Home Sweet Homicide
by Craig Rice
Published by Rue Morgue Press
220 pages, 2002
Home Is Where the Corpse Is
Reviewed by Jeffrey Marks
Often the atypical or standalone work of an author receives the lion's share of praise; this was the case with Craig Rice's Home Sweet Homicide, originally published in 1944. Missing from that story was her usual boozy blend of blondes and lawyer-sleuth John J. Malone. In its stead, Rice (the pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) gave her millions of fans a cozy and domestic mystery. By far the breeziest and most lighthearted of the Rice canon, Home Sweet Homicide spent nearly 50 years out of print, but has recently been re-released. Reading it makes clear why Craig Rice (who died in 1957) remains one of the best writers of mystery fiction.
A semi-autobiographical work, Home Sweet Homicide presents a charming domestic portrait of America in the mid 1940s, complete with fudge cakes, two-dollar manicures and carbon-papered typing. The book features mystery writer Marian Carstairs, who supports herself by pumping out four books a year. She is a widow, raising her three children -- April, Dinah and Archie. When someone murders the Carstairses' nasty neighbor, Flora Sanford, the children decide to solve the murder and garner publicity for their mother's writing career.
While the novel resembles Craig's life -- and her children's -- on its surface, the similarity stops there. This tale's milieu is much sanitized from Craig's own messy family situation. The real-life Chicago author wed at least four times over her 49 years, but fictional Marian was married only once. Jerry Carstairs, the journalist father of Marian's three precocious children, bears a faint resemblance to Craig's own much older, second husband, Bertie Ferguson. We're told that Jerry traveled extensively and died just before the publication of Marian's first book, much as Bertie passed on in 1939 just prior to the release of 8 Faces at 3 -- the novel that first introduced Malone, "the little lawyer from Chicago." Ironically, Craig's husband at the time of Home Sweet Homicide's publication, author Larry Lipton, doesn't appear in this book; in fact, he seems antithetical to Lieutenant Bill Smith, Marian's romantic partner. (The physically abusive Lipton seethed over Craig's success.) And despite the presence of drink in Craig's life and in her Malone series, alcohol doesn't even earn a mention in Home Sweet Homicide.
Like Marian, Craig had three children, two girls and a boy, but her own progeny came from different fathers. The children only lived with Craig for a few years of their lives, and by the time this book was originally published, they were all attending boarding schools. In fact, between Craig's writing and drinking, she found little time to manage the children and left the details of the household up to Larry Lipton, who ran their house like a prison camp. The children didn't enjoy the same carefree life as the Carstairs brood. When reviewing the book, Craig's children called it "a pleasant fiction."
Unlike Rice's usual broadly written characters, the players in Home Sweet Homicide were real to her and subsequently vivid to the reader. The fictional children are thinly veiled interpretations of her own brood. Marian's children are realistically portrayed as adolescents, a difficult task for any writer. They are shown as tight-knit through their use of a private code language. As this story develops, the trio question the neighbors about Flora Sanford's fate, check alibis, bewilder the police with their stories and finally uncover the killer. (In true, traditional mystery fashion, most of the neighbors had motives for Flora's murder.) These children even foil a wartime spy and reveal their mother's pre-marriage career as a crime reporter who covered a bizarre kidnapping story. In a bitter twist, young April Carstairs weeps as she unmasks the killer and tells her mother how she put the clues together, pinning the crime on the friendliest of suspects. "'Oh,' said April, 'oh, no!' She turned white. 'It must be true, but I didn't want it to turn out that way.'"
Although Home Sweet Homicide was generally a critical and commercial success, Time magazine criticized the novel and reported that many magazines had declined the opportunity to serialize it "because the children showed an impish disrespect for the police." Indeed, the Carstairs kids hamper the cops at every turn, giving an alibi to the prime suspect and confounding the officers. Only when the three try to fix their mother up with Lieutenant Smith do they manage to show respect to the men in blue.
This story itself may be fiction; yet its background details mirror facets of Craig's real life. Her cats even make it into the novel, chewing on manuscript pages and leaving paw prints -- the same sort of playful feline destruction in evidence on the copies of Craig's works that have been donated to the Occidental College library in Los Angeles.
One of the more interesting descriptions in Home Sweet Homicide is of Craig's/Carstairs' manic writing life:
From upstairs in the big old stucco house they could hear the faint purr of a typewriter, working at top speed. Marian Carstairs, alias Clark Cameron, alias Andrew Thorpe, alias J.J. Lane, was finishing another mystery novel. When it was done, she would take a day off to have her hair shampooed and to buy presents for the young Carstairs. She would take them extravagantly out to dinner and to the best show in town. Then the next morning she would begin writing another mystery novel.
