Craig Rice used a number of pseudonyms in her career as a mystery writer. As Michael Venning or Daphne Sanders, she could produce certain types of stories unlike those the public came to associate with the name Craig Rice. Less light-hearted, these stories constitute serious character portrayals accompanied by psychological insight.
Even the titles she ghosted for Gypsy Rose Lee (The G-String Murders, 1941; Mother Finds a Body, 1942) and George Sanders (Crime on My Hands, 1944) were written to satisfy reader expectation of the public persona of those entertainers. In each instance, the author on the title page serves as the detective in the story as well.
With few exceptions (principally Telefair, 1942, also published as Yesterday’s Murder), the “Craig Rice” style is unmistakable, with its light and clean prose. There is an underlying seriousness (the situation is always a serious matter to her characters), but the story is told in a manner that reveals the comic side of life.
Rice claimed not to be aware of what she was doing in the detective novel or of how she was doing it. In two pieces on the craft of mystery writing (“It’s a Mystery to Me” and “Murder Makes Merry”), she contends that if she really did know what made her mystery novels funny or how to find the solution to an intriguing problem she would be wealthy. She appears to have followed the system of putting a clean sheet of paper in the typewriter and typing until she reached the end of the manuscript, making it all up as she went—no outlines, no list of characters with thumbnail descriptions next to the names, not even a note about the solution. Some writers, she admits, begin with the ending and then write what leads up to it, but she never found this method to work for her.
Actually, Rice probably knew very well what she was doing, but the subconscious, creative method worked so well for her that she decided not to tamper with it by analyzing it. This casual approach to discussing her craft fit the type of novel she wrote; she had been a public relations manager, after all, and her instincts served her well.
The situations in her best works are unusual enough to attract the attention of the reader from the first and to remain in the memory afterward. The victim is found in a room in which the clocks have all stopped at three o’clock; a murder committed on a crowded street corner goes unnoticed; a murder victim’s clothes vanish on the way to the morgue; a murderess on death row threatens to haunt the people who had sent her to jail.
Still, a clever situation or plot device is not enough to hold the reader through a series of books without interesting characters. It is in the portrayal of memorable characters, particularly that of John J. Malone, that Rice excels. Take one criminal lawyer, dress him in expensive suits, give him a thirst for good liquor and an appreciation for women and good cigars, and mix well. In the process, make him careless about money and where he leaves the ashes from his cigars. To top it off, give him the instinct of a gambler without his luck. The result is a description of John J. Malone of Chicago, Illinois.
In many ways Craig Rice’s method was to take the traditional stereotypes and clichés of the mystery field and reverse them or hold them up to ridicule. Malone becomes a parody of the hard-boiled detective, with his penchant for rye, his habit of keeping a bottle in his filing cabinet under such imaginative categories as “Confidential” and “Unsolved Cases,” and the frequency with which he finds himself in a strange place with no memory of how he arrived there. His invariable solution is to repair to the nearest bar or other watering hole, perhaps his favorite, Joe the Angel’s City Hall Bar, and drink until he reconstructs the general condition he was in at the time.
Malone is chronically broke or in search of his retaining fee, playing poker to recoup his losses from the last game, and getting Joe diAngelo to extend him credit for drinks, even to the point of advancing him cash. Maggie O’Leary, his secretary, knows that any expenses on a case will come out of her pocket, assuming that she has been paid that month.
The Fourth Postman
Rice’s 1948 novel, The Fourth Postman, rings the changes on a number of detective-fiction traditions, from the upper-class family of eccentrics to the serial murders. The novel opens with a brief chapter from the point of view of the unknown murderer that sets a tone of tragic suspense. The victim is not identified as a postal carrier (unless the description of...
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