Sunday, October 23, 2011

The 43% (Alcohol) Solution: An Appreciation of Craig Rice

Mayor: Drebin, I don't want any more trouble like you had last year on the South Side. Understand? That's my policy.
Frank: Yes. Well, when I see 5 weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people, I shoot the bastards. That's my policy.
Mayor: That was a Shakespeare-In-The-Park production of Julius Caesar, you moron!!! You killed 5 actors!!!
-The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Welcome, readers, to another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! I’ve really been spoiling you all with these articles of late, where I (somehow) manage to persuade a fellow partner in crime to collaborate on an article, be it a book review, a general discussion, or a fusion of the two. I didn’t have to resort to blackmail or Mike Hammer techniques this time, but I did manage to persuade Jeffrey Marks to join me today. In case you didn’t know, Jeff is the author of an excellent biography of Anthony Boucher, a personal hero of mine. I reviewed the book earlier in this blog—in fact, it was the first non-fiction book I reviewed. Also, Jeff is the author of Who Was That Lady?, the official biography of mystery author Craig Rice. And that is why we’re here today, to have a discussion about Rice.

I’m not up-to-date with biographical details (yet), so I can’t tell you where Craig Rice was born, who her parents were, and what her favourite colour was. But I can tell you this much: she was the author of some of the funniest mysteries I’ve ever read, and managed to be the first female mystery author to appear on the cover of Time magazine— which is quite an accomplishment, n’est-ce pas? Unfortunately, her life was far too short, dying before her 50th birthday in 1957.

Jeff, thanks a lot for agreeing to join me today!

***

Actually, Patrick it was exactly those questions which led me to write about Rice. No one could answer these easy questions about her background. I was fascinated how anyone could navigate the 20th century without people knowing where/when she was born, who her parents were, how many times she married, etc. The people who wrote about her left more questions than they answered, and no two people agreed on the details.

So just doing a bit of research led me to want to learn the answers to these questions. Of course, once I was able to contact the family, they were both surprised and shocked to find that this was an area of controversy. They knew all the answers and had the documentation to prove it!

Yes, she was the first woman mystery author to appear on the cover of Time. She put some noses out of joint with that coup. Other authors felt that they were much more worthy of the honor, and were not too quiet about it.

However, the odd thing about this honor and Craig is that she lied to the interviewers. She made up the most ridiculous claims and merrily let the writers put them in print. Of course, when it all came to light, (her mother Mary was all too happy to inform the writers) Time was not amused. They covered a few other events in Craig's life, but they didn't bother to hide the snarkiness about their attitude towards her.

***

Ha! That sounds like a riot! It also reminds me of another anecdote about Rice, who apparently used a copy of her book The Lucky Stiff instead of a Bible at one of her wedding ceremonies! (Talk about hubris!)

It’s very little wonder that out of Rice’s pen were born the stories that starred John J. Malone. These are simply the most alcohol-sozzled tales I think I’ve ever read (the only serious challenger being Mayhem in B Flat by Elliot Paul, which wasn’t a real mystery in my view). Craig Rice managed to craft clever mysteries all while looking at the world through the bottom of a glass—be it brandy, whisky, or any of a wide variety of drinks!

The Corpse Steps Out remains a favourite of mine. It was the first Rice I read, and I knew right away that I’d stumbled over something special. It's all about this young woman, something of a radio star, named Nelle Brown, who is being blackmailed. When she goes to try and bluff the blackmailer, Paul March, out of the incriminating letters she discovers his corpse on the kitchen floor of his apartment and no letters are in sight anywhere... After she leaves, Jake Justus, her manager, goes looking for her, and eventually comes to the apartment. He too finds the corpse, comes to the conclusion that Nelle is the guilty party, and tries to make sure she hasn't left any evidence behind before ditching the joint.

But by the next morning, nobody has found the body. Jake tries a dirty trick by phoning the landlady and asking her to wake the blackmailer up, but she announces that March isn't home. When Jake sneaks back into the dead man's apartment, he finds the corpse has apparently gone out for a stroll- it's nowhere to be found, and the kitchen floor, stained with blood yesterday, is clean!

Puzzled, he turns to socialite Helene Brand and John J. Malone... This begins a series of mix-ups involving everything from arson to the illegal transportation of dead bodies. Jake and Helene, who apparently met in the first book of the series, 8 Faces at 3, decide they’ll get married, but they have Murphy’s Law to contend with, as attempt after attempt are mercilessly thwarted by the cruel hand of Fate.

