The Case of the Smoking Chimney, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1943)

erle-stanley-gardner-the-case-of-the-smoking-chimneyPerhaps it’s a bit too much, considering how much I enjoyed the brand-new Cool & Lam novel a little while ago, but not many other people are talking about Erle Stanley Gardner these days. So I hope you don’t mind me going back to the well. Right on top of a box of books I was unpacking was my copy of this scarce Gardner title and I enjoyed going through it after such a long absence, so I thought I’d share my pleasure with you.

28201395512_3e853d4936_zThis is the second of two novels featuring Gramps Wiggins as an amateur detective, solving crimes and assisting his grandson-in-law Frank Duryea, who is District Attorney of the semi-rural (and imaginary) County of Santa Delbarra in California. Frank and his wife Mildred, Gramps’s granddaughter, suffer through occasional visits from Gramps. Gramps is a defiantly long-haired senior citizen who tootles around the country in a house trailer, living with little reference to ration booklets and social convention. The last time he parked his trailer in Frank and Mildred’s driveway, he solved The Case of the Turning Tide (1941); this time he disposes of another complex case in no time flat in his final outing.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

124392In the first eleven chapters of this book, we meet all the suspects to a crime that hasn’t happened yet. However, the experienced mystery reader will certainly be expecting a murder soon … Ralph G. Pressman has pulled a fast one on a lot of ranchers and small-holders near the town of Petrie in Santa Delbarra county. Pressman realized that some boiler-plate clauses about oil that a lot of landowners thought were worthless encumbrances to their deeds actually had teeth; he bought them from the heirs of the original owners and began drilling for oil. And because of the way they’d been worded, Pressman could install equipment anywhere on any of the land, regardless of improvements.

Half of the landowners in Petrie are up in arms, particularly the large-scale farmers who don’t want to see derricks in the middle of their vegetable fields. The editor of the local paper, Everett True, has just learned that Pressman has the courts on his side, and the local farmers are putting together an association for what will likely be a fruitless legal attempt to stop him. George Karper, a land developer, is the leader of this association and has a reputation for being brutal and ruthless; the largest local farmer, Hugh Sonders, is happy to see Karper take the lead in the fight.

51sadvg9-cl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Meanwhile, Ralph Pressman’s wife Sophie has been taking advantage of Ralph’s frequent extended absences from the matrimonial home to step out on the town with a succession of other men; she has, as she puts it to herself, more than one beau to her string. She’s suspicious that her husband is having her shadowed, though; not long ago, Pressman’s secretary Jane received an envelope full of incriminating photographs of Mrs. Pressman from a detective agency addressed to her boss.

Another source of potential problems in Pressman’s office is the handsome but thieving bookkeeper Harvey Stanwood, who has embezzled nearly $20,000 to feed his gambling habit and impress his girlfriend, beautiful and hard-edged Eva Raymond. (She’s described as “a gifted amateur with commercial tendencies”.) Pressman is about to be discovered and faces prison; George Karper, though, has found out his problems and is bribing him for the low-down on Pressman’s machinations.

bookcaseofthesmokingchimneyStanwood reveals an important piece of information to Karper that he’s already told his girlfriend Eva (he also revealed he’s one step away from prison). The reason Pressman has been away from home so much lately is because he’s established a secret identity as a landowner in Petrie. In his pose as “Jack Reedley”, living in a little cabin on a small plot of land that’s potentially involved in the oil drilling, Pressman can join the farmers’ organization and stay ahead of his opponents by knowing all their plans.

So Pressman is leading a double life; he has a cheating wife and a thieving bookkeeper and a host of enemies, and everyone has just learned where the little cabin belonging to Jack Reedley is located.

At this point, Gramps Wiggins pulls his disreputable trailer into the driveway of the DA and wife for a surprise visit. Gramps proceeds to pour them a high-powered hot toddy and is making them hotcakes the next morning when the local Sheriff shows up to tell the DA that there’s a murdered body in a shabby old cabin — well, you guessed that already, didn’t you?

81-903946-9-xThe officials investigate, and Gramps Wiggins investigates unofficially. As is common in this vintage of detective fiction, nearly all the above-mentioned characters had occasion to visit the isolated cabin the evening before. Sonders and True have a harrowing story to tell about the inhabitant of the cabin locking himself in, when they come to remonstrate with him, and refusing to utter a word until they’re gone. There’s a woman’s compact with the initials “ER” lying on the front porch. There’s a “suicide note” made from the headlines of the local newspaper. And Gramps Wiggins, with his wide experience of camping and living rough, is very interested in the state of the chimney on an oil lamp that is the only potential source of light in the cabin.

