Eight Faces at Three is the latest in the reprint line of American Mystery Classics curated by Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Bookshop. It’s the first of a series of mystery novels by Craig Rice starring hard-drinking, hard-boiled lawyer John J. Malone, of which there were around fourteen, eventually.
Holly Inglehart is found, having fainted, in the same room as her dead, disliked aunt, with all the clocks in the house stopped at 3:00. She’s arrested for the murder, but no one really thinks she did it. Malone, Holly’s secret husband’s publicity manager Jake, and Holly’s friend and next door neighbor Helene are determined to find out what happened.
The setup’s a little convoluted. Holly was about to elope with a bandleader, and he and Jake have come to town to fetch her, when they stumble into her arrest and the investigation. Helene and Jake spark and flirt and drink (a LOT) and are the reason to read this, particularly if you’ve previously enjoyed Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man). Helene is one of those “only in the 30s” rich debutante types, witty and determined and wacky. She and Jake provide a screwball comedy feel while they’re speculating on what happened and talking to witnesses.
That’s the reason I enjoyed reading this, seeing Jake and Helene get to know each other. Rice’s writing is spare, giving you what you need but not a lot more. It makes for a breezy, fun read, particularly if you’re a fan of mystery history or entertainment of the period.
The introduction by Lisa Lutz is exactly what it should be — it puts the work in context, provides a brief overview of the author’s career, and tells us why we’ll enjoy it. And Lutz was right, this is a fun, frothy read, in spite of Rice’s troubled later life.
This book was first published in 1939, and you can tell, whether it’s the disregard for drunk driving or the occasional mention of a “Chinaman” and his laundry or the one rape joke that appears as an attempt to flirt. The times they’re trying to find each other and phoning all over town leaving messages will make you wish for a mobile phone. But overall, most of the book makes for an entertaining case, one that you might even be able to figure out. I came close.
My favorite line was this: “Lies there a man with soul so dead, Jake thought, who doesn’t think he would have made a fair, or better than fair, detective!” That’s why we keep reading these. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)