What makes The Corpse Steps Out such a triumph is not just the brilliant sense of humour, but also the wonderful mystery in it. It’s not a mind-blowing twist that revolutionised the genre, but it’s a good and fairly-clued twist, which is hard to pull off in a comic detective story. And this really is a comic detective story. For instance, consider this description of a character named Joe McIvers, as Jake thinks the following:

McIvers took it gloomily but nicely; everyone always insulted him just as a matter of course. It was like the Armenians, Jake thought, people were always massacring them because it seemed so suitable. There were some disconsolate individuals who were born to be abused; they either grew up to be Armenians or account executives in advertising agencies.

That right there is gold, and all this considered together certainly explains to my satisfaction why Craig got the honour of getting onto Time’s cover!

***

Patrick, that's right. She used a copy of The Lucky Stiff for wedding #4 instead of the Bible. She also had a wedding cake with little skulls around the edges instead of roses and held the ceremony in the library of Ned Guymon, a rather famous collector in SoCal. That was shortly after the Time article and the end of her marriage to Larry Lipton, who would later become a beat poet (and was the father of James Lipton, of Inside the Actors Studio fame.)

The Corpse Steps Out is perhaps my favorite as well. For me, in this book, the characters are well-drawn, the plot is well done and the drinking is present, but not overwhelming. I have to say that Trial By Fury, which is the Queen-Haycraft selection of her books, has too much drinking for me. While an occasional drink and its effects can be funny, falling down drunk is just not that amusing to me. A lot of that (at least in film) seemed to stem from the Nick and Nora model, where alcohol and its aftermath seemed to play a large part in the action. I have to wonder if all of that would be as socially acceptable today.

Craig was never very kind to the corpses in her books. In The Corpse Steps Out, the body is moved hither and yon throughout the book. Having Wonderful Crime has a headless corpse, and My Kingdom for a Hearse is predicated around the idea of each of the various parts of a composite model being cut off and mailed to the studio. In writing about it, the premise sounds more like something from a horror movie, but in Craig's hands, it becomes a work of comic genius. I don't know how she quite took such terrible topics and made people laugh.

The humor is the type that I enjoy most. It's not forced. It comes naturally from the characters and situation. They react as others would, puzzled, worried, and yet at the same time the worst of things keep happening to them. So often in mysteries, I find that any humor feels very forced. Often the character thinks that he's witty and keeps spouting bon mots for the reader. Craig really worked in the screwball mode, a perfectly reasonable situation where anything and everything which could possibly go wrong does. And the reader is taken on a wonderful trip where they can empathize with these poor characters and yet laugh at the ridiculous situations.

In a very telling note in The Corpse Steps Out, the murderer was actually given the same nickname as Craig's mother. I don't think that was any coincidence. Craig had a very difficult early life, and while she swore that it made no difference to her whatsoever, these telling clues came out in her work repeatedly. None of her protagonists has a parent. They may have uncles or aunts or guardians, but never do we meet Ma Malone or Pa Justus. It's very telling.

***

I have no idea where I read this quote anymore, but I once read somebody say that Craig Rice wrote the binge but lived the hangover. It describes her tragic life and her extremely funny books rather well.

I love Rice’s comedy, but I love it even more when you compare it to comedies that are made nowadays. Characters are often as obnoxious as possible, and the people involved seem to think that the more obnoxious everyone acts, the funnier everything gets. Rice’s book involves the craziest situations, but what makes them so funny is that they really are often the most logical thing to do, and the characters see no other way out. It’s particularly evident in The Corpse Steps Out, where a few careless words tossed out over a meal will return to haunt our characters later on in the book, nearly getting them arrested over an event practically irrelevant to the main plot!

In a way, the comedy reminds me of The Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen gets away with saying the most outrageous things because he does it with a straight face and apparently without realizing the implications of his words. A very fun line is when his character, Frank Drebin, in the kitchen with Jane, who tells him she’s boiling a roast (you have to see it to believe it), and asks how hot and wet he’d like it. “Very hot and very wet,” comes the reply. “Mind if I slip into something more comfortable?” he asks afterwards—only to appear in a different suit and tie!

I find your comment about Rice and her parents very interesting, and here I’d like to bring up her masterpiece, Home Sweet Homicide. It is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read, but it’s interesting to see the character of the mystery-writing mother Marian Carstairs. She is far too busy to really notice her children, Dinah, April, and Archie. She is always hammering away at the typewriter, working on a new book, and whenever she finishes, it’s a true celebration for the children. It seems pretty obvious to me that the family is based on Rice’s own, although I have no idea how far you can take this comparison! The kids decide to marry their mother off to the eligible Lieutenant Bill Smith, who never really stands a chance, and the book ends on a happy note, with children and mother happily together with Bill as the new addition to the family. I wonder whether it’s the kind of family Rice wished she had. The book seems like a very personal one for her children, and it seems like it contains a note of apology in it from their mother, who doesn’t seem to have always been the “ideal” mother!