The suicide theory is soon discounted as the officials investigate, thanks to a tip about the gun’s location from Gramps. Various of the parties immediately combine to start throwing suspicion on each other as fast as they can, and fooling around with pieces of evidence to see if they can mislead the police. Gramps and his grandson-in-law are at loggerheads about how to investigate the case — the DA prefers the official method and refuses to allow Gramps to take a hand. But when Gramps realizes what’s been going on, and that the DA’s political future could depend on the outcome, he solves the case in such a way that the DA gets all the credit.

Why is this book worth your time?

md10251406704I’ll be frank and say that you may not think that it is worth your time, although I hope to suggest that there’s many things in it you will enjoy and I personally would recommend it. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is a minor novel by a great writer who is better known (and justifiably so) for his other creations. Gramps Wiggins is not so much characterized as sketched. His fondness for homespun cooking and very strong cocktails is heavily emphasized again and again, but other than the label of “unconventional old coot” there’s really not a lot we know about him. Except that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and for solving the mystery.

There’s also a small structural problem that’s eventuated by this being a little-known detective character for ESG. Essentially the first half of the book is spent laying down tracks for all the characters, so that you can understand that something is going to happen on the night of the murder, although not quite why and by whom. This is a lot more exposition than we usually get from Gardner, who generally starts Perry Mason novels with a bang and an exciting and enigmatic story hook. This novel is more subtly plotted, but it takes a long time to get off the ground.

And make no mistake, this book is pretty much only about the plot. None of the characters are all that believable; they do the things that they need to do to preserve the mystery. I still don’t know quite why Eva Raymond does what she does; she has to in order to keep the plot moving, but what little we know about her tells us that she wouldn’t have done it. She’s a minor character who rings quite false (and who could easily have been combined with Jane the secretary). Not Gardner’s best characterization by a long shot.

But if you can get past the idea that everyone in the book is more or less a cardboard cutout who is meant to be moved around the game board while Gardner tries to fool you with the complicated plot — I think you may actually enjoy this book. For one thing, the mystery at the centre of it is really well thought-out. Gramps Wiggins’s deductions from the state of the chimney of the oil lamp are clever and insightful, and lead the police to the solution, but there’s an easier path to the answer available if you merely pause to think about what you’ve been told about what characters heard and saw. This isn’t a puzzle on the level of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, but its details would not have disgraced either of those writers and you will probably have a forehead-slapping moment of chagrin when you realize just how you’ve been fooled. Yes, it’s the old, old ESG story, where the suspects troop to and from the murder scene at half-hour intervals and at least one suspect has the opportunity to say, “But he was already dead when I got there!” But just because it’s the mixture as before doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to see how it plays out.

md14280574877And there is a lot here that will remind you of other characters in other books. Gramps himself — who is mentioned in the foreword as being to some extent “inspired” by a New Orleans photographer whom Gardner had met in his travels — has a lot in common with the salty desert philosophers of The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (a Perry Mason novel, also 1943). There’s a supercilious cheating wife a la Eva Belter in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933); an endlessly loyal secretary a la Della Street, and a District Attorney who is very closely allied to Doug Selby, the protagonist of the nine D.A. novels from around the same wartime period.

In fact it’s interesting to speculate why exactly Gardner didn’t make this a Doug Selby novel. Did he think that Gramps Wiggins might catch on with the public (or his publishers)? There’s nothing about the plot per se that would disqualify it from being a Selby novel. Perhaps the answer is, as the foreword suggests, that Gramps Wiggins popped into Gardner’s head and “demanded to be set down on paper”. He neither spoils the book nor adds much to it; once you get past the disreputable surface, there’s nothing much below.

But I do think this book will occupy your mind enjoyably for a period of time; the plot moves ahead at a breakneck clip, for the most part. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s occasionally funny, and there’s nothing actively silly about it. Sometimes that’s all I ask from a murder mystery.

My favourite edition

13647032-_uy200_I have a great fondness for the early Pocket Books editions of Gardner, even those that are, like my own copy featured at the head of this essay, muddy-looking and unexciting. (It’s Pocket #667, the first printing of the first paperback edition from December, 1949.) I also like Pocket #6014, with the woman in the slinky green evening gown and the incongruous polka-dot gloves.  There aren’t many great looking editions of this book, including the dismally smeary first edition.

There’s also an edition from the Detective Book Club who published it in a three-up in a volume containing the excellent She Died A Lady as by Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr). Two good books for the price of one, even if they are abridged.

