Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm making Craig Rice part of my crime fiction diet

If a crime writer made the cover of a major news magazine these days, the event would probably divide the crime fiction community because the honoree would be someone like Stieg Larsson or "Robert Galbraith."

I don't know where Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) stood in the public mind when she made the cove of time in January 1946, but my first reading of a solo Rice story suggests that not only did she belong on Time's cover then, but she belongs on the cover of reprints now (much of her work appears to be out of print). Working with raw ingredients well established in the crime canon, she managed to fashion work that feels like nothing else in crime writing until then or since.

The story in question, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself," first appeared in Manhunt in February 1954, has Rice's impecunious lawyer protagonist, John J. Malone, moving like a dream through as unlikely a mix of humor, snappy dialogue, and dread as anything I've read in crime fiction. I cannot remember the last time before this story that I'd read a crime story that made me think, "By God, I have read nothing like this before."

I don't quite know why, but I find dialogue such as this absolutely beguiling:
"`That Malone, he thinks good,' Joe the Angel said proudly, delivering the rye.  
 "`Go away," Malone said dreamily."
What's so special about that exchange?  The bartender's humorous nickname and diction? The unexpected proudly?  And what about dreamily, not the sort of word one normally associated with hard-boiled crime protagonists? For me the word worked like a bang-up ending to a miniature short story, like a pail of ice water to the face, leaving me alert and needing to know what happens next.

And now I'm off for dinner with a side dish of Rice. While I sip sherry at the local press club, I leave you with this question: What was the last crime novel or story you read that made you feel you were in the company of something utterly new?

 © Peter Rozovsky 2014

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37 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Bantam Books revived or tried to revive these books in the mid-eighties. I read one or two. I remember the somewhat screwball tone more than anything else about them. I am not sure they held up all that well over time, but I'd have to read another to really know how I like them. It's amazing to have made the cover of Time and be so forgotten now.

August 21, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Paul Auster's New York Trilogy was a major discovery for me. He does some truly singular things with the genre. Check it out.

August 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you might want to try this story, which is the title story of a collection that includes three stories and is available as an e-book. The second story, which I read after I put up the post, has a more routine plot but, at the same time, has a true hard edge.

I don't know how representative these stories are of her oeuvre, but you might read the entry to which I link in this post, and one of the articles to which that entry links to get an idea of what is distinctive about Rice's writing.

August 21, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

RT, I have a copy lying around somewhere. I shall move it higher in the pile. I know it is said to have rung some interesting changes on the classic detective story.

August 21, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I'll just write what at once came into my noggin, Peter: the first works I read by Fred Vargas, by Andrea Camilleri, and by Carol O'Connell. I do remember that the first by O'Connell I read was, indeed, her first novel: Mallory's Oracle. Where I started in the series by Vargas and Camilleri I can't recall, but that is of no significance. I've now read them all, and anyone who tries to stand between me and any to come will wind up fertilizing my tomato plants.

Mallory's Oracle had another distinction in my view. O'Connell was around forty years of age when she wrote that novel, having never written before -- she was an artist whose works were, unhappily for her, rarely to be found lining Park Avenue, and took up writing as a hobby, it seems. The point to this is that never, never have I encountered a first novel born full-grown as this one. In every respect vital in a crime novel, it was the work of a mistress of the so-called genre, an astonishing phenomenon.

August 21, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I remember somehow reading Mallory's Oracle when it first came out and finding it a standout as well. For some reason I have never read the sequels. I agree about Vargas too, and the only reason I leave out Camilleri is that I still haven't read him.I have no excuse, there is one right on my shelf to get to.

Barbara Serenella's Munch Mancini detective stories come to mind. A woman detective who really comes up the hard way.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Joseph Hone's espionage novels were a revelation because they work as literary fiction as well as genre pieces. A short list in the crime field would include K.C. Constantine, Jean Patrick Manchette, Dominique Manotti, Massimo Carlotto, and Wolf Haas, a very eccentric Austrian writer. Out of all of them I'd recommend Hone the most. Faber has just reprinted all his spy novels.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

Rice's book ghostwritten for George Sanders (connected through the Hollywood Mafia to writers like Graham Greene and James Hadley Chase) is a mystery story that is almost a self-referential parody of mystery novels. She certainly has her own style, and it is unique, and often entertaining. There is a biography about her colorful life and history with men--I think she claimed to have married one of her husbands on a bet.

A true character. One day, I'd like to write a piece on all of these once hugely popular and selling writers and what may have happened to all that popularity. Richard S. Prather? W. R. Burnett?

August 22, 2014  
Blogger BVLawson said...

