“Murder is not mirthful and there is nothing comic about a corpse,” Craig Rice wrote in a 1946 essay, “Murder Makes Merry,” for Howard Haycraft’s The Art of the Mystery Story. Yet Rice herself was able to make murder mirthful, perhaps because she made it abundantly clear that it was all in good fun. “She never forgot,” said critic J. Randolph Cox, “that the primary purpose of the detective story was entertainment.”
And entertain readers she did. She got serious once in a while, in the novels written as by Michael Venning or in the stand-alone, Telefair, but for the most part she went for the laugh, especially in a dozen or so novels featuring Chicago criminal lawyer John J. Malone and his sidekicks, Jake and Helene Justus. Starting in 1939 with 8 Faces at 3 and ending with My Kingdom for a Hearse in 1957, published two weeks after her death at the age of 49, Rice’s inebriated trio of sleuths prowled the streets and bars of Chicago, vowing that no blonde—or redhead or brunette—would ever be convicted of murder. Mostly, they hung out in Joe the Angel’s City Hall Bar where they playfully tweaked the nose of homicide cop Daniel von Flanagan (he added the “von” so as not to be deemed just another Irish cop). Such antics eventually earned her the unheard of sum (for a mystery writer) of $46,000 a year by 1945 and in 1946 Time put her on its cover, the only mystery writer ever to be so honored.
Rice’s comic touch was ideally suited to her era. When FDR took office in 1933, he promised the country that happy days were here again. After more than three years of the Great Depression, people were ready for a belly laugh. They wouldn’t have to wait long. In 1934, the era of the screwball comedy was ushered in by one unforgettable movie and an equally memorable mystery novel.
The movie was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. This madcap comedy about a spoiled little runaway rich girl and a hard-bitten reporter was warmly embraced by the movie-going public and earned an unprecedented five major Oscars. The book was Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man. “The generation of the Thirsty Thirties fell on it with huzzahs. It was a book they understood, regardless of being a mystery,” wrote Lee Wright, Craig Rice’s editor at Simon & Schuster. Critic and mystery writer William L. DeAndrea agreed. “It… established what has been called the zany, gin-soaked school of hardboiled mystery, where most of the violent events are played for laughs.” Ironically, Hammett never published another novel, although he did not die until 1961, and most critics dismissed The Thin Man because it was atypical of his other work and was the basis for a series of commercially successful movies as well as a radio series.
But others followed in his footsteps. While directors such as Capra and Preston Sturges turned the screwball comedy into a movie art form, several mystery writers aped Hammett’s style in print. His first major disciple was Jonathan Latimer, who published five novels, starting in 1935 with Murder in the Madhouse, featuring Bill Crane, a young, handsome, wisecracking private eye who was equally at home swilling gin with lowlifes or sipping martinis in high society. Alcohol was the fuel, according to DeAndrea, that fed the detective muse in Latimer’s books. It was also a key element in many other zany mysteries of the day, including Elizabeth Dean’s 1938 Murder is a Collector’s Item, which features a trio of sleuths with many similarities to Rice’s characters, although Dean pushed her female character—an antiques store clerk—into the central role and relegated her wannabe private-eye boyfriend to escort duties. The booze continued to flow in Elliot Paul’s 1939 debut, The Mysterious Mickey Finn, and Pam and Jerry North were at least as fond of their martinis as their cats in Frances and Richard Lockridge’s sophisticated comedy-mysteries beginning with The Norths Meet Murder in 1940. If Doan, the private-eye antihero of Norbert Davis’ 1943 The Mouse in the Mountain (and two other novels), is ever hesitant to take a drink, it’s only because he fears his sidekick, an enormous Great Dane named Carstairs, would rip his throat out if he did.
Humor, if not booze, also found its way into the traditional cozy mystery of the early to mid-1930s. There had always been elements of humor in books by Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and John Dickson Carr, but nothing like the out-and-out farce to be found in the works of Charlotte Murray Russell, in which an overbearing “full-figured” spinster sleuth browbeats the local police into letting her lend a hand in solving murders. Humor also was the dominant factor in the homespun mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor featuring Asey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock.” Among the wackiest mysteries of the period were the first of 21 books by two Australian-born sisters, Constance & Gwenyth Little, who launched their careers with the 1938 shipboard murder comedy, The Grey Mist Murders. The lighthearted Hildegarde Withers mysteries of Stuart Palmer featured an elderly school teacher and her (sort of) cop boyfriend, characters who were as popular with readers as they were with moviegoers.
Although Rice’s Malone books are more scrambled than hardboiled, there’s no question that her 1944 non-series novel, Home Sweet Homicide, is a pure cozy. It’s also clearly one of her best books, awarded cornerstone status in the Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library list, but according to her biographer Jeffrey Marks, it was criticized by Time magazine and the serial rights were reportedly turned down by many magazines because of the “impish disrespect” the children showed for the police. Partly because of this, it was just as funny, if not funnier, than the Malone books, even if chocolate malts and cokes replaced gin and rye as the beverages of choice for our sleuths, three children ranging in age from ten to fourteen.
