Life Can Be Horrible.
That's the name of a screwball short story Craig Rice once wrote.
It could have also been her epitath.
In its January 28, 1946 issue, Time Magazine selected writer Craig Rice for a cover feature on the mystery genre. It was one of the rare allocades this now almost forgotten writer received for her amazing body of work during her lifetime.
The fact is, Craig Rice was, as a recent (and long-overdue) biography put it, "The Queen the Screwball Mystery." But even that's damning her with faint praise.
What she really was was is "The Queen of the Surrealistic Crime Story." Almost everything that happens in one of her witty, whacky novels is completely off the wall. To Rice, reality was truly just a concept; a weird and wonderful playground where her imagination could romp around unfettered.
Rice twistied and distorted characters, plots, settings and events like a rubber pretzel, yet somehow she always managed to come back to this world, content at having challenged her reader's perceptions of reality. Chopped up bodies vie with elaborately detailed descriptions of womens' dresses for the readers attention, and every glass of alcohol is duly noted. And yet, in their own weird, surreal way, everything does follow its own peculiar logic.
The Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page compares Rice to such surrealistic filmmakers as "Buster Keaton, Chuck Jones and other silent film and animated cartoon makers (who) developed an enormously creative tradition of surrealistic comedy," and to fellow mystery writers such as Jacques Futrelle and Ellery Queen (supposedly Rice' favorite mystery writer) who also "emphasized constantly surprising twists of plot, characters and events that startled readers by their sheer strangeness."
And it's fair comment to compare her to such writers, because her world was a very different one than the one that her contemporaries on the hard-boiled side of the street, such as Chandler and Hammett, created. Possibly the only one on the hard-boiled side who came close to her was Jonathan Latimer, who had more than a few surreal touches of his own, particularly in his Bill Crane novels. And like Latimer's private eye hero Bill Crane, Rice's own series characters, ne'er-do-well bibulous attorney John J. Malone and his pals, Jake and Helene Justus, two endearingly inept Watsons, consumed a staggering amount of alcohol. All the better to deal with surreality of things, I guess.
But Malone and his buddies proved to be a popular diversion. They drank their way through a whole slew of novels and short stories, not to mention later film, radio and television appearances. Some of the stories were collected in The Name Is Malone (1958). She also wrote several short stories with Stuart Palmer, teaming up Malone with his detective, Hildegarde Withers. these were collected in People vs. Withers and Malone (1963).
But Rice wrote more than just the Malone series. She wrote several stand-alone novels, and a a trilogy featuring traveling photographers, the fast-talking Bingo Riggs and his partner, Handsome Kusak. The books in that series are The Sunday Pigeon Murders (1942), The Thursday Turkey Murders (1943) and The April Robin Murders (1958). The last book was, in fact, left uncompleted at the time of her death, and Ed McBain completed it.
She wrote the standalone To Catch a Thief (1943), which some consider her finest work. It is, of course, long out of print. She wrote three other non series books under her own name, including the magnificent Home Sweet Homicide (1944) which was also made into a film. She also published three books under the pseudonym Michael Venning, featuring gray little New York City lawyer Melville Fairr.
Rice also wrote for film, adding several of her bizarre, surreal touches to The Falcon's Brother (1942), with her future collaborator Stuart Palmer, and The Falcon in Danger (1943). The first, in particular, with the early death of its hero and his apparent resurrection and ultimate replacement by his brother, reeks of one of Rice's favourite themes, that of doppelgangers and the dead who don't seem to stay dead.
Rice also found time to write several highly-acclaimed true crime articles, and to ghost a couple of books, two for stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and one for George Sanders, the actor who had played the original Falcon in The Falcon's Brother.
With all these projects she was involved in, it's easy to see why it was said that she was, for a while, almost as popular as Agatha Christie with mystery fans, rivalling her in sales.
Which makes it even more of a shame is that today almost none of Rice's work is in print, while her pals in the hard-boiled school seemingly gather more and more acclaim and respect every year. It's a true tragedy, because in her own way, Rice did indeed do something every bit as important and ground-breaking as the boy's club.
But if Rice's work wasn't exactly hard-boiled, her life certainly was. Or possibly even noir, given that almost everything about her personal life was in dispute: her birth, her real name, her number of marriages (at least four, maybe as many as seven), number of children, and even the cause of her premature death (from a probably accidental combination of pills and booze), the age of 49 in 1957 (or was it 1959?). What does seem certain is that much of her life was a long, slow slide into alcoholism and even possibly madness, that there were a string of increasingly bad (and often abusive) relationships and estrangement from her children and eventual institutionalization. As one wrote in an author bio once quipped, she "wrote the binge, and lived the hangover."
* * * * *
She was born in 1908 in to an artist and a Chicago socialite who travelled frequently. Little Georgia followed in their wake, moving from place to place, rarely settling down, and never living for more than three years with her parents at a time. Indeed, supposedly her happiest times were spent being watched over by her father's sister, Mrs. Elton Rice. It was from her, of course, that Rice drew her pen name.
Rice was a hard worker. She wrote for the papers, radio, and kept her hand in publicity work, publishing her first book, 8 Faces at 3, in 1939
One marriage was to Beat writer Larry Lipton, and another to a lunatic she met in the booby bin. At a funeral, her own daughter had to be pointed out to Rice, who didn't recognize her because she "hadn't visited her family in so long." maybe domesticity wasn't for her. In Home. Sweet Homicide, a single mom mystery writer is hard at work trying to wrap up her latest novel while her three children are ripping up the neighbourhood trying to solve a murder of their own.
In 2001, Jeffrey Marks published what seems to be the first substantial biography of Rice, at last lifting the veil on the life of a fascinating but very troubled woman whose life was a far cry from the delightfully wacky works she's best remembered for.
SCREENPLAYS BY RICE
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