Craig Rice | John J. Malone and Friends | Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak | Melville Fairr | The Ghosted Books | Journalism and the Media | Locations | Politics | Rice's Career

Novels: 8 Faces at 3 | The Corpse Steps Out | The Wrong Murder | The Right Murder | Trial by Fury | To Catch a Thief | The Lucky Stiff | The Fourth Postman | Innocent Bystander

Short Stories: Good-bye, Good-bye! | The Bad Luck Murders | And the Birds Still Sing | The End of Fear | Life Can Be Horrible | Mrs. Schultz Is Dead | Impossible Crimes | He Never Went Home | They're Trying to Kill Me

Films: The Falcon Movies | The Underworld Story

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Craig Rice

Recommended Works:

8 Faces at 3 (1939) (Chapters 1-7, 31, 32)

The Wrong Murder (1940) (Chapter 1-3, 8, 27, 31)

The Right Murder (1941)

Trial by Fury (1941) (Chapters 1-17, 20, 23, 26-27, 31)

Mother Finds a Body (1942)

The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943)

To Catch a Thief (1943)

Having Wonderful Crime (1943)

Home Sweet Homicide (1944) (Chapters 1-11, 20)

Crime On My Hands (1944)

The Lucky Stiff (1945) (Chapters 8, 28, 29)

My Kingdom For a Hearse (1956)

The Name Is Malone

Murder, Mystery and Malone Uncollected Short Stories People Vs. Withers and Malone (with Stuart Palmer) (1950 - 1963) (This excellent collection is discussed in the article on Stuart Palmer.)

The above is a list of recommended Rice novels and short stories. It is not a complete list of her works.

Murder, Mystery and Malone is available from Crippen & Landru, (I am not associated with Crippen & Landru, and have no financial ties with the publisher whatsoever.)


Craig Rice

Craig Rice's work as a mystery writer is easily pigeonholed as "Comic Mysteries". This categorization seems to be all most critics need to say about her work. It is true, as far as it goes, but it says little about the distinctive qualities of her books, or her achievements as an artist.

The comedy in Rice's books is surrealistic, and dependent on complex plots. Let us examine these two points in detail. Almost everything that happens in a Rice novel is surrealistic. The characters, plots, settings and incidents all seem intended to surprise the reader with imaginative newness, and to shake up his or her preconceptions about reality.

Rice is the heir to a tradition of pop surrealism in American culture. Such filmmakers as Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones and other silent film and animated cartoon makers developed an enormously creative tradition of surrealistic comedy. Within the mystery field, Jacques Futrelle, Ellery Queen and Craig Rice form a trinity of surrealistic authors. These mystery writers emphasized constantly surprising twists of plot, characters and events that startled readers by their sheer strangeness. Despite all of this strangeness, everything in their books is logically self consistent. Each bit of plot is carefully constructed to lead logically, within its own terms, on to the next. Although the plots are continually strange, they are the diametric opposite of free form whimsy.

The surrealism in all of these authors and filmmakers often generates a genuinely poetic atmosphere. The rich imagination and creative juxtaposition of disparate and dissimilar concepts forms a poetry in plot. This poetry is a great artistic achievement, although it has not always been recognized as such by establishment critics.

Rice is the third of the three authors chronologically. It is not surprising that Ellery Queen was her favorite mystery writer. The novel length plots of Rice and Queen also share a fabulous complexity, the second key feature of Rice's style. Rice's work involves a complex cat's cradle approach. This is different from the more straightforwardly constructed style of Queen. In fact, in plot styles, Queen's approach is closer to the mainstream of other mystery writers, or at least what those other writers would like to achieve if they had Queen's talent. Rice's tangled plot style seems closer to that of A. E. Van Vogt, and the other science fiction writers who Van Vogt influenced: Charles L. Harness, Clifford D. Simak, Philip K. Dick, and Samuel R. Delany. (You have to have a middle initial in your name, if you are going to be a member of the Van Vogt school.)

Among Ellery Queen's books, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) seems close to Rice's style. Published seven years before Rice's first novel, it has an extreme surrealism of plotting. The chopped up corpses in the book reappear in such Rice novels as Having Wonderful Crime (1943), and My Kingdom For a Hearse (1956). The rural Midwestern opening of the Queen novel, full of a seedy atmosphere partly played for laughs, also frequently reoccurs in Rice. So does the way in which the second murder in The Egyptian Cross Mystery surrealistically echoes the first. The Long Island estates that are the main setting of Queen's novel remind one of the suburban Chicago estates in Rice's Maple Park. There is also an heiress in it named Helene Brad, whose name anticipates Rice's heiress heroine, Helene Brand.

Rice's humorous underworld characters seem influenced by those of Damon Runyon. So do the bar sequences in her books - compare them with Runyon's "Dancing Dan's Christmas" (1932), for example.

Rice was likely also influenced by Phoebe Atwood Taylor's mystery farces, which predate her books by at least 8 years. However, there is an important difference between Rice's plots and those of the Atwood Taylor school. In Taylor, and such followers as Edmund Crispin and Elliot Paul, the farce often seems to come from frantic efforts by the good guys to cover up a crime. In Rice, the most surrealistic things come not from these detectival efforts, but from the unrolling of the mystery plot itself, which is always developing along the most bizarre and symbolically rich directions imaginable. This surrealism is in many ways much closer to that of Rice' favorite detective writer, Ellery Queen. Certainly Rice' complex plotting style owes more than a little to Queen, S.S. Van Dine, and others of the Van Dine school.

