Mystery writer Marian Carstairs (Lynn Bari) is hard at work trying to finish her latest novel. Meanwhile her three precocious children, Dinah (Peggy Ann Garner), April (Connie Marshall) and Archie (Dean Stockwell) stumble into a real mystery when their neighbour is found murdered. In between gathering clues the kids play matchmaker trying to fix their widowed mom up with Bill Smith (Randolph Scott) the handsome detective investigating the case.
A cute if inconsequential comedy-mystery aimed at a family audience, Home, Sweet Homicide unfolds in a cosy milieu not far removed from that featured in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). As in the more substantial Alfred Hitchcock classic the charming and safe-seeming suburban neighbourhood hides dark secrets and simmering tensions. Only in this instance the revelations are less shattering and dealt with far more cavalierly befitting the more lighthearted tone. The film was adapted from a novel by Craig Rice: the nom de plume assumed by Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig. Known for infusing hardboiled crime fiction with screwball comedy, Craig also worked as a Hollywood screenwriter penning scripts for two films in The Falcon series starring George Sanders along with the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque (1943). In the case of Home, Sweet Homicide Craig put a fanciful spin on her own real domestic situation. She was also a working mom to two daughters and a son. Alas, her life was not as jolly as that of fictional counterpart Marian Carstairs. Plagued by alcoholism and multiple suicide attempts she passed away through natural causes only a short while away from her fiftieth birthday.
That the author endured such unhappiness makes the story's portrayal of the decidedly quirky Carstairs household that more affecting a wish-fulfilment fantasy. While widowed Marian Carstairs remains the breadwinner it is young Dinah, April and Archie who handle household chores, cook and clean and even find time to set mom up with a prospective stepdad. You would think they had enough on their plate without adding amateur sleuth to their crowded resumé. Nonetheless the kids latch onto the murder mystery with gusto: unearthing clues, bombarding poor Bill with a dozen ideas on how best to crack the case and in a later plot twist hiding an unjustly accused suspect in Archie's clubhouse. Smart, imaginative and wise beyond their years, the child heroes are well written with distinctive personalities although Archie's constant griping about women plays less amusing now than it might have done for a Forties audience. Lloyd Bacon, best known for classic musicals 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), unwisely keeps the focus on domestic hijinks, letting the mystery wither in the background. A second murder cranks up the suspense somewhat, placing the children in real peril but screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert misses a trick by not directly involving the kids in unmasking the killer.
In Craig's novel the kids crack the case while Marian remains almost entirely oblivious. Here however Randolph Scott's no-nonsense Bill Smith theorizes Marian's crime fiction has an obviously 'unhealthy influence' on young minds. He ultimately, annoyingly, puts the precocious youngsters in their place. To its credit the film has Marian and the children score a few points fending off Bill's conservative ideas about education, child-rearing and family. However the ending sides squarely as Bill reasserts rigid patriarchal authority onto a hitherto female dominated 'unruly' household, something likely to rankle modern viewers. Top-billed Peggy Ann Garner, Oscar-winner for her deeply affecting performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Dean Stockwell (who went on to a long career as a character actor, most notably for David Lynch and on cult TV show Quantum Leap) are as personable as always. However the lesser known Connie Marshall is arguably the picture's true scene-stealer often outwitting Bill's long-suffering partner Sgt. O'Hare (James Gleason) who amusingly does not find the Carstairs children as charming as everyone else.