The Ghost in His Name

"Who do you think you are, Ellery Queen?"
- Melva Lonigan (Crime on My Hands, 1944)
During the early 1940s, Craig Rice, Queen of the Screwball Mystery, collaborated as a scenarist on The Falcon movies, which starred actor George Sanders as a debonair gentleman detective with an appreciation for the female form, and from this pool of creative consciousness eventually sprang Crime on My Hands (1944) – a lighthearted detective romp in which George Sanders takes it upon himself to clear-up a number of fatal shootings on the set of an action-packed Western. 

The name that was printed on the front cover and across the title page of this book was that of George Sanders, but there was, at least, one silent partner, working behind the scenes of this project, who did most, if not all, of the work. Craig Rice was the ghost in the typewriter, however, it's unclear if Cleve Cartmill, who seems to have strayed from his usual haunts, science-fiction and fantasy, to help her pen this facetious detective novel. But then again, it's not entirely impossible, either, and his part could've been limited to lending his expertise, as a science-fiction writer, to help her with the technical details on one of George Sanders' inventions – which he rigged up in order to trap the killer. It proved to be unsuccessful enterprise.

Crime on My Hands opens with a sneak-peek at George Sanders at work, as he shoots one of the final scenes for his latest movie, Die by Night, in which he plays the role of a self-assured, philandering amateur sleuth to perfection, but the thespian has grown tired of always playing the detective. 

"The vogue is for the light-hearted playboy with a butter heart and iridium brain to become involved in a murder situation. Now the audience knows that I, as the amateur detective, am going to triumph in the end. There's no suspense, except of an intellectual nature. The melodramatic action seeks to cover that dramatic fault, but I know suspense is lacking. I can't be wholehearted about it when I know that I will win, no matter what."

Fortunately, for him, he had to foresight to hire a clever and competent business agent, Melva Lonigan, to look after his professional interests and she managed to procure a contract in his name for the lead role in Seven Dreams – a fast-paced, action-filled Western fraught with danger and romance set against the backdrop of a barren, sun blasted desert landscape. Unfortunately, for him, this change of pace and setting is short-lived, as he, once again, finds himself hunched over the sprawled, blood-spattered remains of an extra, in the middle of a circle of wagons, but this time the cameras aren't rolling and the microphones are turned-off – and our on-screen gumshoe quickly notices that movie villains are nothing like their the real-life counterparts.

This murderer, for example, neglected to lither the scene of the crime with incriminating evidence for him to glance at and mutter cryptic remarks. As a matter of fact, this evasive gunman even expunged the few tell-tale clues, such as a film can protecting the undeveloped scene of the fatal shooting and a pair of silver handled revolvers, which our self-styled amateur sleuth had to go on. Not a good sport at all.

What I found interesting, whilst reading this book, was how well Rice had obliterated nearly every trace that could identify her as its author. There are still one or two sequences in this book that bear a partial finger print of her style, such as filming a scene in an artificially created sand storm, in which Sanders seems to be confronted with his shadowy adversary, and the parade of suspects who came tramping into his cabin during a botched attempt at entrapping the gunslinger, but, all in all, this is not a detective story that conformed to her usual style. 

In a way, this is also quite amusing, if you take into consideration that the authorship of Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941) and Mother Finds a Body (1942) were ascribed to her. I have only read the latter, but I immediately understood why people found it so easy to believe that they were penned by Rice – since they were covered with, what appeared to be, her fingerprints. There was a whiff of surrealism that emanated from the pages, the three main characters formed a unity (all but one of Rice's series detectives are team players) and the zaniness was vintage Ricean.

Lee's authorship of The G-String Murders and Mother Finds a Body has now been established and they were probably put down on paper with Rice's style and plotting technique in mind – which simply explains how a not entirely untalented amateur could equal the best efforts of a professional. Crime on My Hands also reinforces this claim, in a topsy-turvy way. Why would she ghost one book in her own, unique and easily identifiable style and cleverly disguise the other. I mean, if I wouldn't know any better and was asked to hazard a guess, as to who ghosted this book for George Sanders, the closest I would get to hitting the mark would be blurting out Stuart Palmer's name – on the fourth or fifth guess.