But I do like the audacity of the publisher who just decided to say “the hell with it” and market it as a Perry Mason mystery, including a painting that looks awfully like Raymond Burr. That takes either great fortitude or a large amount of sheer stupidity, and I can’t say which one it is. (I also can’t identify the edition, because I scooped the illustration from the internet.) I have a couple of nice Pocket editions of this, but now I’m looking for the out-and-out lying one!

This title is easy to get in the used market, notably from ABE Books, and I understand there is an e-version available from Stratus Books in the UK (it’s the ugly cover with a Rosie the Riveter headscarf shown above) that should be very inexpensive if you decide you might like to read this.  Hope you enjoy it!

The D.A. Takes A Chance, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1948)

D.A.TakesaChanceThe8047WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel.  This is a work of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solution is not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of this classic work so that you will enjoy it without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

G135What’s this book about?

Beautiful Doris Kane drives into “Madison City”, California (based on Ventura) to visit her newlywed daughter Paula and her husband Jim Melvin. When she arrives at the house, there’s nobody home and nobody’s been there for a while; there’s a letter in the mailbox from well-known shyster lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr (“old ABC”). A snoopy neighbour mentions the Melvins had a wild party where there might have been a pistol shot. And when Doris investigates the spare bedroom, the bed is drenched with blood. Doris runs for the law. But when she leads slow-moving, hard-punching Sheriff Brandon and handsome war hero District Attorney Doug Selby back into the house, the letter is gone and the house is spotless.

Selby and Brandon continue to investigate. ABC shows up, as does Jim Melvin. He tells Doris the story of some Hollywood type who got drunk and shot himself in the arm. Jim is working to sell a lucrative project to Madison City (newfangled parking meters that reset to zero when the car leaves, thus doubling the take) and tells Doris he and Paula have moved temporarily to a secluded house for reasons connected with the considerable political machinations necessary to get the project across. Jim takes Doris back to the other residence and puts her to bed, the couple mentioning that they have a female house guest who hasn’t been sleeping too well. In the middle of the night, party girl Eve Dawson makes her way into Doris’s bedroom, looking for company and conversation; she’s accustomed to music, dancing, liquor, and company, and she’s been secluded and isolated while she recovers from — a recent bullet wound. The two house guests chatter for a few minutes, then Doris falls asleep. But in the morning, Paula Melvin discovers that Eve Dawson has been stabbed to death with a big carving knife.

7109075167_e1345267d5_bThis kicks up Selby and Brandon’s investigation into high gear, but everyone’s clamming up quickly. When they go to the little town of Highdale to interview Eve Dawson’s mother, they learn — from, among others, a garrulous cab driver who is under the mistaken impression that people don’t recognize him as a blabbermouth — that beautiful Eve had left town to seek her fortune and was apparently on the verge of Hollywood stardom (at least according to Eve).  They also find the source of the carving knife, a local hardware store, which recently sold its last such knife in stock to, of all people, old ABC. The trail of evidence leads to Eve’s roommate, a hard-edged beauty named Eleanor “Babe” Harlin who never met a nickel, or a wealthy man, she didn’t like. Her diamond-hard demeanour enables her to rebuff the lawmen in classic style. Meanwhile ABC has been busy in the background, muddling the trail on behalf of all the politicians and money-men profiting from the civic affairs of both Highdale and Madison City. Every time Selby and Brandon learn something, ABC and the politicians muddy the waters and fiddle with the meaning of the clues, constantly keeping the detectives on the defensive as everyone starts moving around at top speed. Meanwhile, Selby’s ally and sometime romantic interest Sylvia Martin, a reporter for the Madison City Clarion, mobilizes her story to counteract Selby’s political antagonists who control the other city newspaper, the Blade.

As things start to come to a head, someone slips a non-fatal dose of barbiturates to Babe Harlin; then two more characters eat some chocolate creams that appear out of nowhere and find themselves drugged. Intrepid Doug Selby works out what must have happened, then makes an arrest. And in a dramatic showdown finish, Selby realizes that he has enough evidence on old ABC to convict him of criminal conspiracy and put an end to his nefarious career. But the slippery ABC wriggles out of the worst of the charges by embarking on a dramatic and very surprising path with a key witness.  The reader is left anxiously awaiting the developments in the next novel that will grow out of this wild twist at the end of the novel. If I’d read this book when it first came out, I would have immediately placed an order for the next volume and anxiously awaited it for a year!

4701450662_2209e406ab_bWhy is this worth reading?