When Home Sweet Homicide was adapted into a film, unfortunately, this angle was lost—this is partly due to the adaptation process, which is after all someone’s interpretation of Rice’s words, but I think the very short running time was at fault here too. It’s a genuine shame, because the actors cast as the children were absolutely perfect in their roles—I particularly loved Dean Stockwell as Archie and Connie Marshall as April.

***

I would say that the quote is very accurate. She's often compared to Dorothy Parker as well, which is fairly apt. Parker had bad choices in men, drank too much, but was incredibly talented and witty.

In order to appreciate the type of humor Craig wrote, I went back to the 1930s and the screwball comedy movies being made. "Bringing up Baby" "His Girl Friday" "The Philadelphia Story" are all examples of the funny, madcap situational comedies made then, and the general idea of a normal situation gone hideously awry is about the same.

Interestingly, her Bingo and Handsome books follow the same formula, more or less, but the books under her Michael Venning name are more psychological dramas. I would include those more like a Charlotte Armstrong or Margaret Millar. Very different in tone and plot.

One of the most memorable moments of my life was sitting down and watching the movie version of Home Sweet Homicide with Rice's children. I wish I'd been able to record their commentary as the movie went on. Of course, it was fiction, pleasant fiction, one of them said. There were 3 children, the genders were the same along with birth order. But that was about where it ended. They didn't have a special language, they didn't really have many years living with Craig, and they certainly didn't need to help her to find a husband! I would definitely say that there was some wish fulfillment in the book, how things might have been, had Craig been a more traditional parent.

The parts which talk about Marian's writing habits were fairly close to reality. She typed her manuscripts, did not take notes or outline, and wrote pretty much non-stop until she was done. That's one of the things that made Ed McBain's completion of The April Robin Murders to be such a feat; he had nothing to go on other than her incomplete manuscript.

I always despair of Hollywood's treatment of good books. It is better than Having a Wonderful Crime, where the movie only retained Malone, Jake, and Helene. The plot was entirely new!

***

Of course, films are films and books are books, so I always expect some small changes to make a book work better as a movie… but if you’re going to change everything, why bother adapting the book? The only reason for this vampirism seems to be money. The story won’t sell by itself, so slap a famous author’s name and the name of one of their stories on it, and you have yourself a true classic in the finest tradition of The Lawnmower Man.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read as much of Rice as I would like, and I have only read her work under the Rice pseudonym—although your comparison with Margaret Millar interests me, as I adored How Like an Angel, my first encounter with Millar and a very promising one at that. However, I would like to linger a bit longer on Home Sweet Homicide, because it’s such a marvellous book—it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of my new favourites. One of its most interesting aspects is that alcohol, usually so prominent, is barely present in the novel. There’s an innocent sherry at meal-time, I believe, but apart from that, gin, whisky, and vodka are replaced by chocolate malts, Coke, and cookies.

The book is told entirely from the perspective of the three Carstairs children (Dinah, April, and Archie) although the narration is third-person. It’s a very interesting and convincing portrait of the world through the eyes of a child, where “Mother says so” is the authoritative word on everything. The oldest child, Dinah thinks of herself as the “grown up”, but her spin on things is also rather immature and naïve, such as the conviction that the police are wrong because it’s what always happens in Mother’s books.

That’s one of the book’s high points— it’s a high-spirited parody of the mystery genre, with children acting as the detectives and using their mother’s mystery novels as a reference frame for how the real-life investigation should go. And throughout all this hijinks, Rice manages to plant clues and tell a good mystery story, all while keeping that vivacious tone. And finally, there’s a great tidbit for fans of John J. Malone, Jake Justus, and Helene Justus (née Brand), when near the end of the book, it’s revealed that Marian Carstairs knows Jake Justus, thus setting this story in the same madcap universe as the John J. Malone stories.