Series Detectives: John J. Malone and Friends

Most of the Taylor school featured a whole group of characters doing "detective" work, which actually often consisted of concealing crimes and gumming up the works. Rice is no exception, featuring her Chicago-based trio of lawyer John. J. Malone, press agent Jake Justus, and heiress Helene Brand. Readers today tend to think of Malone as the star of the series, and as Rice's main detective character. The later books focused on him; he starred in a long series of short stories, while Jake and Helene never had solo short story outings, to my knowledge; and he costarred with Stuart Palmer's sleuth Hildegarde Withers in People Vs. Withers and Malone. Right from the start, Malone is the person who solves the mystery in the first novel, 8 Faces at 3 (1939). Jake and Helene are present throughout, but don't really contribute to the solution at the end. (All three do contribute to the interesting detective work in Chapter 6, however.) Both Helene and Jake seem more like wild and out of control Watsons, rather than detectives in their own right.

However, my early paperback edition of Rice' third novel, The Wrong Murder (1940) is plainly labeled as "A Jake Justus Mystery" on its front cover, and its back cover blurb points out that "The Jake Justus mysteries are tops". Jake Justus was clearly viewed, at this early date, as Rice' principal detective, by her publishers at least. He was a handsome hero type, and romantic lead (he and Helene married in this novel). His name is also a pun on Jake Justice (say it aloud). Malone is considered a supporting character. Jake also often gets the viewpoint in Rice' narration in the early books. However, Malone solves the murder in The Wrong Murder, too.

The next book in the series, The Right Murder (1941), is plainly somewhat of a transition to Malone. It opens with Jake and Helene absent on their honeymoon in Bermuda; Malone is clearly the central character, and the viewpoint character for much of the story. Jake and Helene eventually come back, and gradually work their way back into the story, something Rice milks for plot structure in her tale, but Malone is now more centrally the detective.

If Jake is not really a detective, he does have an ability to tell when certain people are telling the truth. He is the only one to believe the heroine's story at the start of 8 Faces at 3 (Chapter 4). In The Wrong Murder (Chapter 3) he is the only one to realize that Mona McClane is serious about her bet. Jake's gift is purely intuitive or emotional, something he simply perceives, rather than reasons out.

Odd man out in all of this is Helene. This Chicago heiress is beautiful, willful, and wealthy. She was independent and dynamic, but never seems to be much of an intellectual or detective force in Rice' novels. Instead she was more like a force of nature, doing wild and crazy things, and complicating the plot with her dramatic actions. (Jake never seemed to be any too smart either, compared to Malone, so Helene's lack of detectival skills is not all sexism on Rice' part.) Helene and Jake are clearly related to the leads in Hollywood's screwball comedies. Helene, like all of Rice' women, was beautifully dressed; in fact one of the most surrealistic things in Rice are the elaborate descriptions of the women's complex, coordinated outfits.

Helene puts in a brief supporting appearance in the short story "The End of Fear", although Malone is the main detective.

Rice wrote about Malone through her entire mystery career. The eleven Malone novels include her first book, 8 Faces at 3 (1939), The Corpse Steps Out (1940), The Wrong Murder (1940), The Right Murder (1941), Trial by Fury (1941), The Big Midget Murders (1942), Having Wonderful Crime (1943), The Lucky Stiff (1945), The Fourth Postman (1948), Knocked for a Loop (1957, based on a 1955 novella), and her final novel, My Kingdom For a Hearse (1956). There are also many short stories about Malone, a few of which were collected in The Name is Malone (1958), Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002), and the delightful Stuart Palmer collaboration, People Vs. Withers and Malone (1963). These Palmer collaborations are apparently mainly by Palmer.

The Malone books have some continuing characters who are not detectives:

The 1947 Pocket Books paperback of The Corpse Steps Out has a portrait of Jake and Helene on the cover. It is interesting to see how they appeared to a contemporary artist. Jake is more refined and good-looking than one might suspect from his descriptions in the books. The artist has captured Jake's red hair.

Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak

Rice wrote a trilogy about traveling photographers Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak. Like the Malone books, these are comic and surrealistic in tone. I think The Thursday Turkey Murders is far and away the best book in this series.

Mystery novelists often give their books series titles; Rice's only use of this convention, in the Bingo & Handsome series, amounts to a virtual surrealist parody of the concept. Each of the three novels is called The Time-period Bird Murders: The Sunday Pigeon Murders (1942), The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943), The April Robin Murders (1958). Making it odder is that the time-period has a different, non-time meaning in the last two books: Thursday is the name of a town, Thursday, Iowa; while April Robin is the name of a woman character in the third novel.

The article on Frank Gruber discusses his possible influence on the characters of Bingo and Handsome.

She wrote three non-series books under her own name as well, including the spectacularly surreal Home Sweet Homicide (1944), and the less successful Innocent Bystander (1949), as well as Telefair (1942).

Melville Fairr

Rice published three books under the pseudonym Michael Venning, dealing with sleuth Melville Fairr. The colorless, dull, inconspicuous private detective Fairr is always described by Rice as a "gray, little man". The Fairr books tend to be grim, moody, and not all that interesting. They lack the comedy, and most of the surrealism, of Rice's other fiction. The middle one, Murder Through the Looking Glass (1943), is mildly interesting, although not up to the level of Rice's best work. The other two novels are The Man Who Slept All Day (1942) and Jethro Hammer (1944). Although Fairr is technically a private detective, his cases are utterly non hard-boiled in tone.

Jethro Hammer is mainly a mainstream novel, which looks back on a complex family chronicle. The tale recalls a bit Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, with Hammer being a Heathcliff-like orphan adopted into a more "normal" family. This non-mystery story is bookended at the start and finish of the novel, by a very simple murder mystery, one whose sole puzzle plot feature is a simple alibi. In The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, Anthony Boucher notes that Jethro Hammer was indeed published originally as a mainstream novel, not as a mystery.

The collection Murder, Mystery and Malone includes two short stories about Melville Fairr, "How, Now Ophelia" (1947) and "Death in the Moonlight" (1953). These are readable but minor tales, focusing on murder in dysfunctional, strange families. They have elaborate atmosphere and emotional nuances, recalling the short stories of G.K. Chesterton. The shootings in "How, Now Ophelia" contain the germ of an idea that will be developed further as the mystery puzzle plot of a Malone tale, "The End of Fear" (1953). The back-story about the life of the killer in "Death in the Moonlight" is a strange, sexually lurid variation on the killer's back-story in 8 Faces at 3.

