Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Postman Cometh:The Fourth Postman (1948), by Craig Rice

1946: Craig Rice makes the big time
If you've read Jeffrey Marks' 2001 biography of Craig Rice, Who Was That Lady?, you'll know what a troubled life she had.

Apparently bipolar and certainly alcoholic, with five husbands--well, one of them probably wasn't actually her husband--and four messy breakups (one of he partners simply died), Craig Rice lived a life of great highs (gracing the cover of Time) and lows (staggering drunkenly around Hell's Kitchen).

Yet in her heyday in the 1940s, when her books were tremendously popular, Rice wrote some of the funniest (and invariably liquor-drenched) murder mysteries out there.

Her first novel was 8 Faces at 3, which is set in Chicago and introduces her most enduring series characters, the pugnacious little lawyer John J. Malone and his social and sleuthing pals Jake and Helene Justus (the latter individuals don't start off the series married, but do end up that way).

Seven more Malone and Justus novels appeared between 1940 and 1945, Rice's most prolific period as a writer.

After her breakup with writer Lawrence Lipton, her third partner, she entered a prolonged depressive period, where she got very little creative work done.  A single Malone/Justus novel, The Fourth Postman, appeared in 1948, during her very briefly happy fourth partnership, followed by two novels in 1956 and 1957, the second one of which was published after her sadly early death at the age of forty-nine.

this lady was one of the most popular
mystery writers of the 1940s
Despite the fact that The Fourth Postman appeared in the middle of a rough personal patch for Rice, it nevertheless is a good mystery yarn.

In 1001 Midnights Bill Pronzini and George Kelley call Postman "among the oddest of the novels featuring Malone and Justuses" and "Baffling, exciting, and fun."

Jeffrey Marks does not have quite so high an opinion of it, writing in his Rice biography that "this novel must be labeled one of Rice's lesser works....the plot resembles a traditional Golden Age puzzle more than a Rice 'fast and furious' mystery.  The blending doesn't go over well and the book disappoints."

I agree with Jeff that Postman is not as furiously funny as some of her other novels. Jake Justus feels, as Rice herself admitted, like "a fifth wheel all through" and the business with the "Australian beer hound"--the mutt who loves beer--while cute seemed like a repetition of similar business between Malone and the bloodhound in Trial by Fury, the best Malone mystery I have read. However, I found the book still quite enjoyable.

As Jeff notes, there are strong elements resembling Ellery Queen (Fredric Dannay, one half of Queen, was publishing Rice stories in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine at this time), like the bizarre plot, centering on someone knocking off a succession of postmen, and the artificial setting: three old houses seemingly almost completely cut off from the rest of Chicago that are inhabited by a variety of wealthy oddballs, including Rodney Fairfaxx (yes, two "x's"), who is still waiting for a letter from his fiance--you know, the one who disappeared on the Titanic over thirty years ago.

neither rain, nor snow, nor heat,
nor gloom of night,
nor blunt instrument....
I agree with the Jeff that the family relationships are complicated (a family tree would have been nice), but I'm a sucker for this kind of mystery and was pleased with it.  The central clue is clever and very fairly presented.

I did find it odd that postmen kept getting blithely sent to this neighborhood where previous postmen had been murdered.

You would think that by the third killing, say, someone in the postal system might have noticed that something was going on here.  Or maybe our postmen really are that determined to deliver the mail.

All in all, this book is one I recommend.  In fact I heartily recommend the Malone/Justus series in general.  Every book in the series that I have read has been worth the time spent.

Best yet, The Fourth Postman is available in an eBook version, for only $3.99.  And then there's the used book market (always a good bet), where you can get it in hardcover or paperback, depending on how much you want to spend.  If you order it through the traditional mails, I'm sure your local postman will be happy to deliver it to you!


  1. I have a copy of the Pocket edition (#651) and I've always enjoyed this novel. I have to say in general I'm not as fond of Rice's work as I used to be; I've aged, it seems, and the delightful drunken screwball comedy stuff doesn't really make up any more for the paper-thin characterization and rudimentary plotting. (And I think Rice has strong competition for the "Queen of Screwball Mystery" title from Phoebe Atwood Taylor, especially writing as Alice Tilton; all the screwball and only a touch of the alcohol.) I just never really accepted the central premise of this mystery and without that, the book falls apart a bit for me.
    The "houses cut off from the rest of the city inhabited by wealthy oddballs" reminds me of Ellery Queen's "The Player on the Other Side" and Rinehart's "The Album" -- perhaps the big-city equivalent of the country-house mystery. Again, an element that doesn't quite work for me.
    I've always thought Rice's best book was as by, or with, Gypsy Rose Lee -- "The G-String Murders". I remember a huge brouhaha a few years ago in the backstage portions of Wikipedia about who actually wrote this novel. All I can say is, the second and last one in the series, "Mother Finds A Body", written without Rice, is unreadable, and I see Rice's characteristic touches throughout.
    I'm going to hunt up my DVD of "Underworld Story", based on a story by Rice, and of course "Lady of Burlesque", based on "The G-String Murders", and have a little Craig Rice film festival!

    1. Yes, I was thinking of The Players on the Other Side and The Album as well. And how about Queen's There Was An Old Woman. Going to try to get a Tilton piece up by Friday.

  2. I enjoyed this article. I will have to get Jeffrey Marks' book about Rice. And try some of her mysteries. Not so sure about screwball mysteries, but still I will try them. I also have a book of her short stories (People vs. Withers and Malone with Stuart Palmer).

    1. There is a plot you can follow in her books, even with the antics, which is a plus for me.

    2. The Withers & Malone stories seem to have been mostly written by Palmer (to the point of Rice having pointed out thing in the stories that contradicted her own backstory for Malone, but saying that on consideration she liked his way better, to stet it.