On a whole, Crime on My Hands is an OK story of crime and detection, but a must-read for fans that prefer their sleuths at their most amateurish and face their perils and brave their dangers in an upbeat manner – with a roguish grin plastered across their face. It's just plain fun, even if the track to the solution runs along a badly maintained railway line. But that shouldn't impair the fun derived from the overall story. The Rue Morgue Press should definitely take a look at this one for their catalogue.

There's a second detective novel that bore the name of George Sanders on its cover, Stranger at Home (1946), but this one was from the hand of Leigh Brackett – a writer primarily known for her science-fiction and screen writing. But contrary to its, more well-known, predecessor, this book is actually still in print and one that I will probably take a look at in the upcoming year.


  1. I read it and enjoyed some years ago, but I felt that the first person narration was a little tin-eared. It felt a little like someone doing a reasonable impersonation of Sanders, but sporadically losing concentration and hence the voice.

  2. I like Sanders and I like Rice, so thus should work for me, but have never read. Thanks for the insightful review.

  3. @SextonBlake

    But when you use a real-life person as a character, a reasonable or good impersonation is the best thing you can aim for. It's impossible to create an exact copy of the original, since the fictional counterpart of this person will be confronted with situations the original would never find himself in. The fictional counterpart will never give responses that are a 100% true to nature.

    I think I know what you mean with sporadically losing concentration, but it barely, if any, distracted from the story.


    Hopefully, you'll find it an enjoyable read!

  4. Sounds interesting-- but then again, I love Craig Rice, so I'm biased!

  5. Not to mention that it has a Western-related background, which gives you a legitimate excuse to bring up Westerns on your blog. ;)

  6. Rice actually met Sanders on a movie set when she was writing a Falcon movie with Stuart Palmer. It was Sander's last one, The Falcon's Brother, IIRC. I've seen the contracts between Sanders and Rice; so I do know they exist.

    Craig had the ability to change her style. The Venning books are nothing like the Malone books.

  7. My understanding has always been that Craig Rice and Cartmill were the ghosts on this book. How this was done is another question. The book is certainly not up to Rice's usual standard, perhaps because of Sanders' input, or perhaps Cartmill did the final revision.

  8. I haven't read the novel, which was published in 1944, but you helpfully provide us with a quotation from it, and as I read that a clue leapt out at me. This is supposed to be George Sanders, actor-detective, speaking:

    "The vogue is for the light-hearted playboy with a butter heart and iridium brain to become involved in a murder situation."

    The phrase "butter heart and iridium brain" is striking, isn't it? I don't know how common the expression "butter heart" was back in the 1940s, but it seems to me that the "iridium brain" is what really needs some accounting for.

    Who was writing about "iridium brains" in the early 1940s?

    Answer (thanks to a Google search): Isaac Asimov. As he later said...

    "When I wrote my first few robot stories in 1939 and 1940, I imagined a 'positronic brain' of a spongy type of platinum-iridium alloy. It was platinum-iridium because that is a particularly inert metal and is least likely to undergo chemical changes..." < http://readr.ru/william-wu-cyborg.html#ixzz1hORzrxrJ >

    Those early robot stories of Asimov's weren't collected in book form, as _I, Robot_, until 1950.

    Who, in 1944, or slightly earlier, is the most likely person to have come across them in _Astounding SF_ -- George Sanders, Craig Rice ... or Cleve Cartmill?

  9. That's a really clever chain of deduction, David Pringle, and convincing evidence that Cleve Cartmill probably did part of the writing.

  10. Thanks, TomCat. Although I haven't read the book, I suspect Cartmill did most of the writing. Why else would Craig Rice employ him? She was a busy lady. The way these things worked, a "ghost" would sometime subcontract a job to an under-ghost. My feeling is Cartmill would have written it at Rice's behest, and she would then have looked it over, maybe polished it a bit and added a joke or two -- then delivered it under her name to George Sanders's publishers. I have a theory that this was Cartmill's second ghost-written crime novel. The first was _The Saint Steps In_ (1943) as by Leslie Charteris. OK, I have no definite proof of this, but when I re-read that Saint novel a few years ago, I convinced myself it wasn't by Charteris. He had maybe tweaked it a little, that's all. Cartmill and Charteris shared an agent in those years -- Willis Kingsley Wing. I wonder if he was Craig Rice's agent too, circa 1942-1944?