Rice took her pseudonym Daphne Sanders from a suspect's name in The Wrong Murder, and Michael Venning from a suspect in The Right Murder.

The Ghosted Books

Despite their centrality in the way readers tend to remember Rice, many of her best books do not feature Malone and the Justuses.

Mother Finds a Body (1942) is allegedly by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, although Rice ghosted it. Sometimes its predecessor, Lee's The G-String Murders (1941), is also ascribed to Rice, but this claim seems doubtful. Despite its fame, The G-String Murders is routine, but Mother Finds a Body is a full-fledged Riceian surrealist extravaganza. The concern with restoring a drunkard's memory in The Right Murder, and his numerous plot confusing delusions, finds full artistic fulfillment in Mother Finds a Body.

Rice went on to do a similar ghosted novel for actor George Sanders, Crime on My Hands (1944), which is a pleasing book. It is unclear whether Rice was the sole author of this novel, or whether it was a collaboration with Cleve Cartmill. Sanders had starred in Rice's Falcon films in Hollywood, and presumably Rice met him at that time.

At the end of "Good-bye Forever" (1951), Malone denounces ghost writing. He says it never pays off for the person doing the ghosting.

Journalism and the Media

Many of Rice's stories take place at the fringes of journalism: Rice's lead characters tend to be creators of information. There is also the woman mystery writer, loosely based on Rice herself, in Home Sweet Homicide, and the advertising people in My Kingdom For a Hearse.

Locations

Helene originally comes from the wealthy Chicago suburb of Maple Park, and this is an important setting in such early Rice novels as 8 Faces at 3 (1939) and The Right Murder (1941). Maple Park has vast lonely estates, full of trees and complex paths, and Rice provides some of the most atmospheric writing in her early books describing it.

Rice's settings moved on to the Midwest countryside of Trial by Fury (1941), Mother Finds a Body (1942) and The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943), and then to the Los Angeles location of Home Sweet Homicide (1944) and Crime on My Hands (1944), following her real life move to that city. Rice' Los Angeles atmosphere is not rich, but her Midwestern tales are spectacularly surreal, with Rice taking a special pleasure in comically subverting concepts of the peaceful countryside, honest small towns and naive country people. Rice's other series characters Bingo and Handsome actually move from the East, through the Midwest countryside on their way to L.A., and then to L.A. itself, in the trilogy of novels that feature them, so this Western movement on Rice' part is consciously worked into the overall design of her stories.

"The Murder of Mr. Malone" (1952) builds up a mandala like geometry in space and time, as Malone and the other characters keep traveling to various cities. Also, when Malone winds up briefly in San Francisco, he notes that he has never been to that city. This observation seems oddly realistic - Malone never has been to San Francisco in his adventures - and the assertion seems more like an observed truth than a mere authorial assertion. It is an odd surrealistic effect.

Much is made in The Underworld Story of the differences between the big city, where the reporter comes from, and the suburban world where the press baron holds sway. There is something of a "Chicago and its suburbs" feel to the movie, although I don't think the actual locale is ever specified. The movie definitely takes place in New England, and the suburb recalls Salem - there are remarks about witch burnings in colonial times. The film builds up a complex pattern of relationships among the different geographical areas, including newspaper coverage regions, districts of jurisdiction of D.A's, and underworld territories. Such mandala like geographic patterns also occur in Rice stories like "The Murder of Mr. Malone" (1953). See also the intersection with its traffic light in "The Frightened Millionaire" (1956), which also builds up patterns in time and space.

Politics

The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943) concludes with a devastating satire on Marxism. A leftist character insists that the events of the novel demonstrate the Marxist theory of economic determinism. On one level, he is right. All of the characters in the story have been motivated by greed, and from a broad perspective, economic forces have caused the events of the novel. On the other hand, the immensely complex cat's cradle of the plot mocks any simplistic idea of history. It is hard to see how any simple theory of history such as Marxism could explain the bizarrely complex action of the tale. The whole story functions as a surrealistic mirror of human history, one that suggests that any genuine look at history is going to be surrealistic and bizarre.

This novel seems to be the only instance of a Marxist character in Rice' fiction. By 1943, Rice would be in Hollywood working on screenplays. There she would surely meet the sort of Marxist screenwriters her Hollywood collaborator Stuart Palmer satirized in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941).

There are brief mentions of cultural figures with links to Communism in Rice books: novelist John Steinbeck in The Corpse Steps Out (Chapter 8), pianist Hazel Scott in The Big Midget Murders (Chapter 1). It is unclear if when Rice published these books, that these figures' ties to Communism were known to Rice or the general public.

In The Right Murder (Chapter 4), Maggie, Malone's secretary, is shown reading the left-wing magazine The Nation.

Home Sweet Homicide shows Rice's enthusiasm for Superman. In his early days, Superman was frequently a liberal crusader. It is unclear whether this played any role in Rice's liking for him.


Rice's Career

Craig Rice's work as a mystery writer falls into a number of phases.

Craig Rice' early novels tend to have a Society background. Her detectives gain entrée into this world through Helene Brand, who is a debutante and member of Society. There is a closed circle of suspects built up, in what is almost a parody of Golden Age tradition, all people who were present at an early crime or sinister event.

There are good things in the pre-1942 books: the great mise-en-scène of the opening chapter of The Wrong Murder, and the beginnings of Rice's surrealist plotting technique in the middle chapters of The Right Murder. I also like the bandleader's name in The Big Midget Murders (1942).

She hit her stride with such inspired novels as Mother Finds A Body (1942), The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943), To Catch a Thief (1943), Crime on My Hands (1944), and Home Sweet Homicide (1944). Even the lesser novels of 1943 - 1944, such as Having Wonderful Crime (1943) and Murder Through the Looking Glass (1943), have their virtues.

