The Magazine

The Mystery of Craig Rice

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