This is the eighth novel in a series of nine about Doug Selby, published between 1937 and 1949.  From the jacket flap of the first edition: “Too much candy, too many knives, too many politicians, and a great deal too much of suave unscrupulous A. B. Carr make this one of Selby’s toughest and most brilliant cases.” I have to agree.

It’s not clear to me why Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG) gave up writing this series in 1949. As near as I can tell, it was easy money — take the same type of plot that would underpin a Perry Mason novel, turn it inside out so the lawyer is the villain and the district attorney is the hero, and … the mixture as before. ESG had a great hand with a story hook, and this novel starts with a bed full of blood that gets the reader’s attention immediately and never lets it go. The plotting is complicated but the reader can always grasp it. Also, unlike some of the later Perry Mason novels, everyone’s motivations throughout the action make complete sense, even though those motivations aren’t easy to see. The writing is smooth and clear, with just enough description to give you a picture of where you are and what you’re seeing, but it’s the characterizations that carry the plot, and at this point ESG was at the height of his powers.

9351944._UY200_And there are some great characters in this book too. Alphonse Baker Carr is just wonderful; you really get a full picture of this glad-handing, smooth-tongued lawyer who is so sneaky, he could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead of you on the other side. He’s the equivalent of Perry Mason, but minus the moral code and responsibility — and whenever he’s on the scene, he heats up the room and intensifies the action. Another wonderful character is the minor one of the talkative cab driver. ESG doesn’t make the novice mistake of telling us what this guy is really like. Instead, everything that everyone says, including the driver himself, is written as though everyone believes what this doofus is saying about how he’s a model of closed-mouthedness is 100% true. But the reader grasps the picture, through subtle and clever writing, and sees that Doug Selby is counting on the cab driver to spill the beans everywhere he goes, which will suit Selby’s purposes just fine. Babe Harlin is another perfectly-written character; you can see her the hard shell of beauty and grasp the rough-and-tumble life that’s brought her to this point, hooked in with these sleazy politicians. Even Doris Kane, who is not much more than a minor character, in the few glimpses we see of her is a fully-formed character who leads us into the action in the first chapter by seeing Madison City with the eyes of a stranger.

8362746625_6d9bef7c6a_bI can’t say there is much to support my idea, but I’ll hesitantly suggest that the reason that ESG stopped this series was — the characters were too human. Over the nine volumes, Doug Selby has relationships with both reporter Sylvia Martin and someone who’s not in this volume, Inez Stapleton. Given that many of the characters in this series are the exact opposite of their professional counterparts in the Perry Mason series, Inez is a kind of Della Street gone wrong; the daughter of a wealthy family who is sweet on Selby before he runs for political office but, when Selby convicts her brother of a crime, the family loses its social pre-eminence. This is something like what we learn about Della Street in the earliest volume of the Perry Mason series. But where Della became a secretary, Inez went to law school and now is a frequent courtroom antagonist of the district attorney. Sylvia is a staunch ally of the DA and maintains that position here, but it’s pretty clear she’d like to be Mrs. Selby some day. I can’t tell you precisely what ABC gets up to here, for spoiler reasons, but it’s a significant development in his character’s life and lifestyle and represents a real advancement and change. And I think that’s the problem. ESG wasn’t really comfortable with characters who changed as they grew and progressed; it wasn’t really his comfort zone. Every Perry Mason novel is pretty much the same, and similarly with his Cool & Lam series. Even Selby himself changes throughout the series; at the beginning he’s idealistic, later he goes off to war and comes home a hero — but a slightly more cynical hero, more willing to believe the worst of others on short notice, and automatically assuming that he has political antagonists and they’re working against him.

Again, I have to say I don’t know of any evidence to support this suggestion. Gardner was an excellent, prolific and diversified writer, with large numbers of series characters available to him. He could have simply decided to focus on Perry Mason because that’s something he was guaranteed the public would want to buy. If he ever mentioned in writing why he stopped writing this series, I’m not aware of it; I just have a sense of what was going on, that’s all. But what this means, of course, is that this may well be the most well-characterized series he ever wrote. You can trace the development of the characters through these nine delightful novels, and I think you will enjoy them if you do.  But this also means that it’s important to start with the first volume and not this one, the eighth. If you’ve read the previous seven, you’ll enjoy this one a LOT more, and you will be anxiously awaiting your chance to get your hands on the ultimate volume.