After 1944, both her productivity and quality temporarily fell off.

Knocked for a Loop (1957, based on a 1955 novella) is somewhat weak.

My Kingdom For a Hearse (1956) shows Rice at her furiously surrealistic best. This strange classic of chopped-up corpses takes black humor at first to distasteful extremes, and then into wild flights of imagination.

During the 1950's Rice concentrated her energies of a large number of short stories, most of which have never been reprinted since their original magazine publication and which I have not been able to find or read. Some of these show Rice at her best: "The Murder of Mr. Malone" (1953), "The Little Knife That Wasn't There" (1954), "The Frightened Millionaire" (1956), and "The Last Man Alive" (1953), which Rice choose for the anthology, My Best Mystery Story. This last piece, like Rice's first novel, 8 Faces at 3 (1939), was based on a dream Rice had. This is an appropriate choice of inspiration for a writer whose best work contains the logic, surprise and poetic feelings of our dreams.


8 Faces at 3

8 Faces at 3 (1939) is Rice's first mystery novel. Its first chapter is one of Rice's memorable surrealist openings. The way the character finds a building to be mysteriously deserted will be echoed in another surrealist Rice work, "The Last Man Alive" (1953).

SPOILERS

Mystery Plot. The opening sets forth a bizarre mystery situation (Chapter 1). It has five components, the deserted house, the beds, the clocks, the dream and the ringing bell. Solving and explaining these puzzling mystery subjects plays a major role in the book's plot:

The solution involves some thinking about time, and shifting of schedules. This creates an alibi for the murderer.

8 Faces at 3 is the first appearance of a plot structure that runs through Rice's early novels. Often times one of her characters is either an impostor, or leading a dual life. Another character, who is often a member of the underworld, or at least with underworld connections, knows about this impersonation, and is blackmailing the first character. There are often incriminating documents, and the underworld character is involved in burglary of these documents. All of this is hidden, but eventually it comes out. The impostor usually turns out to be the murderer as well, motive being to protect his or her secret.


The Corpse Steps Out

The Corpse Steps Out (1940) is one of Rice's less interesting books. The story is one of the more ordinary set of events - at least for Rice - in her output. The novel has a few decent set-pieces, discussed below.

Mystery Plot. And the puzzle plot is barely there. At the tale's start, a blackmailer is shot, and at the end, we learn which suspect did it. There is a decent clue to the killer's identity. But little more.

SPOILERS. The killer has been involved in a hoax (Chapters 32, 34). The hoax is off-trail, a bit zany, and has a Rice feel. The sole clue to the killer's identity (explained by Malone in Chapter 32), is strictly speaking a clue to this hoax. The clue doesn't actually have anything to do with the murders. The hoax and the related clue are more inventive than anything in the book's murder mystery.

Daniel von Flanagan: Debut. The Corpse Steps Out is most notable for the debut of series character, Chicago Homicide cop Daniel von Flanagan (Chapters 17-18). Flanagan does some decent police work (Chapter 18), in attempting to get information on a murder victim. As in the Van Dine school writers, the police in Rice are energetic, competent pursuers of all knowledge that can be gained through "routine" or "standard" police procedure.

My old paperback copies of The Corpse Steps Out and its successor The Wrong Murder call him Daniel Von Flanagan with a capital V. But the next book The Right Murder refers to him as Daniel von Flanagan with a lower case v, and this seems to be the standard form of his name.

Radio. Rice sometimes worked in radio. The Corpse Steps Out has a radio background. Like the later "Good-bye Forever" (1951), the radio show in the story centers on popular music.

There is a tiny bit of information about Old Time Radio: the description of the sponsor's audition room is interesting. It's called the "client's room" (Chapter 13, start of Chapter 14). We later learn a bit more about the deliberately dim lights in the room (latter part of Chapter 15). This episode has a bit of a surrealistic feel.

But the depiction of radio instead centers on the sleazy manipulations of radio workers for power. Sex, crooked financial deals, blackmail: all are grist for those trying to achieve power and money through radio. It makes for unpleasant reading.

Architecture. A section has vivid atmosphere and architecture (second half of Chapter 22, Chapter 23). This section has the surrealism that is a Rice trademark:

The warehouse room contrasts fire and cold; the bridge water and sky.

Reality. Jake and Helene have an interesting discussion about reality (middle of Chapter 22). It especially deals with what reality feels like. This is linked to Rice's creation of atmosphere in this scene, set near Lake Michigan. And the concept of "quietness". Later her short story "The Last Man Alive" will explore related atmosphere and questions.

Links to McCloy?. The Corpse Steps Out anticipates a few aspects of Helen McCloy. However, this might just be coincidence:

The Corpse Steps Out appeared in hardback in March 1940, according to information in the later paperback; The Man in the Moonlight was published in a magazine dated June 1940. It seems unclear that this is enough of a time gap that would allow any influence.

The Wrong Murder

The Opening: A Classic. The Wrong Murder (1940) has a fascinatingly surrealist start. This has a great opening sequence, which creates with astonishing mise-en-scène Christmas shopping in Chicago.

Plot: Ties to the Victim. The Wrong Murder has the best cat's cradle plotting of the early books, although somehow it is not truly enjoyable or light hearted.

Rice keeps introducing new ties between the victim and the various suspects throughout the book. Each tie to a new, previously unconnected character, gives that suspect a motive for the first time. The ties are occasionally interesting: one of them is downright wild. But building ties and motives is a standard part of countless mystery novels. Most of what Rice does with this here is not that striking or original.

The most interesting tie comes out during the meeting with mobster Max Hook (Chapter 31). Hook himself is a delightful character. The Wrong Murder is his debut in Rice, but he returns in later works. The Wrong Murder resembles hard-boiled fiction, in that it shows links between upper class people and mobsters. Also notable for a portrait of an underworld figure: the early scene identifying the victim and learning about his activities (Chapter 8).

