which are dispersed well throughout the book. Both of these aspects I think are used partially to distract the reader from important clues. The wild antics of Jake and Helene are amusing as always with the added bonus shenanigans of her father and his friend. So all in all an entertaining read with a good mystery at its centre.
The Corpse Steps Out (1940) (2nd Jake and Helene Mystery)
Home Sweet Homicide (1944)