Incidentally, the treatment of Rice in Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder puzzles me, where he dismisses her with a single throwaway reference: “Successful comic crime stories, short or long, are rare. One turns with a shudder from the many Holmes parodies, and with not much more cheerfulness from the conscientiously crazy detective stories of the English Pamela Branch and the Americans Craig Rice and Elliot Paul…” Why this dismissal? It’s not that Symons lacked a sense of humour, and he praised the work of Colin Watson. I suppose it’s merely an expression of personal preference, but I read Elliot Paul’s Mayhem in B Flat earlier this year, and to be honest, Rice is miles above his work. (I wonder if the two were rivals back in the day?) Paul is just as alcohol-sozzled as Rice, but the mystery is just a framework for craziness, and the solution was a cop-out “mysterious poison unknown to science”. In short, Paul could make you laugh but couldn’t construct a good plot because the craziness distracted him. Rice was able to both construct a good mystery and have her characters run crazily in circles. She deserves to be better known.

***

I haven't the faintest idea why they do that. I've seen them take a book, keep the title, and remove everything else down to the characters. I don't know why they don't just change the title and call it original.

It's probably best to read Craig in small doses. It sounds like you've read most the best books. The Venning titles are another beast altogether. I think that they were Craig's response to her "literary" husband who felt that mysteries were beneath him. So she wrote these books, part psychological study, part mystery. Ironically, Jethro Hammer deals with the loss of parents and adoptions, but even so, I don't get the feeling that she really had a conscious thought that all of this applied to her own life as well.

Home Sweet Homicide as well as the Venning books lacked in alcohol. I think that the Malone books were a bit closer to her own life and she wrote them with all the booze she could, especially rye, which is something I've never had.

It's difficult to write a good mystery from the point of view of a child. It is tough to get that right touch of innocence and grown up. I think that the Bradley books about Flavia DeLuce are wonderful and they have a similar feel to them. Home Sweet Homicide definitely has the right touch, and it's such a departure from Craig's normal works.

I think it was hard for the critics of that generation to write objectively about Craig. They saw the humorous books, but they also saw the mess that she'd made of her life. It would be hard to give praise to her portrayal of alcohol when you knew that it brought about a person's downfall. However, in hindsight, she had a rare gift of writing humorous mysteries, which is a very rare gift. I can think of very few authors who do it and do it well. Some authors give me a chuckle but few make me laugh like Craig.

***

I’d have to agree—Craig Rice makes me laugh uproariously, all while constructing a solid mystery. Sometimes the mystery is weaker, like in My Kingdom for a Hearse, where John J. Malone basically makes a few lucky guesses and chooses to interpret some facts in certain ways. However, I can’t honestly say that I’ve read a bad book by Rice. She truly had a talent to entertain and it’s sad that her life was such a tragic one.

Fortunately, you can find books by Rice on the Internet— www.abebooks.com is a veritable treasure chest! The Rue Morgue Press will soon be publishing the first John J. Malone book, 8 Faces at 3. They have already published Home Sweet Homicide in an excellent edition I highly recommend. And Rice is starting to make her way into the world of e-books. I recall seeing one in which she was called a “Noir Master”, but in her drunken universe, I fail to see much noir anywhere! Can we look forward to any more advances on this front, Jeff?

***

Some of her mysteries are weaker, but in all they are clued and plotted. Of course, the only one in which the plot is not fairly clued and plotted is The Wrong Murder, in which the reader knows from the title that the character most likely to be the murderer will not be.

I always hate to see a writer's life end too early, especially since I realized earlier this year that I'm now older than Rice was when she died.

The estate is working with Rue Morgue to bring out more titles, and to bring out the Malone titles as e-books. Because Rice was not a good recordkeeper, some of the copyrights expired and some of her books have fallen into the public domain. So the book you saw, The Lucky Stiff, is in the public domain, and someone who likely has never read the book labeled it a Noir Classic. I'm working with the estate to bring the non-Malone books to the electronic world. I hope to have the first of the Bingo-Handsome books, The Sunday Pigeon Murders, out in e-book form next week, followed by Innocent Bystander and then The Thursday Turkey Murders.

***

Thank you for clearing this up, Jeff—it sounds like fans of Craig Rice have much to look forward to! Once again, thanks a lot for joining me today; I’ve had a blast discussing the wonderful world of Craig Rice’s writing.

6 comments:

  1. Great discussion. Another humorous mystery writer Rice kind of reminds me of is Joyce Porter, of Inspector Dover fame--in the sense that they are funny but yet at the same time they maintain a strong mystery element in their books.

    I guess we all vary in out tastes, but I find Conyth Little, for example, absolutely unbearable, but like Craig Rice. I think Little too much about "wacky, madcap humor" (so did Jeff's other subject Anthony Boucher). Rice is genuinely funny, but she keeps you reading because you really want to know the answers too. At least in my experience.

    My favorite so far is still Trial by Fury, because I like that portrait of smaller town life so much.