Mystery Plot. The book is simple and mainly uninspired as a mystery plot.

The identity of the killer emerges from clues about some documents, one of which is linked to each suspect. Rice eventually makes the documents do a sort of dance, one that encompasses all of the suspects. It is pleasant enough reading, but nothing really special.

The Hook chapter (Chapter 31) also contains the solution to a small but fun subplot, about some clothes (first set forth in Chapter 27). This is the most ingenious puzzle in the book - in fact, one of the few mystery aspects to show any ingenuity.

Links to Other Rice Fiction. The short story "The Dead Undertaker" (1953) also gets Malone involved with funeral directors, as in The Lucky Stiff. This tale is more a little thriller anecdote, than a mystery. Malone compares the events right in the story, to the opening chapter of The Wrong Murder. Both involve huge crowds on Chicago streets, during public festivals. Both involve a surrealistic murder attempt during such a mass festive event. "The Dead Undertaker" is more comic than The Wrong Murder.


Surrealism. Craig Rice's The Right Murder (1941) starts slowly, picks up surrealistic speed in the middle, then falls apart at the end in an unbelievable and illogical solution. The best parts of the book are some surrealistic plot twists in the middle. These twists are some of the first detailed surrealism in Rice's books. They show Rice' full repertoire of devices: This book in many ways seems to be a blueprint for things Riceian, little seedlings of Rice's later surrealistic world.

The opening of The Right Murder seems like a variant on the start of The Wrong Murder:

Unfortunately, the opening of The Right Murder is less imaginative and atmospheric than the start of The Wrong Murder.

In his debut in The Corpse Steps Out, von Flanagan talks about buying a mink farm when he retires. In The Right Murder, his retirement fantasy has changed to buying a weekly newspaper somewhere in the country (start of Chapter 2, start of Chapter 6). This anticipates the hero of Rice's film The Underworld Story, who actually does buy an interest in such a country newspaper (maybe "suburban" is a better description than "country").

Mystery Plot. Malone does some detective work right away, based on the dead man's clothes (Chapter 2). SPOILERS. Malone's solution to the second murder, at the book's end, also deduces things from suspects' clothes.

The Right Murder would be a much better book, were it not for its ending. The reader is likely to feel cheated to realize that the strange events of the book do not really have a logical solution. This finale does not have any one big thing wrong with it, but it is full of both the far fetched and the inconsistent. Later Rice works will have much more creative plotting, complex and endlessly imaginative.

The subplot about companion Louella White comes to a logical solution. Both the main mystery about this character, and the solution given, are comic. It offers an amusing thread brightening up the main story.

True and False Solutions. The Right Murder resembles The Corpse Steps Out, in that it has two solutions:

I enjoy the ingenuity Rice brings to the two solutions in both books. They succeed in adding intricate plot to both novels, and as colorful story telling. But I'm uncomfortable about the way they involve, and seem to endorse, lying to the police.

Trial by Fury

Realism: Small Town. Trial by Fury (1941) is a mystery set in a small Midwestern town. Much of Rice's work is surrealist, but Trial by Fury is one her most realist books. The realistically treated small town setting and its dubious social life recall the mainstream novels of Sinclair Lewis, which also took a jaundiced view of Midwestern American mores. The depiction of the small town is especially vivid in the novel's first half (Chapters 1-17). This half concludes with a remarkable tour of the city by night.

Trial by Fury looks at middle class and upper middle class institutions in the town: the county government, the school board, the bank, a local real estate office, the town newspaper. Almost all of the characters are employees of such institutions. Rice aims for sociological realism in depicting these townspeople. Aside from the decor of the buildings, there is little "local color" or Midwestern regionalistic detail - instead, Jackson, Wisconsin is portrayed as a "typical" small city, one that could be anywhere in the United States. And the people are definitely not simplistic caricatures, or depicted as hicks or hayseeds.

Trial by Fury includes a frank-for-its-era look at the sex lives of women in the town, showing their limited, mainly unsatisfactory options. This too is in a naturalistic tradition of mainstream realist fiction.

Trial by Fury moves towards a finale that contains social criticism of a major problem of the era.

Jackson, Wisconsin seems to be a fictitious city. There is more than one town named Jackson in Wisconsin, but none of them is the county seat of Jackson County, as in Rice's novel. There is a real Jackson County, too, but its county seat is not named Jackson.

Surrealism. The killing at the bank (Chapter 12) anticipates similar happenings in The Lucky Stiff (Chapters 28-29). This is a similarity of story events - not as a mystery puzzle. The fire at the abandoned warehouse in The Corpse Steps Out (Chapters 22, 23) is also related.

Mystery Plot. Trial by Fury is a formal detective story, with all of the detection performed by Malone. He solves a series of puzzles throughout the tale, always by using deductive reasoning combined with investigation.

Malone, with a little help from Jake, uses deductive reasoning to figure out the motive behind the bank killing (Chapter 20). Later (Chapter 23), Malone has a good deductive insight into a hidden aspect of this bank crime.

The back-story that gives a motive to the crimes as a whole (Chapters 26-27) has links to other Rice stories of disappearing and perambulating corpses. Malone keeps tying up stray facts that have been introduced quietly throughout the book, to build up an account of this back-story. This sort of mystery plot construction is always satisfying.

The revelation of whodunit at the end is not fully clued. Malone shows ingenuity in explaining how the killer could have done it (Chapter 31). But Malone fails to establish that the killer is the only good suspect.

Mystery Plot: The Search. The first puzzle in Craig Rice's Trial by Fury is the riddle of the disappearing gun. This is a standard kind of mystery puzzle: the "hidden object that eludes an intensive search".

Rice's solution (Chapter 11) involves the psychology of looking and searching, in the tradition of Poe's "The Purloined Letter", Chesterton's "The Invisible Man", Karel Capek's "The Blue Chrysanthemum", T.S. Stribling's "The Newspaper", William Brittain's "Mr. Strang and the Purloined Memo" (1983).