  11. TomCat:

    I've just re-read "The Darker Drink" (aka "Dawn") -- first published in _Thrilling Wonder Stories_, October 1947. Unlike most of Leslie Charteris's "Saint" stories, it's a light psychological fantasy about reality and illusion, and look what I found in it:

    "He knew that this fat man, though butter-voiced, had a heart of iridium."

    ("Dawn" ["The Darker Drink"] reprinted in _Saint Errant_ by Leslie Charteris, 1948; Hodder ed., 1949, p240.)


    "The vogue is for the light-hearted playboy with a butter heart and iridium brain to become involved in a murder situation."

    (_Crime on His Hands_ by George Sanders, 1944, said to have been ghosted by Cleve Cartmill.)

    "The Darker Drink" may have been bylined "Leslie Charteris," but I'm sure it was ghost-written by Cartmill -- old iridium brains himself.

    1. I have only just read this comment, but I will add it immediately to the GADwiki. Thanks for the information!


    2. I don't think that THE DARKER DRINK was ghostwritten. This is not of any analysis of style, but due to a knowledge of the character of Charteris. Whilst it is true that he did use ghosts later on, he was very up-front about it. The later books have introductions explaining that they have been written by someone else and then given a polish by Charteris. THE DARKER DRINK was included in one of his two Saint omnibuses, where each story was chosen and introduced by him. He had a pretty healthy ego, and I don't believe that his self respect would have allowed him to include someone else's story in a 'best of' collection.

  12. Cleve did write part of Crime on His Hands. I saw the contracts between Craig and him when researching the Rice biography.

  13. I think the wrong word is being used here.

    Charteris would never let anything go out in his name that he didn't at least take a look at prior to publication. And he was such a control freak that he was bound to make some correction--with some of the 40 Saint novels that have only appeared in French and Dutch, he simply made tiny grammatical changes, rather than letting them be picked up by the editor or proof-reader.

    Since the general perception of ghostwriting is that someone else does all the work while someone else takes the credit I don't think any Saint stories were ghostwritten.

    However I do think--scratch that, I know--a small handful of Saint adventures pre-Vendetta for the Saint were collaborative efforts and not 100% Charteris. 'The Darker Drink' is one of those stories. It definitely did not originate with Leslie but it seems like he did a significant amount of work on it.

    'The King of the Beggars' is another case in point. This originated as a radio play in the original 1945 series which starred Edgar Barrier as the Saint. Mauri Grastin wrote the first draft. Charteris, who was a very active producer on the show, didn't like it so got Fred Howard to do another draft. he didn't like that much either so Charteris did his own significant rewrite of it before it got to air. David Pringle has alerted me to the fact that a letter from Henry Kuttner to August Derleth has Kuttner claiming authorship of the story--it first appeared in a May 1947 edition of the American Magazine. Curiously enough the radio script is relatively close to the final story which means that Kuttner at best novelised it and certainly didn't ghost it.

  14. Thanks so much for this. I visit your site at fairly regular intervals, so I know that this is on the level. Out of interest, which are the handful of pre-Vendetta stories are collaborations? I've heard people claim that the fantasy/sci-fi tinged stories (such as THE MAN WHO LIKED ANTS)are not 100% Charteris, but I'd be fascinated to know for sure.

  15. You need to read Burl Barer's book on how it was managed, but basically THE SAINT SEES IT THROUGH (1946) was the last Saint novel written entirely by Charteris--unless David's instinct is correct. I don't recall anything about the short stories being ghosted or collaborative. After VENDETTA, he was entirely open about the procedure...more than Ellery Queen or Brett Halliday, who put their names on other peoples' work for years.