Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: Queen of the Screwball Mysteries

Who was that lady? Author Craig Rice made it hard for anyone to know.
It’s an interesting phenomenon when something is immensely popular, then disappears almost completely from the public conscience. That’s distinctly the case with Craig Rice (born Georgiana Craig). Rice’s mystery novels once rivaled Agatha Christie’s in sales. A mystery magazine’s title bore her name. She was even on the cover of Time magazine -- the first and only mystery writer to ever have that honor.


But today, well … most people would say, Who was that lady?


People who knew Craig Rice personally might still have asked the question. Rice’s entire life was rather mysterious, even down to the most basic of facts. No one seems to be completely positive about the date of her birth, her real name, or her number of marriages (somewhere between four and seven). While her death, just short of her fiftieth birthday (or was it?), was attributed to natural causes, pills and booze may well have played a part. From birth to death, nothing about Craig’s life is quite certain.


Complicating matters is the fact that Rice herself wasn’t always honest when it came to facts. Biographer Jeffrey A. Marks said that he was stunned when researching the book to discover that she had blatantly told lies to Time magazine in her cover-story interview. Even when telling anecdotes that were somewhat true, she tended to embellish them to the point of being unbelievable, a fact noted by mystery writer Dorothy B. Hughes after attending some of her parties.


Craig Rice's 1947 Time cover.
In Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: Queen of the Screwball Mysteries (2010), Marks sorts through a mountain of often contradictory source material in an attempt to get at the real Craig Rice. While he’s illuminated far more about her than anyone else had ever done, he still doesn’t quite get there. That’s partly due to the difficulty in unraveling a woman with such a mercurial personality, but it also seems that Marks may have been daunted by his subject.


“I toned down some of the seamier aspects of her life, as the bad years were really unattractive,” said Marks in an online discussion of Rice, “but I did not leave anything out.” That’s an unfortunate thing for the reader to know, especially when the truth about Rice seems so hard to come by. Marks himself has “toned down” the truth. His protective nature about Rice shows through in other areas of the book. Marks clearly disdains beat writer and former Rice husband Larry Lipton. While facts show that he did some clearly nasty things, including claiming ownership of some of Rice’s work (work he’d sneered at before she became more successful), Marks’ personal opinion is obvious.


Marks is also defensive about the rumors of Rice having ghostwritten Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders (which Book Dirt readers read about in 8 Famous People You Didn’t Know Wrote Mysteries.) He’s of the belief that Lee did her own writing, and he’s got new evidence to support that fact, which makes the book worth reading for Lee fans as well as fans of Rice. Marks doesn’t manage to keep a professional distance, though, having a tendency to interpret and comment on facts rather than merely present them. That’s certainly an author’s choice to make, and it can work in certain types of biographies. With someone like Rice, whose truth is hard to glean, it muddies the waters further.


Who Was That Lady? isn’t the most readable mystery writer bio in its first half -- it spends a lot of time rehashing the plots of Rice’s books -- and it struggles a bit to know what it’s trying to be. It’s not got enough structure or style to be a popular bio, but it falls short of being academic and has some editing issues. It picks up pace as Rice’s life goes downhill, her life becoming so tragic that it can’t help but be compelling in any writer’s hands.


What it is is the best biography of Craig Rice that we’ve got, and Marks has done the best he could to share her life with us, even if his own passion for her got in his way. As far as a definitive biography of Craig Rice -- it has yet to be written. It might never be. If the question posed in the book’s title has an answer, I don’t think we really know it yet.



6 comments:

  1. Wow, a mystery writer who is a total mystery, what could be better? It's like a conundrum wrapped in an enigma (or is it the other way around?).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She was a pretty neat lady, but her life turned really sad at the end.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the information on this American female writer. I'll easy over to Amazon and add some of her novels to my mystery book shelf.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've only read a couple, buy she definitely has some wit. Give her a try.

      Delete
  3. I have a Craig Rice book on my shelf and it has been there quite some time. I thought it was written by a man! The mystery of the writer makes me want to read it now! And I love screwball comedy in my mysteries! Thanks for a great post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, you should definitely check out the one you've got. Her books are a lot different than her personal life, though. Someone once said of her that "She wrote the binge, but lived the hangover."

      Delete