FYI Peter, I've added this post to others I'm collecting for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books (I'm hosting this week). Here's the permalink:

http://inreferencetomurder.typepad.com/my_weblog/2014/08/ffb-.html

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All right, Seana and Philip: I have read and reviewed Vargas and Camilleri (and interviewed the English-language translators of both), so I know what makes them distinctive. My only quibble with either author is that Vargas will occasionally veer a bit too sharply toward quirkiness. A long account of a cat tracking its quarry over hill and dale is a brilliant concept, but for me it did not hold up on the page once I got the joke.

But I have not read Carol O'Connell. What should I know about her?

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, thanks for the reminder on Joseph Hone. Someone once recommended him here (could have been you), and i was interested but never followed up with a search for his books. Michael Gilbert's Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens stories have put me in the mood for espionage fiction. Any Hone titles in particular I ought to look for?

I should mention in re Wolf Haas that in the U.S. his novels are published by Melville House, which has made so much top-flight crime writing from outside the U.S. available to American readers.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rick, who owns the rights to Rice's work? How big an undertaking would it be to bring her work back into print?

Prather attracted some renewed notice when Hard Case Crime reprinted one of his novels, and I suspect that most crime readers could identify at least one of Burnett's titles and the movie based upon it. But Rice's obscurity is deeper than that, I think. (I first heard of her through one of her team-ups with Stuart Palmer reprinted in an anthology about detective duos. That may be where I first heard of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, too, which would make the book quite an impressive anthology.)

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, B.V. For the benefit of readers who consult that list, I read the story in an e-book called I'm a Stranger Here Myself. The original issue of Manhunt might be hard to find.

One indication of Rice's popularity at the time is the prominence of her name on the coverof the issue that included "I'm a Stranger ... " She gets top billing over Fletcher Flora, Evan Hutner (Ed McBain), and others.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Make that Evan Hunter, of course. He wrote under several names, but Hutner was not one of them.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Here's what Kirkus had to say at the time Mallory's Oracle came out, which I think describes why people were so drawn to it:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/carol-oconnell/mallorys-oracle/

August 22, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Seana and Peter . . . I am always skeptical of Kirkus reviews . . . I should know . . . I briefly wrote reviews for those folks . . . Need I say more?

August 22, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Postscript: Of course, this opens the can of worms about reviews. Since I have written reviews for all sorts of good, bad, and ugly outlets (e.g., BookPage, Mystery Scene, Mystery News (now defunct -- not my fault), PW, Kirkus (one of the truly annoying publications in the history of the world), KLIATT (also defunct - I'm getting paranoid now), a few academic journals, and some other reputable outlets (not yet defunct)), I am sensible enough to remain skeptical and cynical about any and all reviews. We should all remain so. Then they raises the question: What reviewer(s) can you trust? Peter, that sounds a terrific subject for a series of postings. So . . . go for it.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I'm fairly sure that you writing for Kirkus is not a point against it, RT. In any case, I point to it not for how it ranks the book but because the paragraph describes why the book struck people as so distinctive at the time. Perhaps in a post "Dexter" era it would not seem so new.

My problem with reviews (of fiction) is that if I read them before I read a novel, they tend to tell me too much, and if I read them after, they tend to tell me too little.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I don't much like the review's use of incredible, which may be the weakest word in the English language, or the wholly unnecessary "level of" later in the piece. I suspect Kirkus cares no more about hiring literate writers and exacting copy editors than other publications do. That said, the review caught my attention, and I will look into the book. Thanks for posting it.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana and Peter . . . I am always skeptical of Kirkus reviews .

RT, you're skeptical of everything.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

And, of course, I am skeptical about your tone. Have I been insulted? I'm a bit like a fictional detective -- suspicious of everything. I'm Morse without Wagner. Poirot without a mustache. Erlendur without a dysfunctional family.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Salvo Montalbano without the fresh seafood?

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't trust reviews, I trust discussions. Sometimes, of course, these discussions and disquisitions present themselves in the form of reviews.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I find I rely on reviews less with crime fiction that I used to for, say, theater. But even then, if a review was written well enough, as was the case with Robert Brustein's pieces in The New Republic, I would read them the way I would read entertaining, witty, informative essays on any subject. In this case, the subject happened to be a play to which I might then go out and buy a ticket.

I do that less with crime fiction. Instead, I generally seize on titles that seem interesting in the course of discussions here and elsewhere. I rely less on formal reviews than I do on discussions or recommendations by sources I trust: Sarah Weinman, Brian Lindenmuth, Cullen Gallagher, Adrian McKinty, and so on.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

And, as it turns out, a reader like "yours truly" tends to distrust reviews but trusts certain writers and bloggers -- for example, that guy at Detectives Beyond Borders has (every now and then) steered me in the right direction (i.e., he is someone that even a cynical and skeptical reader can trust). So there!

