Monday, July 04, 2011

Whose corpse is it , anyway?

It was a welcome diversion to enter the mad, alcohol-drenched world of Craig Rice for a few hours as I sat down to read her book My Kingdom for a Hearse. It stars the detective team of Jake and Helene Justus as well as lawyer John J. Malone. This is a sleuthing trio that gets a whole lot more talented after a couple of drinks, and the adventures they embark upon are delightful.

The story starts when John J. Malone is hired by Hazel Swackhammer, who is the head honcho over at Delora Deanne, who is basically a cosmetics company. Delora is the model who does all the advertising, and as Malone learns, she isn’t real—all the images of her are composite shots of five different young ladies— one provides the face, another the hands, and so on, with one of the five providing her voice on radio broadcasts. But there’s been a distressing event— Hazel has received a package, with a pair of gloves inside… but the gloves are not empty! Distressingly, he finds that the model who poses for Delora’s hands has gone missing…

And thus begins a nightmare involving legally illegal actions of all sorts, as Malone struggles to keep one step ahead of the cops (led by von Flanagan, who added the “von” so he wouldn’t be called another Irish cop). While investigating, he runs across an enforcer who decides to keep his eye on Malone, as he is convinced Malone knows where his girl is.

Meanwhile, Jake Justus has decided to become a television producer, but hasn’t got any programming available— by the end, he becomes sick of everyone’s ideas for a new angle on a quiz program, and everyone from von Flanagan to the enforcer would like to get a big break in television. All this time, Helene Justus is just Helene— a feisty, charming, beautiful young woman who absolutely insists on helping out.

I really love immersing myself into a Craig Rice story. Her comedy is absolutely hilarious, and this is one of those cases where reviewing the book is difficult, because you’re struggling not to give away half the jokes. In short, it’s a delightful romp.

Who was that lady?
But the solution is… well, underwhelming. One of the major plot points is never really adequately explained, and the others are more or less lucky guesses. Malone has a choice of Suspect A or Suspect B, and he just circles B. A few slips of the tongue later, he’s proven his case. While you accept Rice’s version of events, you’re not quite satisfied that Malone deduced the answer from the information that he had. It just doesn’t quite add up. In particular, he gives one reason for choosing B over A, and the reason is entirely unsatisfactory— he chooses to accept one interpretation of the facts over another. It’s just not quite fair in its clueing, nor are the clues entirely conclusive.

Still, who am I to complain? I had a wonderful crime. (I apologize for the bad pun and it will never happen again... in this review, at least.) Malone and the Justuses are delightful characters that I love running into, and if the solution is not up to par with, say, The Corpse Steps Out, it really is just a minor blemish on what was otherwise an extremely enjoyable romp.


  1. Whilst she was capable of fair clueing and plotting, I never really feel let down if the solution isn't as dazzling as in some of her books. MY KINGDOM FOR A HEARSE reminds me a little of the Edmund Crispin of GLIMPSES OF THE MOON; even if the solution isn't the most mindboggling, you're having so much fun that you don't really care. Like you say, Rice is a delight, and it's a shame that she is still so little remembered by the general reading public.

  2. @Sexton Blake

    Completely agreed! I can't name one of her books that I read and didn't enjoy, even if it was one of her lesser works – like Knocked for a Loop and The Fourth Postman. Have you read the Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak trilogy? Simply wonderful detective stories!


    Don't worry... if that pun was good enough for Craig Rice, it's good enough for us mere mortals!

  3. Agreed with you both- she's delightful!

    Incidentally, what's the verdict on the way Ed McBain finished "The April Robin Murders"? It's the only other Rice on a store shelf that I haven't bought yet.

  4. I've only read THE THURSDAY TURKEY MURDERS (I found a great hardback copy in a second-hand bookstore when I was on holiday a few years ago. The store owner thought I was having a fit when I spotted it and leapt to the shelf muttering 'Craigricecraigricecraigrice!')

    Really, really loved it, but found great difficulty in obtaining either of the other parts of the trilogy at a reasonable price. At some point I'm going to have to fill in the Craig Rice shaped holes in my collection.

  5. I came into possession of the entire trilogy for next to nothing, two hardbacks and one paperback edition, which are vintage Craig Rice stories – and at times even more fun and better than her main series. The first book, The Sunday Pigeon Murders, ranks as one of my favorite debut novels in the genre and has a neat play on the least-likely-suspect gambit and the final book, completed by Ed McBain, is just as good as its two predecessors.

    However, you should try to read them in order. Not so much for the stories but for the two wonderful characters. They're the main events of the books and its best to start following them from the moment they stumble over their first corpse.

  6. Sexton, I keep working on making her better known :)

    Have any of you read the books under the Michael Venning name? Not as many jokes, but still good mysteries.

  7. You've convinced me! It sounds like great fun - a little like Nick and Nora perhaps, at least with the alcohol. :<) I've read just one Craig Rice - Home Sweet Homicide. If you haven't yet read it, I wrote about it here: