The Great Detectives: Two by Erle Stanley Gardner
Perry Mason, Cool & Lam
I’ve taken some time away from the Tuesday Night Bloggers recently but I’m happy to be back contributing to a large-scale joint project about Great Detectives (to coincide with the release of the book 100 Greatest Literary Detectives). Every Tuesday for the next while, a group of bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detectives and I’ll hope to be right there beside them with a full ten of my favourites over the course of this month. Mine are mostly unlikely to be added to the list of 100 Greatest Literary Detectives but, for one reason or another, I think my choices have greatness within them. I’ll add a link here to the contributions of others when I find out exactly where they are. (The roundup of links is found here.)
Today’s entries were both detectives created by the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner (whom I’ll shorten to ESG). You can find ESG’s Wikipedia entry here; I have to mention that my friend Jeffrey Marks (who wrote the definitive biography of Craig Rice) is bringing out a new biography of ESG to which I’m looking forward with considerable interest! Perhaps he’ll forgive me, though, if I hit the high spots in advance.
ESG taught himself law, passed the bar and practiced at the same time as he wrote more than a million words a year for the pulp magazines. That’s where he developed his writing style and an incredible discipline that had him turning out four books a year under his name and various pseudonyms for many years; between short stories and novels, his huge bibliography is a volume all its own (from Kent State University Press in 1968). The first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws from 1933, sold 28,000,000 copies by 1948 and in the mid-50s, ESG novels were selling at the rate of 20,000 copies a day. There were movies and TV series and TV movies and radio programmes based on his work, and every kind of ancillary Perry Mason merchandise you can imagine, from comic books to lunch kits.
It’s likely that everyone who grew up in an English-speaking country within reach of a television set has the image in their head of Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. From 270+ episodes of the long-running TV series, a long-running radio programme and more than 80 novels, we know a lot about his character; Perry Mason is a criminal lawyer who fights hard for his clients and the more difficult a situation is, the more he seems to enjoy it.
In the novels, there’s a kind of standard pattern (dare I say “formula”) for how his cases work themselves out. At the outset, Mason becomes interested in a case because of some unusual or striking feature — the story hook. Things develop rapidly and there’s pretty much always a murder for which Mason’s client is arrested. Mason investigates everyone and everything, with the help of his faithful secretary Della Street and private eye with offices down the hall, Paul Drake. Eventually it turns out that the District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, has one view of the case and Perry has to discern a different pattern from the same facts in order to bring home the crime to the true criminal. Frequently at the last minute, he always does so and exonerates his client.
At one point in The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat (1935) Burger says, “You’re a better detective than you are a lawyer. When you turn your mind to the solution of a crime, you ferret out the truth.” This is true, although at times Mason is excellent at pulling legal tricks out of his sleeve to confound his opposition.
What’s really interesting is that, if you follow the strict canon of the novels only, what we learn about Perry Mason as a person is — very nearly nothing. We know he likes “thick filet mignon steak with French-fried onions” and “hot soup … and garlic bread”, or “au gratin potatoes” — in The Case of the Crooked Candle he mentions “green turtle soup … nice sizzling steaks, and salad, with a dish of chili beans on the side and tortillas”. This knowledge of his food preferences is because there’s almost always a scene in a restaurant, where Perry and Della catch up on the case over food while Paul Drake has to run back to his office with a hamburger to go.
And that’s about it. We learn at one point that he lives in an apartment, but what it looks like — nothing. He drives powerful cars, dresses well and is attractive to women. And very occasionally Perry expresses that he enjoys such pursuits as ocean cruises, deep sea fishing, relaxing on a beach or in the desert in the company of Della Street. He has no personal friends, family, personal history, or back story. Not once in 80 novels did Perry’s “old school friend” ever show up looking for representation; no alma mater, no former girlfriends, zip. He’s well known to maitres d’ and parking attendants and taxi drivers as a big tipper but we know so little about him personally, we don’t even know his favourite colour.
The six early black-and-white films are not considered canonic, although they are amusing and a little shocking — certainly it’s unusual to see Perry get married and leave Della alone on the honeymoon to take on a case, or see him rhapsodizing about the culinary arts. And Paul Drake has an earlier incarnation as “Spudsy Drake”, comedy sidekick (best played by the laconic Allan Jenkins). No one considers these films to be the “real Perry”.
If you’re looking for a single volume that will tell you everything you need to know about Perry Mason as a person, I recommend his very first outing: 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, where he’s at his most hard-punching and physically active. There you will learn everything about him that’s ever said, except during his romantic interludes with Della, which are exemplified in the fascinating 1943 volume The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito. As a man dealing with beautiful women, try TCOT Fan-Dancer’s Horse from 1947; he’s on display as a house guest in 1936’s TCOT Sleepwalker’s Niece. And to see his detective skills in full view, try TCOT Crooked Candle (1944) or TCOT Green-Eyed Sister (1953), which showcases his command of forensic science.
Cool & Lam
ESG was so productive that he issued this series initially under his pseudonym of A. A. Fair. The private investigation firm of Cool & Lam is only on view in the 30 novels which make up that particular series, but we know more about both the protagonists from the first chapter of the first book (The Bigger They Come, 1939) than we ever learn in 80 Perry Mason novels. At the beginning of that book, “sawed-off runt” Donald Lam is unemployed and starving, but Bertha Cool sees something in him (that he’s a good liar, at the outset) and hires him for her detective agency.
Bertha Cool is introduced as being “somewhere in the sixties, with grey hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression on her face. She must have weighed over two hundred.” (Donald later revises that estimate upwards.) “She evidently didn’t believe in confining herself to tight clothes. She wiggled and jiggled around … like a cylinder of currant jelly on a plate. But she wasn’t wheezy, and she didn’t waddle. She walked with a smooth, easy rhythm.” In Chapter 2 she mentions the sad story of her cheating husband (the only time we ever hear it) and mentions, “Sure, I do anything — divorces, politics — anything. My idea of ethics in this business is cash and carry.” She has a foul mouth and a complete lack of conscience, but she likes to cut herself a slice of whatever cash is in her vicinity.
Donald Lam is, as the judge who’s prosecuting him for murder in chapter 13 remarks, “frail in his physical appearance, apparently young, innocent and inexperienced”. (He’s said to be 5’6″ and about 130 pounds soaking wet.) Nevertheless he has, with “consummate brilliance”, “jockeyed the authorities of two states into such a position that they are apparently powerless to punish him for a cold-blooded, premeditated, and deliberate murder, his part in which he has brazenly admitted.” You see, Donald qualified to be a lawyer but never practised; he’s smart as a whip and knows a few legal tricks that most lawyers have never thought of. He grew up small and had to learn how to fight with his brain. “Donald Lam” isn’t his real name, but we never find out what that is.
Over their 30 outings together, Bertha is the muscle and Donald is the brains. Bertha controls the purse strings but soon realizes that she makes more money with Donald than without him — she takes him into partnership and he’s constantly driving her crazy, especially by spending money to make things happen when she prefers to pinch every penny, but she begrudgingly admits he gets the job done and makes them both money. The formula is that Donald gets mixed up with the case and a beautiful woman involved with the case simultaneously, and has to dodge fistfights and violence while working out whodunit, usually in the nick of time.
There was a TV pilot made for a Cool & Lam program in 1958, based on Turn On The Heat (1940) when Perry Mason was at the height of its TV popularity, but it never went anywhere. A pity; this unconventional pair of detectives gets to the solution of 30 mysteries before the police, and their adventures would have made interesting television.
If you want the raw Bertha and Donald, before a veneer of sophistication overtakes them in later novels, I recommend The Bigger They Come; you’ll also find a recent discovery, a previously-unpublished Cool & Lam novel from 1940 called The Knife Slipped, to be of interest. If you want to see Donald actually win a fistfight, that’s Double or Quits; he studies fighting in Spill the Jackpot and Gold Comes in Bricks but still continues to get beaten up whenever he’s in a fight. And Donald spends time in Colombia (Crows Can’t Count) and Mexico (All Grass Isn’t Green).
Bertha takes two cases on her own while Donald is off fighting in WW2; Bats Fly at Dusk and Cats Prowl at Night, although Donald’s presence is felt by telegram. The entire series is worth your time, if you want to see legal legerdemain mixed with gangsters, shady schemes, beautiful women and the pugnacious Sgt. Frank Sellers (who asks Bertha to marry him at the end of Cats Prowl at Night). The language is frequently salty and Donald’s bedroom antics with witnesses (and Bertha’s secretary Elsie) are quite salacious, but there’s a hard core of detection at the centre that will satisfy even those keen on the puzzle mystery.
I’ve already gone on too long to impose on you with a biography of my third favourite ESG detective, hard-punching district attorney Doug Selby, hero of ESG’s D.A. series; that will have to be for next time. (some hours later) Next time came sooner than I thought: Here is part 2, about Doug Selby and Judge Dee.