#879: The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice

Corpse Steps Out

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One of the joys of this blog is sharing the excitement of discovery with people who understand.  I like to think that I would have come to the work of Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Cornell Woolrich and others in due course, but having my exposure to and growing excitement for their fictional endeavours charted here among fellow fans makes it feel even more special.  Add to that list Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig, whose work as Craig Rice I’m now three novels deep into and who is someone can confidently say I’m going to love even more in the years ahead. I mean that in all earnestness: Craig Rice and I are going to be friends for a long time.

When, between broadcasts, press agent Jake Justus follows his client — radio star Nelle Brown — from the studio to a dive apartment he finds his quarry swiftly departed and a dead body in the room. That Paul March had this coming seems to be in little doubt — he was holding over Nelle some incautious letters, threatening her upcoming new contract (“This might be profitable publicity in some other branch of the entertainment world. But not in radio. Oh no, Jake thought, not in radio! One good strong breath of scandal and Nelle’s value would drop to zero overnight.”) and very few tears are shed over his passing. With Jake’s initial fears about Nelle’s innocence dismissed, everyone braces for the corpse to be discovered and the news to break. Except the corpse is never found, somehow vanishing from the room after Jake’s visit. And then other people start to die, people who might be standing in the way of the success of one Ms. N. Brown…

Encountering Rice’s screwball antics for the first time in Eight Faces at Three (1939) I said how the drinking for which her characters are known — which had, for reasons not entirely clear to me now, put me off trying Rice’s longer works (it’s less pronounced in the short stories) — proved something of a masterstroke since it enables a sort of structural looseness that fits her manner of plotting. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that wealthy socialite Helene Brand should decide to move into March’s apartment to help investigate this unsuspected murder…so long as you accept that she makes this decision when she’s slightly tipsy, and that she remains so in order to see it through; rinse and repeat this reasoning for almost every decision made by one of the central characters and you’re sorted. And as the plot here, as there, lurches from one well-realised moment to the next, I find the bibulous background that enables this oddly charming.

But just because Rice has found a cheap way to advance her writing, don’t be under the impression she writes cheaply — when the associated dark edges creep in to this murder case, Rice is more than up to the task. See Nelle in the first chapter, standing over March’s body:

All at once she ceased to be the great radio star, the photographed and glamorous personality, the wife of a well-known socialite, the protected darling of the fan magazines. She was back in her childhood again, back in the days when every mouthful of food depended on resource and cunning, when each day’s living had to be fought for with desperation. She could still fight, she reminded herself, with the same cunning, the same desperate frenzy.

See the treatment of Nelle’s husband “Tootz” Gifford and his indoor horses — treatment by his creator in restraint and by his wife in her loving care — and see the lovely quiet moments of diamond hard reflection slipped into what could otherwise be frothy and dismissive non-confrontations of the difficult situations the central trio of Jake, Helene, and legal genius John J. Malone face:

“But Malone,” Helene said, “murder isn’t ever justified.”

“Isn’t it?” the lawyer said very quietly.

Rice’s light touch elsewhere balances these antics with the sort of skill I’ve only seen before in John Dickson Carr’s juggling of absurdist comedy and legitimate shivers, and very few people could make the extended sequence of Jake wrestling a corpse into his car (“It was then that he began to wonder what he was doing.”) rub shoulders so comfortably with the surprisingly complex Nelle baring her heart over the small matter of finding love, or with hardboiled turns of phrase that delight for their efficacy (“Nelle would probably never have returned to radio if Gifford and Company hadn’t failed, leaving Tootz with nothing except the shirt on his back, and a mortgage on that.”). There’s a line to make you cackle on every page, too, with the humour never far away and never intruding or upsetting the delicate balance.

The plot is, of course, all over the place, and that’s at least half the fun, but it draws together with some dangerously faulty logic (“[S]omeone used a gun with a silencer in both cases, and that must mean the same person committed both murders…”) and a terminal deduction of Malone’s that any self-respecting legal genius would laugh out of a courtroom (rot13 spoilers: n zna abg nafjrevat uvf cubar zhfg abg or ng ubzr…yvxr ur pbhyqa’g or gnxvat n penc be fbzrguvat). I’ll allow that the characters are allowed to do silly things on account of their inebriation, but I would hope the author would remain in control of where the plot ended up. The answers in this one work, and are quietly wonderful in their own way, but they don’t convince like I’ve seen Rice do in her debut, or in the masterpiece for all time that is Home Sweet Homicide (1944).

You can feel a certain comment on the complex direction the genre had taken in the previous decade in Malone’s admiration for the killer’s “simplicity”:

“There’s no nonsense about him. No obscure poisons, no time bombs, no mysterious messages pinned on the wall. He wants somebody out of the way, so he just walks in and shoots him.”

…and it was fair to say that the approaching war (still see very much as “the situation in Europe” herein) was going to clip the wings of the more frivolous excesses of the Golden Age’s heyday. On this evidence, Rice might not make a case for being included among the very best plotters from those halcyon days, but the verve of her conviction and the snappy interplay of her reunited lovers compels her as an author of huge talent. Can someone crank the handle on some more reprints of her work, please? I’m sort of desperate to see what happens next…

~

See also

Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: Rice creates a world where morality and right and wrong are determined by different rules. This leads to characters moving bodies, lying to the police or withholding information from them. Taking the law into your own hands is a matter of course in stories such as this.

Mike Nevins @ Mystery*File: No one ranks The Corpse Steps Out among Rice’s greatest hits but it’s often bracketed with her mystery-as-screwball-comedy titles….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.