Although the story is told from the point of view of the kids, it’s still an adult mystery, just as two other popular books of the period, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) and Sally Benson’s Junior Miss (1941), are adult stories told from a child’s point of view. All three were made into movies starring Peggy Ann Garner, who was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1946 (the year Home Sweet Homicide was filmed). Some of the racier subplots were excised for the movie, rendering it even cozier than the book, and the result was an enormously popular production that’s remembered today with great fondness, especially for the performance of a young Dean Stockwell as ten-year-old Archie. Unfortunately, it was not available on video as this introduction was being written in summer 2002, although it’s a testament to the enduring appeal of the story that a remake is being considered.
If Home Sweet Homicide has been described as “semi-autobiographical,” it’s no doubt because of Rice’s dedication:
While the characters and situations in this work are wholly fictional and imaginative, do not portray and are not intended to portray any actual persons or parties, I would like to dedicate it, with my deepest gratitude, to my children: Nancy, Iris, and David. If I had never known them, I would not have had the idea for the story. If they had not given constant help and occasional collaboration, I never could have written it. And, finally, if they had not granted their permission, it could never have been published at all.
Unfortunately for all concerned, the similarities between Rice’s real family life and that of Marian Carstairs, the overworked and much-loved (by her children) mystery-writer-mother in the book, are mostly superficial. Like Marian, Rice did have three children, but where Marian Carstairs wrote mysteries to keep her family together, Craig Rice used her busy career to dodge active motherhood. She seemed too often more interested in a lifestyle that involved a drink in the hand and a man on the arm than in the day-to-day rearing of children. She was an alcoholic who probably suffered from bipolar disorder and whose ruinous habits contributed to her premature death. The wonder is that she was able to function at all for much of her life, let alone make the contributions she did to the mystery genre.
If Rice can be excused in any way for her absentee motherhood, one must remember that her own parents essentially deserted her when she was an infant. She was born in 1908 to Bosco Craig, a would-be painter, and his wife, Mary, a would-be sculptress, who named the little girl Georgiana. Bosco was in Europe when his daughter was born and Mary soon joined him, leaving her baby behind with Craig’s mother. Living in the same house were Craig’s half-sister, Nan Rice, and her husband Elton, who, though in their forties, gladly agreed to raise the young girl, not being able to conceive a child themselves. The Craigs retrieved their daughter once for a period of three years before again heading for Europe and handing her off to the Rices. When Georgiana was eleven, Mary Craig attempted to take her back once more, only to have her daughter tell her to “go to hell.” The Rices formally adopted her and she became Georgiana Craig Rice. Eventually she dropped the Georgiana but not the attitude.
Given how hurt she was by her mother’s treatment of her, one can only wonder why she essentially abandoned her own offspring. Jeffrey Marks wrote, “No one questioned Rice’s love for her children as frequently expressed in her letters and interviews, but she appeared happier to leave their daily rearing to someone else, so she could devote herself to her husbands and writing. As her mother before her, Rice never seemed to realize the emotional impact of that choice on her or her children. Having been isolated as a child, she thought this was the normal situation.”
Rice left her first two children, Nancy and Iris, with Nan and Elton Rice, in whose home she was but an infrequent visitor. When her son David was born, the elder Rices didn’t think they had the strength or knowledge to raise a boy. Instead, David was passed from foster home to foster home and spent only a few weeks with his sisters during the first ten years of his life. When Elton Rice died in 1941, Craig Rice returned for the funeral. Thirteen-year-old Nancy had to have someone point out her own mother to her.
Rice convinced her widowed stepmother to move to California with the two girls, but it would be another year before Rice joined them. Rice’s husband at the time, literary hanger-on and future Beat poet Lawrence Lipton, convinced her to send for David, and for the first time the entire family was united under one roof. It was during this period that Rice wrote Home Sweet Homicide.
Some of the domestic details are no doubt accurate. Like Marian Carstairs, Rice was at her most productive during that period, turning out up to four books a year. But much of the rest was pure fantasy. Except for one genteel glass of sherry, there’s none of the hallmark booze of a Rice novel in Home Sweet Homicide, whereas Nancy recalls finding liquor bottles stacked up under a window during the time she lived with her mother and Larry Lipton, also a world-class drinker.
One can only wonder if Rice was merely taking the normal liberties of a novelist in turning real life into fiction or if, on some level, she was trying to create on paper the happy family life that had always eluded her. Was Home Sweet Homicide a disguised apology to her own children or, perhaps, a love letter to them from a far from perfect mother? Or was she simply turning out another of her entertaining novels? Whatever her motive, the result is one of the funniest and most endearing mystery novels of all time, a book than can be enjoyed on different levels by young and old alike.
Tom & Enid Schantz
Much of the information on Rice’s relationship with her family is taken from Jeffrey Marks’ biography Who Was That Lady? (Delphi Books, 2001), recommended to anyone who would like to learn more about a very funny and talented writer.