    I don't think Symons liked humor that much! Colin Watson he loved for his acid satire directed against the English mystery. Craig Rice probably was too amiable for him. When Symons tried humor it usually didn't work too well. He satirized a the amateur detective in his his first mystery, The Immaterial Murder Case, with an amateur detective named Teak Woode. As the name indicates, it's rather heavyhanded!

    Rice reminds me some of Gladys Mitchell, as I think Jeff mentioned. All the stuff about dismembered bodies reminds me of Mitchell's Mystery of a Butcher's Shop.

    I was struck when Jeff mentioned that people didn't know when Rice was born, her parents, her marriages. That's the same with John Street! People don't drink as much in his books, though! They do spend a lot of time in pubs, however. Street hated cocktails, being a beer and whiskey and soda man. But Carr said he could drink more alcohol without showing the effects than anyone he knew and he always treated Detection Club members to drinks. He has one story where an adulterous couple are poisoned on a yacht with a bottle of Gin Blimp, the Connoisseur's Cocktail. I think Street felt they kind of deserved it, for drinking such a concoction!

    You are right, I think, mystery writers do have a hard time doing children (murder and children can make an awkward juxtaposition, so so often in mysteries all these couples don't have children). Rice nails it, like, as Jeff mentioned, Alan Bradley in the Flavia de Luce books.

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  2. I'm a big fan of Rice, although I've not managed to read all of her work (it all depends on finding reasonably priced copies, which isn't always easy). A number of the Malone/Justus books, THE THURSDAY TURKEY MURDERS and some of the short stories (HIS NAME IS MALONE)is what I've managed so far.

    She can be howlingly funny, but this can shade into black comedy and at time becomes almost nightmarish. TRIAL BY FURY could quite easily be rewritten as a noir, with the hero digging himself ever deeper into trouble as he tries to clear himself.

    The question of alcohol is perhaps one of the reasons that her stuff seems to have gone a little out of fashion. The comparison with Nick & Nora is interesting. They've always reminded me of a couple of friends of mine who were heavy drinkers. Although they seemed happy to view the world through a slight haze, when they were eventually persuaded by a doctor to cut back on their consumption they did so without any real trouble. They weren't drinking to blot out some awful memory, they did it because they enjoyed drinking. In comparison, Jake, Helene and John can almost seem like borderline alcoholics at times. Carr's characters are fond of a drink, and can get totally steamed now and then, but you don't feel that they go to bed drunk every night.

    As far as mysteries from the point of view of kids--what about Gladys Mitchell's THE RISING OF THE MOON? One of the best books of that kind that I've ever read.

    I hope that someone decides to bring Rice's books to the screen (TV or film). The booze could be a problem, although I think that there are ways around that. In a world of mystery writers who think that gloomy means serious, she is a breath of fresh air, and she doesn't deserve to languish on the antiqurian/second hand book shelf.

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  3. Congrats, Patrick! This is, perhaps, your best collaboration to date, or, at least, the one I enjoyed reading the most.

    As you know, I also count Craig Rice among my personal favorites for pretty much the same reasons mentioned by all of you. Sexton Blake noted that she could be howlingly funny, but shade into dark comedy bordering on nightmarish sequences – which is when I love her the most. It's really a gift to be able to handle both comedy and a darker, more serious subject without reducing the impact of either.

    I've also been fascinated with the fact how all, but one, of her detectives function more as a team than conforming to the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson model – which was, as far as I can tell, a rather unique approach at the time.

    My favorite Craig Rice novel remains Home Sweet Homicide, which is, as Barry Ergang once said, one of the few books you simply never want to end, because there's no sequel. I even want to go as far and say that it's one of my favorite books regardless of the genre (alongside The Never-Ending Story).

    This article also reminded me that I have a Dutch writer from the 1930s on my TBR pile who comes across as a very Ricean mystery writer. I have to take a stab at him before the end of this year.

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  4. Curt, your comparison to Gladys Mitchell is interesting. Can't say I thought of it, but then again, I've only read 'Death at the Opera' by her...

    Sextonblake, I entirely agree with you, but I can't express an opinion about THE RISING OF THE MOON just yet, seeing as I haven't read it.

    TomCat, glad you enjoyed this post, which was born thanks to an idea from our very own Curt Evans. I agree about Home Sweet Homicide... such a splendid read!

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  5. Fascinating stuff - congrats to both you Patrick and Mr Marks - truly fascinating. It's been an age since I read anything by Rice but I certainly want to remedy that now. A really excellent post.

    Cheers,
    Sergio

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  6. Sergio, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

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