Related searches in Rice:


To Catch a Thief

Under the pseudonym Daphne Sanders, Rice published the non-series book To Catch a Thief (1943). This is her best novel. It is little known today; hopefully some publisher will reissue it.

To Catch a Thief is not comic, but serious in tone, although the seriousness is handled with a deft touch, and never degenerates into angst or grimness. It has a remarkable poetic atmosphere that is related to the surrealistic poetry of her comedy. The scene which introduces Mollie Casalis early on in the book shows Rice at the height of her powers, combining social protest, surrealism, human warmth and poetic mise-en-scène.

Rice's To Catch a Thief is not to be confused with a 1952 novel by David Dodge, with the same title. Dodge's book was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1955.


The Lucky Stiff

The Lucky Stiff (1945) is Rice's only 1945 novel.

It has two good scenes:

In general, however, it is somewhat weaker than the other books.

The Fourth Postman

The Fourth Postman (1948) is not very good at all. It seems to be Rice's attempt to write a mystery novel with a conventional setting: rich people and their millionaire mansions. This is a typical cast and locale for many of the whodunits of the era. However, the writing is lifeless.

Mystery Plot. The Fourth Postman has some merits. Its central murder puzzle is appealingly surreal. And Rice ultimately comes up with a logical explanation for this oddball mystery premise. Unfortunately, the rest of the plot is convoluted without really being creative.

The Fourth Postman resembles "The Bad Luck Murders" (1948), a Rice short story of the same year. Both have:

Architecture. The physical setting has some charm, especially the outdoor area between the two city houses where most of the characters live.

Innocent Bystander

Innocent Bystander (1949) reads like a scenario for a film noir movie of the era: it even has a finale in a hall of mirrors, like the film The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). The hero wears a sharp pinstripe suit, like many film noir leading men.

A thriller-with-whodunit-elements, there are some simple fair play clues indicating the identity of the killer.

The honest cop is like a darker version of the more sympathetic policeman in Home Sweet Homicide. Both are by-the-book homicide investigators who worship police procedure, lonely bachelors who live in simple apartments with maid service, and who have romantic longings for the main women in the tales.


Good-bye, Good-bye!

"Good-bye, Good-bye!" (1946) is an elaborate but rather grim Malone short story.

Two Solutions. SPOILERS. Malone solves the main murder in a scene with cop von Flanagan, and also solves a subplot in this scene. Malone then solves the subplot again in a second scene where no police are present, giving the true, different solution. This second, true of the solution will be permanently concealed by Malone.

The two solutions of this subplot recall The Corpse Steps Out and The Right Murder, where a false solution is presented to the police, then a true solution is given, permanently concealed from the police.

Color. SPOILERS. The dark red shade of the lipstick used to write on the mirrors is a clue. This is an example of the color imagery used by Rice.

The "lipstick writing on mirrors" is likely inspired by the notorious real-life Lipstick Killer of 1945. However, in real-life the writing was by the Killer, whereas in "Good-bye, Good-bye!" it is attributed to the victim.

Resurrection. SPOILERS. The way the living Robert Spencer is announced as arriving, right after his corpse is found, is an example of the surreal way people seemingly get killed and come back to life in Rice. See My Kingdom For A Hearse.

Psychiatry. The psychiatrist is depicted as incompetent, and also a publicity hound. This is different from the often reverent treatment of psychiatrists in 1940's media.


The Bad Luck Murders

"The Bad Luck Murders" (1948) is an unusual Malone short story.

Mystery Plot. "The Bad Luck Murders" is what Hollywood calls "high concept". In other words, it is based on unusual ideas. Both the premise of the mystery in "The Bad Luck Murders", and the solution, embody unusual, off-trail premises.

SPOILERS. Aspects of the solution anticipate the bewildering identity mix-ups of My Kingdom For A Hearse.

Color. Color forms a clue to the solution: not uncommon in Rice. SPOILERS. In this case, eye color is used by Malone to figure out the truth.

The Poor. The first half of "The Bad Luck Murders" is unusual, in that it takes place among the very poor. This is atypical of Golden Age mystery fiction. Its setting amidst the indigent recalls Richard Burke's Chinese Red (1942) and Robert Reeves' Cellini Smith: Detective (1943).


And the Birds Still Sing

"And the Birds Still Sing" (1952) is a fine Malone short story.

Multiple Solutions. The mystery plot is solved four times through the story. Such multiple solutions recall Rice's favorite mystery writer Ellery Queen. They also recall the paired true-and-false solutions in The Right Murder and The Corpse Steps Out.

Surrealism and Structure. The two early episodes with the Cartwrights show Rice's comic surrealism. They keep interrupting an apparently coherent crime narrative with the oddest incidents imaginable. Being able to link such divergent material with her main mystery plot also shows mystery ingenuity.

The second of these Cartwright episodes surrealistically amplifies the first.

The two scenes with the press also surrealistically echo each other.

Surrealism and Animals. Bird imagery runs through Rice, in the Bingo Riggs tales and other works like "One More Clue". Note also the name of Malone's girlfriend Dolly Dove. This bird imagery also has a surrealistic feel. Rice shares bird imagery with filmmakers Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock.

The surreal comments on the client's mink coat recall The Corpse Steps Out, and von Flanagan talking about buying a mink farm when he retires.

SPOILERS. The funniest animal imagery is when Malone thinks he's seeing a saber-tooth tiger, an animal extinct for millennia.

Architecture. The two apartments separated by an alley recall, in a miniature way, the two mansions separated by a courtyard in The Fourth Postman. Both tales are set in a upscale region of the city.

Links to 8 Faces at 3. "And the Birds Still Sing" is like a miniature, pocket version of 8 Faces at 3. SPOILERS:

Television version. "And the Birds Still Sing" was filmed for American television in 1957. See Michael Shonk's informative article at Mystery*File.