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, shucks. But yes, I, too, had written that I have come to rely on bloggers and others I have come to trust online, and mostly in discussions that were not formal reviews.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger RT said...

Well, then you've already answered the question that I just posted at my blog.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have now. And now, dear readers, you, too can weigh on this interesting question.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Hone only wrote a handful of spy novels, all excellent, but the first of them is The Private Sector, and it should be regarded as a classic in its field. My review.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The review confirms that you were, in fact, the source of my initial acquaintance with Hone. I am curious about the title and how it figures in the novel's action.

August 22, 2014  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

I take a dim view of Kirkus reviews in general -- there are some sound ones -- but I'm really not interested in reviews at all. I only make an exception to that in as much I do know certain blogs and bloggers so well that I trust them absolutely, i.e., I know that the bloggers are knowledgable and their reviews are sincere, which is to say, bloggers who are friends of mine may on occasion give high praise to a book/author and I know they are well-qualified to make such an assessment. But that doesn't mean I agree and have any intention of reading the book or anything by that author. We are friends, we are all well-versed in crime fiction, but on occasion we disagree.

I am my own reviewer, and I use almost exactly the same basic procedure in deciding whether a crime fiction novel is going to please me as I use in evaluating academic works. Almost exactly, for I do something in the case of crime novels I don't need to do with academic works -- read the first few pages. Just that may tell you all you need to know.

Re your question about O'Connell, Peter, my first reaction was to say you should know you should read Mallory's Oracle. That will tell you all you need to know. You may not like it, who can say, but if you are much taken, the series really should be read in order. Mallory is an extraordinary creation. An odd thing is that O'Connell said in an interview that Mallory is a sociopath. That rather amazed me. She's O'Connell's creation, so it's a bit strange to disagree with her on this, but there are aspects of Mallory's character that firmly indicate that she is not a sociopath. All such as this add to the interest of the creation and the books. I recall one delightful scene, brilliantly written, in which Mallory and her boss meet with a consultant psychiatrist to learn what he has gleaned about an accused. He keeps turning his attention to Mallory, eventually to the point where he is almost entirely focused on her, much intrigued, and starting to psychoanalyze HER. If you've read the preceding books, you know something horrible is going to happen, for Mallory's intelligence is great indeed, and she knows perfectly well what he's up to. As the talking continues, the poor psychiatrist thinks smoothly and with putative innocence on his part, Mallory takes out her gun and rests it in her lap -- pointing at his crotch. What happens then -- not gonna tell ya. Read the series. But I thought her response delightful, and not sociopathic, most certainly.

But one thing. When I read Stieg Larsson's books, I thought re his depiction of Salander, "You've read Carol O'Connell." Thereafter, I noticed just a few reviews or articles that made the same observation. It is now included in the Wiki article on Larsson, and there cannot be much doubt that O'Connell influenced him, though the two characters are very different indeed in most respects. It's really a question of the sociopathy. O'Connell says Mallory is a sociopath, but she has her do things that belie that. Larsson took the essence of Mallory and certain parallels, but he took them a step further, especially re her childhood: Salander is a sociopath.

August 23, 2014  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

The one that stands out for me is The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale. It was like reading Harper Lee gone rogue.

August 23, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

What a lot of Kirkus dislike I seem to have aroused! I don't actually have any opinion on Kirkus as I have actually very rarely read it, but in Googling for an apt description of a book that I haven't read recently enough to describe, that's what I came up with. I like the brevity.
I also think it's a fairly honorable undertaking to attempt these encapsulations. Someone should, anyway.

August 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, thanks for the note. I like your observation that few reviews noted O'Connell's apparent influence on Larsson. This may explain why I don;t read many reviews. I don't call Salander and sociopathy being part of the Larsson discussion, possible because reviewers were too busy praising her as a dynamic heroine and even a feminist icon. None of this rules out psychopathy, of course, which could have made for interesting discussion, discussion more interesting than the books.

August 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mary Beth: I've read just one short story by Lansdale, and it scared the hell out of me, so I am well prepared to believe your assessment of The Bottoms. Thanks.

August 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A blurb of the novel calls it "A thriller with echoes of William Faulkner and Harper Lee," so you're not the only one to invoke Lee.

August 23, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I like your description of Kirkus. Kirkus sounds a bit like Wikipedia that way.

August 23, 2014  

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