THE CHARACTERS: First to stumble upon George the dead practical joker is Marilee Dixon who happens to see through the slightly ajar door her Chinese slippers at the foot of George’s bed. Wondering what they are doing in there she tiptoes into the room, sees that George is asleep, picks up the slippers and then notices the blood on his pajamas. She immediately thinks of the fight Tom, her husband, had with George the night before and Tom’s rashly uttered threat “I could kill you, Faulkner.” Marilee fears Tom lost control and carried out the threat. She decides to literally cover up the crime, pulls the sheet over the body and arranges the corpse so that it faces away from the door. Then she leaves the room pulling the door shut behind her. She will speak of the death to no one. Not even Tom.
It does no good. Over the course of the novel everyone in the house will enter the death room for one reason or another. And everyone will discover that George is dead. But still no one says a thing. Not even the dutiful butler Bletsom who we soon find out is actually an out of work actor with no experience as a butler except for the several bit parts he’s played as a servant on stage. He’s not the only person harboring an odd secret. George managed to release all the skeletons in the not-so-tightly sealed closets of the guests’ past lives and was ready to ruin them all. Not for money; he is no blackmailer. He does this as a hobby, it amuses him to expose everyone's closely guarded secrets.
Reno Brown is a criminal lawyer tries to regain a letter George has that has the details of someone living in a sanatorium. Someone that Reno was responsible for putting there.
Kitty Riley, Reno’s fiancée, worked as a chorus girl in her youth and knew some unsavory characters. She is looking for a photo George unearthed that shows her in the company of a man charged with murder.
Verna Rawlinson enters George’s bedroom also to recover a damaging letter that has proof of “photographs of Diana in her infancy.” Who exactly is Diana and why is she so important to Verna?
- Cliff Rawlinson, Verna’s husband, is in search of some bit of evidence George got hold of that will reveal the true reason he had to leave England and set up home with Verna in the USA.
The Man Who Slept All Day is not so much a murder mystery as it is a crime novel about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve their apparently well-cultivated and comfortable life. The consequences of not reporting George’s murder to the police, letting Frank know his brother is dead and not even confiding in their own partners or spouses are never taken into consideration by these characters. They only care about protecting themselves.
The novel reminded me of a sort of variation on And Then There Were None. George is cast in the role of U. N. Owen, knowing the deep dark secrets in the lives of the houseguests, invites them to his home to confront them all for his perverse entertainment. Little did he think someone would strike back at him. Many of the secrets are related to crimes, some are only lapses in character but with possibly long lasting damage to reputation and social standing if the secret were ever made public. What Craig Rice (using her amusing alter ego “Michael Venning”) has done with this set-up is to explore guilty consciences as Christie did in her landmark novel, but with considerably less at stake than having everyone be a secret killer. Really what is delved into is the devotion of married and soon-to-be married partners and their complicated relationships. Repeatedly we are told that each couple belongs with each other, that each couple recognizes in the others an example of “true love,” of fidelity over all else, of devotion that take the phrase “till death do us part” to literal extremes.
The most mysterious of the guests is Melville Fairr described consistently as a “shadow of a man”, a ghost, a man barely noticed, an invisible person whose smile was more a shadow than a sign of emotion. He is an living riddle until the final pages when he reveals who he is and why he came to the odd house party. Clearly he will be the detective, but why he is present is more intriguing than the reasons that the guests refuse to report George’s murder. For the bulk of the novel Fairr merely sits back and observes everyone. He makes enigmatic remarks, offers up sage advice, speaks in that typically oracular fashion of the omniscient detective. Yet no one ever catches on that he could possibly be involved in with the law. He is suspected of being a murderer, but never as someone who might solve all their problems had someone spoken up quickly about the crime.
There is one more death before anyone says a word about the dead body in the upstairs bedroom. When all is explained Rice delivers a whopping triple twist. Perhaps this overdose of surprises is a bit too much for all that preceded the denouement. To be honest I should have seen some of it coming pages before I reached the final chapter.
STRUCTURE: The novel is unique in that it takes place over two days. Each chapter is named after an hour in one day with the final chapter taking place at 5 AM on the final day of the weekend. In the “2 PM” chapter each of the characters starts reminiscing about their childhood and the past. They compare their life now to then, drawing analogies from incidents in their past to the troubling problem of a murder that no one wants to report or talk about. Each time a new character becomes the focus the narrative take son their voice and personality. The writing is skillfully handled with each voice wholly distinct from each other. Verna and Cliff have a decidedly British flavor in their syntax and vocabulary, Kitty “thinks” in 1940s era slang popular with entertainers of the time, Marilee views everything through the lens as Tom’s newlywed wife, Tom cannot help but take on the viewpoint of “up and coming lawyer” a phrase used repeatedly to signify his career is paramount. This device sometimes used ineptly in the hands of less talented writers. But Rice is right on target in creating truly distinctive voices for each of her characters from all of the houseguests to Frank Faulkner even to the baffling “butler” Bletsom whose backstory is perhaps the most unusual of this intriguing cast.
THE AUTHOR: Craig Rice created her alter ego Michael Venning when she wrote the trio of Melville Fairr novels. The Man Who Slept All Day is the first of the three books. Its release in 1942 also marked the debut of publisher Coward McCann’s mystery imprint dubbed A Gargoyle Mystery. I mentioned earlier that the name Rice chose as her pseudonym is amusing and that’s because it’s not the first time Michael Venning appeared on a Rice novel. Michael Venning is the name of one of the murder victims in The Right Murder (1941), one of Rice’s favorite books in her series of comic crime novels featuring the sleuthing trio of John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand Justus.