It's a decent adaptation. It sticks closely to Rice's mystery plot and situations. But it tones down Rice's comedy. It also changes the order in which some plot events are revealed, breaking the surrealist rhythm of Rice's series of revelations.

Policeman von Flanagan is a comic figure in Rice's tales. But the cop in the film, renamed Ryker, is instead a figure that represents "normalcy" and social standards - forming a contrast with the strange and morally corrupt figures around him. Such men sometimes appear in films directed by Gerd Oswald. such as the Senator in the Outer Limits episode "O.B.I.T." Like the Senator, he is well-dressed in a good suit and tie. These men express a strong traditional masculinity, too.

Lawyer hero John J. Malone has been renamed Francis Parnell. Parnell recalls the liberal Irish statesman Charles Stewart Parnell.


The End of Fear

"The End of Fear" (1953) is a Malone short story. Unusually, Malone doesn't appear till the second half. Instead, the first half is a thriller-like episode about a heiress on the run.

Heiress. The heiress and her situation in "The End of Fear" recalls the heroine of the film It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934). Both are:

Unlike the heiress of the film, the heroine meets no romantic partner, and has no romance. She has a pure adventure instead, emphasizing her escape from bad guys.

"The End of Fear" eventually introduces a second "wild heiress" into the story, in the person of Rice's series character Helene Justus. She too proves resilient and tough. Helene helps the heroine.

Woman Helping Woman. The heiress is aided by a lower class woman, Violet. Violet helps the heiress for money. But there also is an undertone of one woman aiding another. I don't know how common such another woman helping woman protagonist situations are in thriller fiction. This question is related to the Bechdel Test.

Protagonist as Criminal?. SPOILERS. The heiress protagonist looks like a criminal at first, with much story detail apparently supporting this point-of-view. But later, this situation is ingeniously twisted around, to show she is actually innocent. Such a plot structure has precedents, such as "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" (1933) by Raymond Chandler, and to a degree Under Cover (1914) by Roi Cooper Megrue.

Plot reversals in Rice are common - when they deal with the appearance or disappearance of corpses, or whether or not a character is alive or dead. The plot reversal in "The End of Fear" on the protagonist's guilt-changing-to-innocence is less common in Rice.


Life Can Be Horrible

"Life Can Be Horrible" (1953) is a good short story.

The two hapless young brothers in the tale, recall a bit Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak.

Objects in Movement. "Life Can Be Horrible" is one of Rice's complex tales of appearing and disappearing corpses.

Related: the movements of the turkeys in The Thursday Turkey Murders. They recall the movements of the money and corpse in "Life Can Be Horrible".

Complex Plot - Hard to Explain. The chief interest in "The Murder of Mr. Malone" is the enormously complex pattern of plot, that is built up throughout the story. While the tale has a mysterious killing that is explained at the end, the story is so complex that it is hard to see how a reader could deduce the solution. The mere fact that Rice explains all, and manages to turn these events into a logically explained pattern, is of interest enough.

"Life Can Be Horrible" is a similar work. It too is most notable for its complex overall plot pattern. And it is hard to think that readers will be able to deduce its solution.

Surrealism and Structure. The tale begins with two visits to the house: one by the young men, the second by Malone and his client. The two visits have many parallels, both comic and surreal. And also some plot reversals. The two visits exemplify a common Rice plot structure: repeated events that surrealistically echo each other.

Symmetry. The SPOILERS. The two women in the second half of the tale have much in common. They function as the symbolic doubles that appear in Rice tales.

The events the two women are involved with, often seem symmetrical. Symmetry appears in a few stories by Stuart Palmer.

Color. The two women are evoked with color contrasts of red and green. Red and green are complementary colors. They anticipate the pink-and-green room at the start of My Kingdom For A Hearse.


Mrs. Schultz Is Dead: A Short Story

"Mrs. Schultz Is Dead" (1955) stars a new series of detectives, the employees of a newspaper. It was billed as the potential start of a new series when published, but Rice's death two years later prevented much further development. The reporters each get a small, if pleasant, characterization; if the story had developed into a full fledged series Rice would probably have expanded these considerably. The crime takes place in suburbia, not in the urban precincts of Malone, and Rice was presumably trying to come up with a detective team more appropriate for the Eisenhower era than Malone.

Rice develops one of her patented disappearing & reappearing body plots, in the tradition of My Kingdom for a Hearse (1956). Every new piece of information acquired by her reporter detectives blithely contradicts what they have learned before, to humorous effect. Writing such a story requires plot ingenuity.

The basic setup of the story, a team of detectives showing up at an empty house full of strange events, anticipates the opening scene of her last Bingo and Handsome story, The April Robin Murders (1958), left unfinished at her death, and completed by Ed McBain. This opening scene has some delightful surrealistic comedy, and it is a pity that Rice never extended the novel beyond a few chapters.

The suspects include a young couple, Adam and Sally Schultz. The couple bears some resemblance to Jake and Helene Justus, both in their glamour, and their willingness to do any scheme however zany or extreme.


Impossible Crimes: Short Stories

During the 1950's, Rice became interested in impossible crimes. This interest started with a conventional impossible crime tale, "Good-bye Forever" (1951), that fits into the paradigms of John Dickson Carr's Locked Room Lecture.

Rice soon branched off into her own variation of the genre, however. Such Malone tales as "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" (1955), and "No, Not Like Yesterday" (1956) deal less with physical impossibilities, and more with situations that seem to reflect psychic phenomena, such as dream vision or second sight, erupting into daily life. These apparent psychic events are ultimately given completely naturalistic explanations. The non-Malone story, "The Last Man Alive" (1953), has elements of this approach as well. Rice's last great novel, My Kingdom For a Hearse (1956), continues this trend, to a degree. It is full of events that seem so surreal, that it is sometimes hard to see how they could be explained at all. It is not an impossible crime story, but it has some affinities - one could dub it a "surreal crime" story.

