Friday’s Forgotten Book: Innocent Bystander by Craig Rice

Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig (1908–1957) wrote a number of mysteries, short stories, and screenplays under the name Craig Rice after beginning her writing career as a journalist in 1930. She is mostly known for her comic mysteries with Jake Justus, a clueless press agent; Helene Brand, an heiress; and John Joseph Malone, a not especially successful lawyer, all hard drinkers in Chicago, where most of her books were set.

Innocent Bystander (Simon and Schuster, 1949) was an anomaly in her mystery fiction. Set on the carnival boardwalk in an oceanside town in southern California, it is a stark tale that leads with Tony Webb, a recent “graduate” of Sing Sing, who’s looking for vengeance against the mob boss who sent him to prison. The boss turns up dead in a Ferris wheel on the boardwalk and the local police set out to find Tony. A young woman was having a portrait drawn by a carnival sketch artist near the ride at the time and she is believed to have witnessed the murder, so she is included in the search.

Tony has heard from his friends in the carnival that she saw him and he is looking for her to remove her as a threat. One of the detectives is smitten with the girl’s appearance and he wants to save her from Tony. A corrupt detective is determined to find the girl first and brutally beats the carnival sketch artist, trying to obtain information about the girl from him, unaware and uncaring that the artist was both hearing and speech impaired.

While we know something of what many of the characters are thinking and feeling, we do not have insight into the girl except through how the other characters experience her, giving her an opaque mystique.

The boardwalk setting and the closed-in interactions of the carnival personnel to protect themselves against the police are the most interesting aspects of the book. The chase through the hall of mirrors reminds me of Richard Stark’s Slayground, set in a carnival closed for the winter. Otherwise it is a hard-boiled story lacking in Rice’s much vaunted humor, a definite departure from her usual mysteries.

For more information about Rice, see Jeffrey Marks’ 2001 biography of Rice, Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: The Queen of Screwball Mystery, her entry on the Golden Age Detection blog, http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931419/Rice%2C%20Craig, and a well-done article on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Rice_(author).

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