A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini & George Kelley:


STUART PALMER & CRAIG RICE – People vs. Withers and Malone. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1963. Paperback reprints: Award A146F, 1965; International Polygonics, 1991.

   Intermittently from the late Forties into the early Sixties, Palmer and his good friend and fellow mystery writer Craig Rice, with whom he had worked on the scripting of the 1942 film The Falcon’s Brother, collaborated on half a dozen novelettes for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

   Each story teams the crusty Miss Withers, that “tall, angular person who somehow suggested a fairly well-dressed scarecrow,” with Rice’s hard-drinking, womanizing Chicago lawyer, John J. Malone. And all six are collected in this volume.

   Working in tandem, Withers and Malone solve what the dust-jacket blurb describes as “hectic, hilarious homicides.” A fair assessment: Both Palmer and Rice wrote cleverly constructed, fair-play whodunits flavored with (sometimes wacky) humor, and the blending of their talents produced some memorable stories.

   One is the title novelette, in which Hildegarde and John J. hunt for a missing witness in the murder trial of a Malone client and wind up pulling off some courtroom pyrotechnics to rival any in the Perry Mason canon.

   In “Cherchez la Frame,” the two sleuths travel to Hollywood to look for the missing wife of a Chicago gangster and find her strangled with Malone’s tie in his hotel bathroom.

   But the best of the stories is probably the first Withers and Malone collaboration, “Once Upon a Train” (original title: “Loco Motive”). This spoof of the intrigue-on-the-Orient-Express genre takes place on the Super-Century en route from Chicago to New York and features a dead man lurking sans clothing in Miss Withers’s compartment, the murder weapon conveniently planted in Malone’s adjoining compartment, and a combination of quick thinking by the little lawyer and a bizarre dream by the angular spinster that unmasks the culprit.

   “Once Upon a Train” was one of two Withers and Malone stories sold to MG — “resulting finally,” Stuart Palmer writes in his preface, “in Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone, a starring vehicle for James Whitmore, in which Miss Withers mysteriously changed into Ma Kettle.” Palmer and Rice were two of the scriptwriters on that 1951 film.

   Each of these six stories is enjoyable light reading and should appeal not only to fans of either or both series, but to anyone who enjoys what Ellery Queen refers to in the book’s introduction as “madcap capers … full o’ fun.”

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.


[UPDATE] 08-09-09.   The following comment was left by Jeffrey Marks on Yahoo’s Golden Age of Detection group, and is reprinted here with his permission. Jeff is the author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of the Screwball Mystery (Delphi Books, 2001).

   “The stories, delightful as they are, were written almost exclusively by Palmer (a few were written after Rice’s death, so it’s a certainty.)

   “Rice had indicated that although she had not known Palmer when she began the Malone series, Palmer epitomized the character — she thought Palmer resembled him in mannerism, appearance and dress.

   “So she didn’t have a lot of qualms in turning him over to Palmer to write stories. Palmer made a few minor changes to the character. Malone, who had just been a rumpled dresser, now wore colorful ties and nicer suits. Other than that, Malone stayed close to Rice’s version of the lawyer.

   “Rice was very uninvolved in the movie as well, being a ward of the state when it was being made. She was able to use the money to get out of debt and get control of her finances back as well.”