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.

As an unapologetic champion of the defense bar, Malone is closer in spirit to John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey than to his contemporary, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, whose clients are always innocent. Malone (never actually seen in court) is a defender of the guilty whose contempt for society outstrips his contempt for criminals. He frequently offers his services as lawyer to the murderer he has just exposed. In "The Corpse Steps Out" (1940), his theory of detection is expressed in a variation on the familiar Sherlock Holmes dictum, "It's been my experience that while impossible things happen frequently, improbable ones never do." Malone's malapropisms usually involve mixed metaphors or scrambled aphorisms ("that would be allowing the long arm of coincidence to bend its elbow a little too much"; "Never change horses, . . . even if they're about to lay golden eggs").

The continuing characters include an unconventional police contact. Captain Daniel von Flanagan (he added the "von" on his own somewhat confused initiative, in order to sound less like a cop) never wanted to be a policeman, certainly never wanted to be a detective, absolutely didn't want to be in charge of homicide, and regards every murder as a personal affront. Over the years, he daydreams of other careers: mink breeder, pecan farmer, actor, undertaker, small-town newspaper editor, dude ranch operator. Meanwhile, the friendly but subtly menacing mob boss Max Hook is a Jabba the Hutt whose constant changes of interior decoration styles are a running joke.

Rice's narrative usually begins with a bizarre and inexplicable situation. In "8 Faces at 3" the heroine awakens to find her aunt dead and all the clocks in the house stopped at 3 o'clock. In "The Big Midget Murders" (1942) a midget nightclub performer is found hanged in his dressing room--strangled by eleven stockings, all of different sizes. In "The Lucky Stiff" (1945) a convicted murderess, who has been pardoned just before her scheduled execution, blackmails the warden to let the world think she died--allowing her to operate as a ghost haunting her enemies. In "The Fourth Postman" (1948) three letter carriers have been murdered trying to make a delivery to the same address. In "My Kingdom for a Hearse" (1957) a famous model is really a composite, the hands, feet, face, voice, and other features all belonging to different women--and it appears someone is murdering them and parceling up the severed parts.

Rice reportedly wrote her novels at manic speed, with no outline and no idea of how the story would end. Still, she usually respected the rules of fair play and provided ample clues for a reader sharing her off-center logic to solve the mystery.

THE SINGLE MOST FAMOUS Rice title does not feature any of her serial characters. In "Home Sweet Homicide" (1944), which became a 1946 film with Randolph Scott and Lynn Bari, Marian Carstairs is a widowed mystery writer raising three precocious children (ages ten to fourteen) alone. Mischievous but as angelically well-intentioned as the television version of Dennis the Menace, the children involve themselves in a neighborhood murder case while former crime reporter Marian obliviously writes away upstairs. Though she has nothing to do with the investigation, the kids see she gets the credit, while encouraging her romance with the investigating cop. The characters are clearly based on Rice and her children--considerably idealized. Neglected but benignly so, self-sufficient, and in many ways their mother's keeper, these fantasy kids give their mother a book on parenting as a present. The plot incorporates a negligible puzzle lacking fair-play clues, stoked by farcical complications and willful confusion of the case. The novel has some charm but too much of the flavor of a radio mystery--or the B-movie it became.

RICE WAS INVOLVED in ghostwriting, probably on both sides. Today it's common for celebrities from politics, show business, and sports to sign their names to mystery novels, virtually all of which are the work of phantom pros, some credited as collaborators or in an acknowledgment, others a closely guarded secret. But the practice was uncommon when Gypsy Rose Lee's bestselling "The G-String Murders" appeared in 1941, accompanied by a publicity campaign insisting the celebrated stripper wrote it backstage between peelings.

Rice claimed to have written both "The G-String Murders" and Lee's subsequent "Mother Finds a Body" (1942), and reference sources have long credited her with them. But at least two other contemporaries apparently also claimed to be Lee's ghost (leading Jeffrey Marks to the unlikely conclusion that the burlesque star wrote the novels herself). There is no question Rice ghostwrote the first novel of actor George Sanders, "Crime on My Hands" (1944), with its dedication "To Craig Rice, without whom this book would not be possible," but she farmed some of the work out to sub-ghost Cleve Cartmill.

During her period of peak productivity, Rice's husband was Lawrence Lipton, a Communist, poet, novelist, and Beat Generation apologist. In the "Dictionary of Literary Biography"'s 1983 entry on the Beats, the article on Lipton (written, in a surprising bit of scholarly incest, by his later wife Nettie Lipton) flatly states that he "coauthored twenty-two books . . . under the pseudonym Craig Rice." In the course of their acrimonious divorce, Lipton claimed a share of Rice's royalties. Snidely depicted in the Time article, Lipton is a major villain of Marks's biography, portrayed as a physically abusive husband who lived off his wife's earnings while proclaiming his own superiority as a serious literary figure. Even more fiscally irresponsible than Rice herself, Lipton failed to file the couple's income tax returns in two peak earning years.

