It was in August 2021 that I read my last Craig Rice novel. Having blasted through many of her easier to get a hold of books a few years ago, my pickings for what to read next by her tend to be slim nowadays. Rice’s book is my first review for my new niche reading project on classic crime novels featuring weddings and honeymoons.
‘When Helene and Jake Justus befriend a disconsolate drunk who is trying to steal the lilies from the hotel flower display, they really step into something. John J. Malone gets involved, too, when he arrives in response to an SOS from Helene. He finds (1) a decapitated bride, who turns out not to be the bride at all – or is she? Anyways she keeps sending letters from Niagara Falls saying how deliriously happy she is; (2) a disappearing bridegroom, with a yen for the Staten Island ferry; (3) an embezzling lawyer who hires him to clear the bride of her own murder; (4) a Greenwich Village poetess who spouts original “free” verse at the slightest provocation; (5) an escort bureau that indulges in extracurricular blackmail. And as if things weren’t complicated enough, Jake, Helene, and Malone each goes about trying to solve the mystery secretly and on his own, three stalwart cops, O’Brien, Birnbaum, and Schultz assisting.’
Rice delivers an enticing opening. It starts off innocuously enough with Dennis Morrison musing on hangovers, whilst unsurprisingly nursing one. Little by little we discover that he is the bridegroom Helene and Justus encountered the previous evening. We are ambiguously told that Dennis was ‘becoming a teetotaller from pure necessity. After yesterday, he had to. He’d gone on last night’s bender for the same reason. He had to.’ At this early stage in the story, I already encountered two wedding life lessons…
Life Lesson No. 1
Person who made the Error: Dennis Morrison (Bridegroom to Bertha)
Error: Left his new wife of a few hours to unpack. He heads to the bar for a drink. He meets a few more people, has a few more drinks. Ultimately, he goes out on a bender, his wife very much forgotten. Next day wakes up in a different hotel room, fortunately it is Helene and Jake’s.
Life Lesson No. 2
Person who made the Error: Helene Justus (Wife of Jake Justus)
Error: This one is mentioned retrospectively on the part of Helene who in an earlier book, got jailed for reckless driving and assaulting a police officer on her wedding night.
So far so good. I think I can avoid these pitfalls!
Naturally Dennis is worrying about what he will say to Bertha, yet he is spared this difficulty when a corpse is found in their hotel room bed, of a woman, her head present but decapitated from the body. And the woman is not identified as Bertha… Where has she gone?
So as you can see the opening chapter is very enticing from a plot perspective. However, the more I read the book and the more I reflected about it afterwards, I did not feel this initial set up was capitalised upon sufficiently and this is primarily due to the narrative choices which follow. The key choice is that we see Jake, Helene and their legal friend Malone predominately pursue solo enquiries, though the latter two do some things together at the beginning.
Early on we are told why Jake is spending long hours away from everyone and being so secretive. It turns out that he is trying to get a novel published and is failing to do so. He does not want Helene to know about the project until a publisher accepts his manuscript. This thread of the narrative offers Rice an apt opportunity for satirising the world of publishing:
‘He’d already rewritten the book four times. Jake thought over the last months, and smiled wryly. The Mongoose Murders had started out as Memoirs of a Reporter by Jake Justus, Publisher A had written, “We feel, however, that a volume of personal reminiscences would not, at this time -” and had suggested that the material could be incorporated into a novel sometime. Jake had rented a typewriter and some office space, and written In the Shadows of Jail, A Novel, by Jake Justus. Publisher B had written, “We feel, however, that while the characters are interesting, there is not sufficient plot to hold them together -” Jake had added a homicide, a jewel robbery, a fire, and a wreck on the North Side elevated. Publisher C had written, “We feel, however, that while there is an interesting story, the characters are not sufficiently convincing, and the lack of love interest -” Jake had finally submitted One Wonderful Hour, A Romance, by Jake Justus, to Publisher D. Jake had great hopes for Publisher D, who finally wrote, “We feel, however, that while this is an unusual love story, and the characters are interesting, there is a lack of suspense.”’
What is annoying Jake the most now is that the latest publisher he sent his story too felt his story lacked credible detective methods. This leaves him fuming given the cases he has helped solve. He decides solving the disappearance of Bertha and the murder in her hotel room will help prove he does have such knowledge. This decision of course leads on to another spot of marital guidance: If you want to impress your wife then spending long hours away from her breaking into crime scenes, punching a policeman to get out of such scenes, spending time in jail due to punching a policeman and then taking another woman out to dinner to question her, is probably not a good idea!
However, Helene and Malone do not sit around twiddling their thumbs and they soon begin to find out more about the marriage of Dennis and Bertha. They also set out to piece together Dennis’ drunken alibi. Additionally, Malone has separate issues of his own, namely needing some money in a hurry, having lost his money in a poker game on the train to the New York. This need opens a further entry point into the case for him, as he is hired by Bertha’s trustee. I am not against the idea of having characters going off doing their own thing but one thing I increasingly noticed with this read was that by having the trio working mostly independently and sometimes off the page, the investigation became stymied, and I felt the plot began to tread water. That is not to say that this is not very entertainingly written, but not very much information is revealed, creating something of backlog at the end. What would have ameliorated this situation was if the characters pooled their information sooner and had more conversation about the case itself and their theories about it. Overall, I would say that the screwball comic antics are prioritised in the story and the mystery and clues are less pronounced, although there are some sneaky clues in there. It was also interesting to see how some characters found out the same clue but by different means. This deficiency in the plot is frustrating as there is a very good and really quite sneaky puzzle in this book and the solution in isolation is brilliant – one that Carr or Christie might have liked, but I feel the middle does not lead us to it well. I wonder if this is something the Saturday Review touches upon when it wrote in its crime fiction reviewing section that Rice’s novel had ‘original plot, salty dialogue, considerably high-strung humour, and surprise finish – also a certain amount of overwriting.’
For Better or Worse: This is a new temporary additional rating I am adding to my reads for this project. I think on balance this was a for better read, as I am a fan of Rice’s humour and characters. I wouldn’t say this is her best work though.
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