The manic quality to Craig's own writing becomes apparent in this novel. Angry after a fight with Bill Smith, Marian storms upstairs without notes or plot ideas to begin a new mystery. She spends most of the night writing:
They listened and heard the unmistakable sounds of paper being inserted in a typewriter. It was followed by a sudden fury of typing. Then a paper was ripped out and thrown away, and another inserted. The typing began again, still furious. This time, it kept on. ... Mother was sitting at the desk, still in the blue house coat, her back hair coming down, and her eyes blazing. The kittens were sitting bolt upright on the desk, looking interested and slightly alarmed.
Craig spent most of 1944 trying to find a movie producer to take on Home Sweet Homicide. With the author having worked for Hollywood since 1942, and living in Los Angeles, her whole family had become infected with the film bug. Shortly before the release of this book, the property passed through many of the big Hollywood film companies. But the author had major hesitations about peddling a property to producers that was so near and dear to her heart. Throughout her life, Craig spent more money than she could earn. The lure of cash from Hollywood made her choose film. RKO repeatedly optioned the Malone series, but never went so far as to actually produce a series of films based on those books. Craig later discovered, however, that several of her best plots had been cannibalized into pictures featuring other series detectives, rendering her options and stories useless for film.
Unfortunately, no one optioned Home Sweet Homicide immediately. Craig found herself wooed by several major producers, but at her insistence, the property's asking price remained at $50,000, a huge sum in that day. In a letter to her agent from 1944, Craig reported:
[MGM executive Hunt] Stromberg plied me with rich and rare foods, tried to find out how much the price of HSH was going to be, gave me a big sales talk about what a wonderful picture he could make from it, and wants to confer with me on Sunday. Gypsy [Rose Lee] phoned and asked me to lunch in her dressing room on the Belle of the Yukon set; turns out it's because Otto Preminger has a burning yen to meet me, and he spends the afternoon selling himself to me as just the right man to do HSH with Claudette Colbert as Marian Carstairs; drove me home ...
Worried that Hollywood might strip every ounce of originality from her domestic, well-written mystery in order to film it, Craig leaned instead toward having it produced as a play. But, because she knew the financial payoff would come faster, she eventually decided to accept a movie option from 20th Century Fox for $20,000.
This sale of Home Sweet Homicide caught the attention of Time, which was then looking to publish a cover story about a mystery writer. Craig made the cover of the magazine's January 28, 1946 edition, with photographs of her and her family inside. After that, 20th Century Fox took great pains to cast actors (including a young, curly-haired Dean Stockwell in the role of Archie) who resembled their real-life counterparts. Lynn Bari, with her shoulder-length brown hair, bangs curled up and long face, was signed to double for the mystery writer. Craig posed for a photograph about that time, and her glamorous looks and mink coat made her look like a movie star.
The author's popularity continued to rise as Home Sweet Homicide hit theaters in 1946. Along with Bari, this fairly close adaptation of Craig's work starred Western hero Randolph Scott as the homicide detective assigned to the Flora Sanford murder case. Part of the reason why the film resembled the novel so well as it did, of course, was that 20th Century Fox hired Craig as a script consultant, after she complained that RKO had done a hatchet job in filming her 1943 Malone novel, Having Wonderful Crime.
Her children visited Craig on the set and attended the opening of the movie at what was then Grauman's (now Mann's) Chinese Theater, on glitzy Hollywood Boulevard. The author, proud of the work, had her family driven to the premiere in a taxi. (Craig had never learned to drive herself, and the family always traveled around Los Angeles in a cab. Given the Liptons' heavy drinking, not having a license seemed reasonable.)
The movie contained the same Carstairs children and the same murderer. However, despite Craig's objections, Hollywood modified her plot drastically, altering the motive for Sanford's killing and removing many of the book's subplots. Even little details such as the number of the prolific police sergeant's children were changed, for no reason. Still, the film was viewed by critics and fans alike as a fun-filled romp, much like Craig's books.
Don't bother trying to find the film in your local video store, though; it's not available at this time. The rights are owned by Turner Classic Movies, and while that company broadcasts the film occasionally on its cable station, it has not yet shown any desire to release it on video. You'll just have to appreciate the story the way that Craig Rice intended it -- in full and in print, 47 years after Time recognized her as the leading mystery writer of her time. | January 2003
Jeffrey Marks is the author of the biography Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mysteries (2001), which was nominated for both the Edgar and Agatha awards. He has also written The Ambush of My Name (2001), a historical mystery featuring Ulysses S. Grant, and its sequel, A Good Soldier, due out in February from Silver Dagger Mysteries. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.