The Magazine

The Mystery of Craig Rice

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By JON L. BREEN
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Murder, Mystery, and Malone
by Craig Rice
Crippen & Landru, 196 pp., $27

IN 1946 CRAIG RICE, a female novelist with a masculine-sounding name, became the first writer of detective fiction to make the cover of Time magazine. Her hardcover sales figures matched those of her bestselling contemporaries Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler. The poet and mystery buff Louis Untermeyer found in her "a composite of Agatha Christie's ingenuity, Dashiell Hammett's speed, and Dorothy Sayers's wit."

But where Christie and Hammett and Sayers--and Stout, Queen, Gardner, and Chandler--are still widely known, Rice has slipped into obscurity: her life and even her name forgotten, her books long out of print. You can, however, get a taste of what she was capable of in "Murder, Mystery, and Malone," a new short-story collection edited by Jeffrey Marks--who is also the author of "Who Was That Lady?", a biography of Rice published last year.

When she died in 1957, a physical and mental ruin at the age of forty-nine, Rice had been in steep decline both personally and professionally for more than a decade. Her death was proclaimed a mystery, but no more so than many aspects of her life: her true name, the number and order of her marriages, the causes of her self-destructive behavior, and even the authorship of some of the books and stories credited to her. But the biggest mystery may be how a writer of such enormous critical and commercial success fell into such complete eclipse.

Marks's "Who Was That Lady?" provides much of the information necessary to solve these mysteries. Unfortunately, its dreadful prose is rich in non sequiturs and dangling modifiers. From a missing foreword to an index in which the page citations bear no relation to the book, the failure of editing is appalling. Still, nothing more thorough and authoritative is likely to appear. Rice was born Georgiana Craig in 1908, the neglected daughter of a pair of expatriate artists. Reared by her father's half-sister and her husband, she added their surname Rice when they formally adopted her in 1921.

Her first marriage in 1927 resulted in two children. Divorced in 1931, she gave birth to a third child out of wedlock in 1932. She published poetry and crime reportage during the 1930s before finding her niche in mysteries. Following a creative burst in the first half of the 1940s, her mental and physical health declined through abusive marriages, financial reversals, suicide attempts, and institutionalization for chronic alcoholism. According to Marks, she was an undiagnosed manic-depressive.

Rice was a person of great charm, humor, and personal magnetism who won and then strained the loyalty of her (mostly male) friends. The agent Scott Meredith assigned her, during one low period, to write short stories in his New York office for eight hours a day, paying her when the work was done. The wealthy collector Ned Guyman hosted one of her weddings and bailed her out financially again and again before he finally lost patience. Her sometime collaborator Stuart Palmer produced, under their joint byline, stories to which she made little contribution. Frederic Dannay (one of the pair of writers who wrote under the name "Ellery Queen" and the editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) encouraged her and published her stories when he could.

RICE'S FIRST NOVEL, "8 Faces at 3," appeared in 1939 and was followed by ten more comic mysteries about a trio of hard-drinking Chicagoans: show-biz hustler Jake Justus, madcap heiress Helene Brand (later Mrs. Justus), and criminal defense attorney John J. Malone. She produced three books in a similar farcical vein about a pair of street photographers named Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kuzak: "The Sunday Pigeon Murders" (1942), "The Thursday Turkey Murders" (1943), and "The April Robin Murders" (1958), a posthumous volume completed by Ed McBain. Under the pseudonym Michael Venning, she wrote three straight-faced and atmospheric novels about a very soft-boiled private eye named Melville Fairr. She also published several novels that did not concern series characters, three under her own name and a fourth as Daphne Sanders.

Her fame at the time was primarily based on the Malone and Justus series. While Jake and Helene are straight from screwball comedy's central casting, their lawyer friend Malone is an inspired creation, whose deductive brilliance, malaprop speech, diminutive stature, rumpled appearance, fiscal imprudence, and Irish romanticism still work well--while the Justuses have become tiresome excess baggage.