Lipton may have been unbearable, but Marks's implication that he was also a lousy writer is off the mark. As boring and irrelevant as his bohemian pals may seem today, the Lawrence Lipton who wrote the Beat Generation survey "The Holy Barbarians" (1959) was a graceful, lively, insightful, and sometimes funny writer. The alcoholic (or marijuanic) atmosphere of his jazz-juiced nonfiction is not that far from the milieu of Malone and the Justuses. This does not mean he was in fact Rice's collaborator. Maybe the editing and proofreading he did for her taught him something.

Rice's agent Scott Meredith was known to procure ghostwriters for clients who were greedy, over-extended, or dead, and it is likely some of the magazine stories attributed to Rice at her low point in the early 1950s were the work of others. Certainly the "newly discovered" posthumous Rice novel "But the Doctor Died" (1967) must have been ghosted--besides lacking Rice's trademark comic style, it fit too conveniently with the spy craze of the 1960s.

Rumors of ghostwriting never help posthumous reputations, but there are other reasons Rice has suffered such a decline. Humor often has a limited shelf life, and just as some of the lesser screwball movie comedies haven't aged well, much screwball mystery fiction hasn't either. Rice's comedy is sometimes hilarious but at other times forced and strained.

By the standards of the current mystery market, Rice falls between two stools: her milieu (big city, gangsters, night clubs) is hard-boiled, but her sensibility is cozy, albeit a coziness fueled by alcohol rather than tea. Though Malone and the Justuses live in a dangerous world, nothing truly bad or painful ever happens to them. In the end, order is always restored, and the characters never suffer or develop in any meaningful way. The current market demands real, often excessive and repeated trauma, even for characters in so-called cozy mystery fiction.

THE INCESSANT HEAVY DRINKING of Rice's characters, almost equally prevalent in many of her American contemporaries, is equally out of favor: Drunks just aren't as funny as they used to be. Then, too, there's been a turn against criminal advocates. Lawyer mysteries continue to sell, but Malone's anything-for-a-client attitude may seem distasteful to today's readers.

Nonetheless, Craig Rice's work still has real pleasures--especially for the sort of reader who enjoys old "Thin Man" movies. The short stories are the best place to start. In some respects, they hold up better than the novels, delivering the endearing character of Malone and the wild plotting touches but sparing the reader the padding of the later novels. The best of them include the frequently anthologized minor classic "His Heart Could Break." "Murder, Mystery, and Malone," with introduction and story notes by Marks, contains a good range of Rice's writing with and without Malone as the central character. (The book's publisher, Crippen & Landru, is a small house that deserves applause for its determination to collect worthy writers past and present.)

As for the novels, the best are the earlier ones. No one whose first Rice was "The Fourth Postman," with its forced comedy, strained puns, and laggardly pace, would be likely to try another. The final pair, "My Kingdom for a Hearse" and "Knocked for a Loop" (1957), are closer to top form, though they are weakened by their expansion from magazine novellas and the obligatory addition of Jake and Helene. All of the Malone and Justus books through "The Lucky Stiff" have their attractions. "The Wrong Murder" (1940) and "The Right Murder" (1941) are a free-standing but linked duo that foreshadow today's trend (regrettable, I think) toward serial mystery novels. The two best may be those that leave the usual Chicago locale: "Trial by Fury" (1941), set in a small Wisconsin town, and "Having Wonderful Crime" (1943), in New York.

Marks ends his biography "Who Was That Lady?" by asking whether Rice, if she could have been treated for her bipolar condition with the medicines now available, would still have been able to produce the wild humor of her books.

He's spotted the often-observed relation of creativity and mental illness, but there's another common phenomenon: the frequent correlation of humor and personal unhappiness. Rice's contemporary Norbert Davis, for example--a less prolific but perhaps even funnier practitioner of screwball mysteries, whose two 1943 novels "The Mouse in the Mountain" and "Sally's in the Alley" have been reprinted recently by Rue Morgue Press--died a suicide at age forty in 1949. Craig Rice was a funny lady, a good writer undeservedly forgotten, a classic mystery author, and a deeply unhappy woman. She's worth remembering.

The winner of two Edgar awards, Jon L. Breen is the author of six mystery novels and writes the "Jury Box" column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.