The impossibility in "No, Not Like Yesterday" has links to a delightful, and inventive, non-impossible situation in Rice: the van Deusen subplot in Home Sweet Homicide. The details differ, but both involve the imaginative apparently becoming real.

"One More Clue" (1958) is a more conventional impossible crime tale; it is very nicely done. Like "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" and "No, Not Like Yesterday", it is available in the recent Rice collection, Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002). "One More Clue" fits into a John Dickson Carr tradition of crimes in locked rooms, especially Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and "All in a Maze" (1955), although Rice's mystery plot and solution are original.

Part of the puzzle plot of "Beyond the Shadow of a Dream" involves how the killer obtained the kitchen knife used in the stabbing. The non-impossible crime tale "He Never Went Home" (1957) also has the "source of a kitchen knife" play a key role in the tale's solution. But the details are very different.

The Big Midget Murders has a border-line impossible crime, with the riddle of the locked fiddle case. Rice's solution is logical, and has a certain value as a solution of a mystery. But as any sort of "impossible crime" this solution is unimpressive.


He Never Went Home

"He Never Went Home" (1957) is a Malone short story.

Mystery Plot. The best part of the mystery plot is the on-going saga of the knife. This runs through the whole story, and unrolls in stages. It reaches ingenuity twice: once with Klutchetsky's discovery midway through the story, and later in the solution at the end.

There is definitely comedy, and perhaps social commentary as well, in having a lower-down like Klutchetsky discover something missed by Malone and von Flanagan.

Color. Color forms a clue to the solution: something fairly frequent in Rice.

Links to 8 Faces at 3. "He Never Went Home" resembles 8 Faces at 3, in that:

Search Interrupted by Police. Malone has locked the door of the apartment where the crime was committed, to search it. Then he is trapped by the police, wanting to enter the apartment. This is similar to Jake Justus getting trapped while searching the victim's room in The Wrong Murder (Chapters 9, start of 10). That scene in The Wrong Murder has Kluchetsky the first cop on the scene; Kluchetsky is the first to knock on the apartment door in "He Never Went Home".

The Stash. In both "Good-bye, Good-bye!" and "He Never Went Home", Malone sends his client away to a locale where he thinks she will be safe or out of the way. But in both tales, this stashing-away of the client fails to make its goal. The way Malone's ploy fails in "He Never Went Home", is better, more logical, and more linked to creative plot ideas:

SPOILERS. The attack on the taxicab recalls a similar attack in "The End of Fear".

Ellery Queen. Searching through a man's wardrobe of clothes, recalls The King Is Dead (1952) by Ellery Queen.


They're Trying to Kill Me

"They're Trying to Kill Me" (1959) is a Malone short story. It's a minor tale, most interesting for the depiction of Malone's client in the opening section.

The Client. Malone's client is a rich young man.

His strange menage of women living with him is unheard of, as Malone reflects. It extends the way the man in "And the Birds Still Sing" has both his wife and first-wife/girlfriend living near him.

The client's Madison Avenue look was the last word in high fashion in that era. If this posthumous tale really is the work of Craig Rice, it must have been written before her 1957 death. It wasn't till next year, for example, that the hero of the TV show Peter Gunn (1958) appeared, with his patented cool Ivy League look.

The Killer. The choice of killer, revealed at the tale's solution, embodies a famous mystery cliche. BIG SPOILERS. See my list of stories where The Butler Did It.


The Falcon Movies

The Hollywood whodunit The Falcon in Danger (1943), which Rice co-scripted, is recognizably part of the same zany, surrealistic world as her books. This is somewhat unusual: often times when writers go to Hollywood, their films seem to get a whole new personality, different from their print books. The film opens with a surrealistic disappearance, one that borders on an impossible crime. Later, there are equally surreal re-appearances, in Rice's personal manner. There is also plenty of raucous comedy, including a spirited Texas heiress who helps the Falcon investigate the murders, a little like Helene in the books. It is easy to spot the crook, and the film is nowhere as complicated as Rice's best plots. Still, it is a pleasant viewing experience.

Rice had earlier worked on The Falcon's Brother (1942), with her future collaborator Stuart Palmer, no less. It shows some Rice themes:

The film echoes personal concerns of Palmer's, as well. The anti-racist deconstruction of the stereotypes surrounding Asian servants continues the anti-racist, pro-Civil Rights crusade of Palmer's novels, using similar weapons of humor. So do the dignified Mexican characters. The film is more solemn and less zany in tone than much of Rice and Palmer's prose work.

The Underworld Story

Rice wrote the original story for the 1950 film, The Underworld Story. It is very different from her typical work. It is not a whodunit or puzzle plot mystery; the audience learns the killer's identity right away. Instead, it is a thriller and expose of social corruption. When a press baron's son murders his wife, his father uses his social influence to cover up the crime. Only a small town paper resists.

Many of the newspaper elements here resemble Dorothy Salisbury Davis' first novel, The Judas Cat (1949). Rice wrote a favorable review of this mystery novel for the Los Angeles News, which was quoted on the back of the paperback edition. In both The Judas Cat and The Underworld Story, a small town newspaper goes up against frighteningly powerful business interests, who wage a nearly successful campaign to have them silenced. There are strong elements of social criticism in both works.

The most interesting part of The Underworld Story is the framing of the victim's maid, a black woman. Her dignified treatment conveys a strong Civil Rights message. These aspects of the movie have no counterpart in Davis' novel.

Gangsters. A gangster in The Underworld Story combines humor with menace. He winds up blackmailing and manipulating the press baron and his son, and he recalls the many underworld characters who blackmail society types in Rice's early Malone novels.

He also recalls another kind of underworld character in Rice, the humorous gangster. He is OK as this, but nowhere as good as the wonderful gambling czar Max Hook in the Malone books. Hook is a sympathetic gay gangster, something that I've never seen elsewhere in prose fiction. Hint to film producers: Rupert Everett would make a superb Max Hook in the movies.