Thu 5 Nov 2015
by Francis M. Nevins
Craig Rice (1908-1957) is something of an acquired taste. She was immensely popular in her heyday, so much so that Time magazine made her the subject of a cover story back in 1946, and her reputation was still high enough more than forty years after her death that a book-length biography was written about her (Jeffrey Marks’ Who Was That Lady?).
Thanks to publishers like Rue Morgue Press, at least a few of her novels are still available today, but no one would call her a posthumous bestseller. What made her stand out among her contemporaries was the way she blended traditional whodunit elements with the kind of wacky humor one associates with Hollywood screwball comedies. In an earlier column I discussed her debut whodunit, 8 Faces at 3 (1939). This time I tackle her second.
The Marks biography doesn’t tell us whether Rice worked directly in radio before turning to novels. But she did serve for brief periods in the late Thirties as radio critic for a small midwest magazine, so it’s no surprise that the background of The Corpse Steps Out (1940) is a Chicago station. Its sensational singing star Nelle Brown, married to an ex-millionaire more than twice her age but (although Rice treats the subject discreetly) rarely without at least one lover in her own age bracket or younger, is being blackmailed by a former paramour on the basis of some, shall we say, erotic letters she wrote him.
Between the regular broadcast of her musical variety show and the re-broadcast for the west coast, she sneaks off to the man’s apartment and finds him shot to death and the letters gone. She goes back to the station and tells her press agent, Jake Justus, whom we first met in 8 Faces at 3.
Jake pays his own visit to the apartment and finds the corpse has vanished. Pretty soon Jake’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Helene Brand and the rumpled liquor-sodden attorney John J. Malone, both also familiar from Rice’s earlier novel, are running around with Jake to find the body, save Nelle Brown’s radio career, expose the murderer, and drain Chicago of its liquor supply.
No one ranks The Corpse Steps Out among Rice’s greatest hits but it’s often bracketed with her mystery-as-screwball-comedy titles. Not by me. The body of the first of three murderees is moved around Chicago twice and that of the second once, but there’s nothing wildly humorous about these developments. I’d call the book a fairly straightforward whodunit, impossible for any reader to solve ahead of the protagonists and pockmarked by one huge coincidence: Jake and Helene are driving past a certain old warehouse when they notice it’s on fire and Jake for no good reason breaks into the building and finds the corpse he’s been looking for.
True, the proceedings are punctuated here and there by screwball dialogue. In Chapter 10 Jake settles down in the apartment he’s temporarily sharing with Helene. “I love our little home, dear….Where shall we hang up the goldfish?” In Chapter 28, as the end comes near, Malone assures Jake that “we’re leaving no turn unstoned.” To which Helene replies: “That’s wrong….[W]e’re leaving no worm unturned.”
Genuine Hollywood screwball comedies tended to dwell on sexual innuendo but Rice keeps it to — dare I say it? — a bare minimum. About to take off on a nuptial trip with Jake, a somewhat casually attired Helene says: “I’d better get dressed, unless you don’t mind my being married in pink pajamas.” To which Jake replies: “It would save time….”
He’s much more of an acquired taste than Rice, but my favorite among wacky mystery writers based in Chicago (or anywhere else) is Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), whom I’ve loved since my teens. Besides having the Windy City in common, Keeler and Rice shared the experience of having been institutionalized, he early in life, she later. When he was about 20, Harry’s mother for unknown reasons had him involuntarily committed for more than a year.
That period had a lasting effect on his novels. In The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro (1926) Jerry Middleton, heir to a Chicago patent-medicine fortune, is replaced by an impostor and railroaded into the state mental hospital where he’s befriended by the genuine madpersons, sweet souls one and all, and nearly killed by an assassin who‘s been hired to get admitted to the asylum and slice him up. The scene where Jerry is analyzed by that world-renowned shrink Herr Doktor Meister-Professor von Zero is probably the most hilarious lampoon of Freud ever committed to print.
About a dozen years later Keeler revisited the nuthouse theme in the novel published in two volumes as The Mysterious Mr. I (1938) and The Chameleon (1939). The nameless narrator is on a mission to collect $100,000 by returning an escaped millionaire to the loonybin before midnight. On his quest he trips blithely through close to a hundred identities, posing in turn as a tycoon, a safecracker, a locomotive engineer, a gambler, several different detectives, several authors, a couple of actors and a philosophy professor — just to name a few! — before this forerunner of The Great Impostor returns to the asylum where, as he assures us, he’ll spend the rest of his days reading British magazines and sipping Ch teau d’Yquem with his keeper.
At the end of The Corpse Steps Out, which appeared about a year after The Chameleon, Rice offers a similarly benign take on asylums:
Malone: “No, a pleasanter place.”
Murderer: “A quiet room in a pleasant place, with a radio set perhaps….I couldn’t ask for much more.”
Severe alcoholism and several manic-depressive and suicidal episodes led to Rice herself spending part of her last years in California’s Camarillo State Hospital and other institutions. I doubt that she found them the pleasant places she and Keeler had once conjured up. As critic William Ruehlmann has said, she wrote the binge and lived the hangover. Poor woman.