The Magazine

The Mystery of Craig Rice

May 27, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 36 • By JON L. BREEN
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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.