Thursday, May 10, 2012

Forgotten Books: Having Wonderful Crime by Craig Rice

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Having Wonderful Crime

I've just reread Craig Rice's 1944 novel Having Wonderful Crime. Rice was, of course, the grand dame of mystery mixed with screwball comedy. She was on the cover of Time in the late Forties and was considered one of the dominant forces in the mystery fiction of the time. But she had demons that were only exacerbated by her alcoholism and wedded up a number of times, once to a man who allegedly did some of her writing or declared that her writing was actually his. The rumors vary.
Having Wonderful Crime is larky in its plotting and typically smart-ass in its dialogue. Customers got what they paid for but beneath the frivolity (which is quite amusing) there's a darkness that makes the drinking scenes (everybody is at least half drunk in a Rice novel) not so much fun.
Rice opens the book with a long scene involving a man who lacks the strength to get out of bed. He is beseiged by the demons and terrified of what he might have done. This is one of the most powerful morning-after scenes I've ever read. I think most alcoholics would agree with me. Then her character, the always inebriated lawyer-slueth John J. Malone of Chicago, must do his thing.
As an aside the book made a frothy B-movie. From IMDB:" Lawyer Malone's two zany friends embroil him in detective work once too often, and the police are after all three. So Malone must accompany Jake and beautiful Helene on their honeymoon at rustic Lenhart Lodge. There, they plunge into a broad burlesque of murder mystery cliches, with rapid-fire wisecracks, double takes, and every sight gag known to Hollywood."
One thing the movie couldn't get to were Rice's social perceptions. There's a scene in which Rice (using interior monologue) assesses a room full of glamorous people and their worth on the glitz scale. Her observations are worthy of Tom Wolfe at his best and nastiest.

This book makes a good case for what we call today the traditional mystery. It's a pleasure to read as pure entertainment but there's a also a wicked social voice relating the reality of this particular time and this particular strata of society. Despite her reputation, I don't think she's hardboiled. At least not in this book. She's just a very good storyeller reporting back from the eyries of the wealthy and privileged. And laughing up her silk sleeve.


Scott Cupp said...

I love most of Craig Rice's mysteries and this is one of the best. Great choice, eR.

Mark McGlone said...

This is my favorete of her novels. The movie is nothing like it. They dispensed with the plot entirely, all you have left is the main characters, which is odd because Rice was very famous at the time and presumably very popular. Lots of people must have read that book. She even gets a "name-above-the-title" kind of credit.