16 thoughts on “#879: The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice

  1. I find it interesting that you view reading and discovery as an almost group activity while I act like a single explorer by himself deep in the jungles of Borneo.
    Thank goodness the world is big enough for all of us 😀

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    • Pre-blog, I’d agree with you — I’ve been reading this stuff for 20-odd years, and was very much hacking my way through the genre, almost at random, for a long time.

      But then, since starting this place up, I’ve had some recommendations, and followed some heavy hints, that have uncovered some absolute delights and reinvigorated my love for what detective fiction does so well. I wouldn’t be half the fan of the likes of R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Patricia McGerr, Enid Blyton, and more without them, and there’s no way I’d’ve encountered James Scott Byrnside or DWaM and thus been encouraged to write my own book.

      Reading as an activity is doubtless inherently and unavoidably individualistic, but doing it as part of the great community we have going here is one of the real joys of these last few years.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I love it when someone in the community enthusiastically goes off and blazes the trail, as you have with Crofts, Woolrich, and Rice. Of course, it helps when the authors truly are good. You’ve turned me on to some great authors, with Woolrich being the latest.

        And it’s been fun for me to bushwhack through the lesser known Brand stuff (someone has to figure out if they are romance novels or not, right?). Even when stumbling through the hit/miss Quentin/Patric/Stagge stuff, at least we get a more full picture out there for someone else to learn from. And hey, who knew that Herbert Brean published more than one novel?

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        • A reprint of Herbert Brean’s Hardly a Man is Now Alive is sorely needed, if only so that the amazing genre work he did there can finally get the audience it deserves…

          I’m amazed at people like Steve and TomCat who can find an author they enjoy and read about four books by them in a month. I have to juggle authors and styles so that I don’t get books confused (I’ve said before that there are two Christies I read back-to-back and still get confused all these years later). One view is that I’m able to enjoy the enjoyment of an author for longer, drawing out their ouevre to really savour it…on the other hands, this means I can kiss a lot of frogs between princes 🙂

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    • The internet has made it into a group activity, like an archaeological dig, but have felt like that lonely explorer deep in the jungles when excavating the Dutch detective story.

      I remember The Corpse Steps Out as one of the better titles in the series with the only drawback being the diminished role of Malone.

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      • If I could read Dutch, I’d be fascinated to dig into some of the stuff you’ve uncovered. Perhaps it’s time you stepped up and became the Dutch-English translator the classic detective fiction world needs!

        As for TCSO, I’m surprised at the range of opinions it seems to provoke: some dismissing it as among the weakest work Rice did, others like yourself calling it among her best. I get we all respond differently to different books, but these variations — and such wide variations! — always amuse me.

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    • Yes – I see your point. Reading is an individualistic pleasure that allows me to focus on only one thing particularly in a world of endless opportunities and distractions for my attention.

      Up until five years ago, my experience with detective fiction was only Conan Doyle and Christie. I didn’t know there was a GAD world out there with seemingly limitless titles.

      I therefore am grateful to the community of brilliant bloggers past and present who I faithfully have followed including Jim, TomCat, John, Brad, Curtis, Nick, Aidan, Kate, Laura, Moira, Ben, Sergio, Dan, Martin, etc. to curate the best of the best titles. Without them, I never would have discovered Carr, Brand, Queen, Berrow, Berkeley, Boucher, Bush, Byrnside, Crofts, Flynn, Penny, Crispin, Freeman, Halter, Rhode, Rosco, Quentin / Stagge, etc. and now Rice. It is nice being part of a virtual club with people who enjoy puzzles, locked rooms, surprise reveals, whodunits, howdunits, etc. like I do and who can point me to the very best books.

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      • That’s a helluva list of authors, too — even allowing for the vagaries of taste, you’re bound to find something you like in there…and anyone who can’t is probably in the wrong genre.

        And while I agree that being given a nod in the direction of the best books is favourable, don’t underestimate the importance of reading something that you end up disliking. Appreciating the difference between what really works and what really doesn’t for your own tastes is hugely important, I’d say. If gives you the confidence to abandon something, or to really drill down into what you enjoy about a book you really enjoy. That critical reaction, and understanding the reason for it, cannot be overstated. Good books are more fun to read, but bad books are arguably more important!

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  2. Glad you are continuing to enjoy Rice’s work. I look forward to seeing what you make of The Wrong Murder, The Right Murder and Trial by Fury. I must say this year we have been doing well at matching on books. I hope my next read will be as good as the ones you are having lately. (Still trying to recover from Chloe Delaume’s Not a Clue…)

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    • I have a copy of TBF, but neither of the Wrong or the Right murders. I know there are some Rue Morgue reissues of the former kicking around secondhand — for the usually absurd prices, naturally — so I’ll just have to keep everything crossed that something comes up or the AMC decide to expedite some Craig Rice because I seem like such a nice guy and they’re eager to make me happy 🙂

      Just read your Not a Clue review — yeesh!

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      • It’s best to read those three Rice books in the correct order – esp. The Wrong Murder and The Right Murder. Green penguin copies do appear from time to time and tend to be cheaper than the Rue Morgue editions. Hopefully AMC will reprint them all or you’ll have to give your Secret Santa this year some strong hints lol

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        • Thanks for the heads up. I’m intending to read Rice chronologically, but I appreciate the warning — I might have gotten impatient if it takes a long time to track down The Wrong Murder. Thankfully, I wouldn’t be returning to Rice too soon anyway, so there’s time to find an affordable copy 🤞

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