My favourite edition

It’s pretty clear that when you have a mystery that involves a beautiful and, shall we say, slutty girl who’s found dead in bed in nightclothes, the cover art is, five times out of the six variations above, based on that Good Girl Art (GGA) selling point. It’s just a natural. When you think of how many covers of this period were GGA when there wasn’t any reason for it, well, you have to expect this cover to be GGA.  That being said, I actually like the edition at the very top of this piece (which, as is my habit, shows the copy at hand from my collection), Pocket #1010 — mine is the third printing. Silver Studios, who produced the cover, cleverly managed to get TWO beautiful women in nightclothes onto the cover in a nice graphic way. Ordinarily as a collector and sometime dealer, my attention is frequently drawn to valuable editions or the true first — in this case, the Morrow edition is, yes, GGA, but the illustration seems muddy; the colours are muted and not really attractive.

The Nurse’s Secret (1941)

nursesecretThe Nurse’s Secret (1941) is definitely at the B level but is still worth 65 minutes of your viewing time. It’s a fairly faithful remake of Miss Pinkerton (1932), which was based upon an eponymous novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pretty young Nurse Adams is assigned to special duty at an old decaying mansion. The elderly matriarch’s spendthrift son has blown his brains out, we are told, and the matriarch discovered his body and promptly had a “severe nervous shock”, so requires full-time nursing. The nurse’s boyfriend, police Inspector Patten, asks her to investigate on his behalf. Well, the matron is acting strange, but then so is the butler, and the butler’s wife, and and the dead guy’s girlfriend, and the guy who lives across the street. And it looks more and more likely as if the verdict of accident upon which the matriarch is insisting isn’t all that believable after all. Nurse Adams gets dangerously close to being accused of the second crime before she and her boyfriend sort it all out and Inspector Patten applies the handcuffs.

Lee Patrick

Lee Patrick

The earlier film stars Joan Blondell and George Brent at the top of their respective games; this film stars Lee Patrick as Nurse Adams and Regis Toomey as her boyfriend from Homicide.  You may never have heard of Lee Patrick, whom I see as a hard-working woman at the second rank of stardom (or lower). Her most memorable role was earlier in 1941; she plays the small but memorable role of Sam Spade‘s secretary Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon. She’s more of a character actor than a glamorous lead. This might actually be her only starring role in a film (although if someone knows differently, I’d appreciate being informed). The unsubstantiated story is that her husband, a writer for magazines, did an unflattering piece on gossipeuse Louella Parsons and Lee Patrick’s career suffered forever as a result.

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Regis Toomey

It’s amusing to watch Miss Pinkerton and then The Nurse’s Secret one after the other because you get to see clearly what it is that makes a B a B. Lee Patrick’s salary was probably a tenth of what Joan Blondell earned for the same role. Patrick has a certain quality of hardness that Blondell only approaches; hard to explain, but you get the feeling that where Blondell might utter a racy wisecrack, Patrick would — away from the microphones — rip off a string of unprintable curses. This isn’t based on anything except my feeling about the two of them, but Blondell certainly turned out to have more widespread popularity and hence staying power. George Brent and Regis Toomey are roughly equal as the two hard-nosed cops. Everything in the B version is less expensive, and less well chosen, and just generally cheaper; sets, costumes, and the quality of everyone and everything in each film. The first film features a creepy old mansion; the second film features a not very creepy old mansion with some weird daytime lighting effects of random shadows that can’t be caused by anything imaginable. Miss Pinkerton builds tension and sustains it; The Nurse’s Secret doesn’t manage to build tension for very long before it dissipates it with ugly lighting, a noodly-doodly music score and a poorly-chosen supporting cast.

Clara Blandick

Clara Blandick

The only high point in The Nurse’s Secret is the actor playing the elderly matriarch, Clara Blandick. I first noticed her chewing the scenery in a small but significant role in Philo Vance Returns (1947), but I later started seeing her in everything everywhere; you know how that goes. Once you recognize a character actor’s face you can’t imagine how you ever missed her before. She played Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz; and generally played in 100+ films, frequently made up to be older than she actually was. And my audience of mystery fans may remember her in a tiny role in the 1936 Perry Mason production, The Case of the Velvet Claws; she plays Judge Mary at night court who marries Perry to Della Street just before the honeymoon is ruined by a murder.

As I’ve said, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen somewhat better written and more expensively portrayed in the earlier film. But if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the first-hand effects of turning an A film into a B production, this will amuse you. And if you haven’t managed to see Miss Pinkerton, it will whet your appetite for something more solid!

 

 

 

Quick Look: Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain

Perry Mason in the Case of Too Many Murders, by Thomas Chastain (1989; authorized by the estate of Erle Stanley Gardner)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

41eZbYCS4NL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_What’s this book about?

Well-known businessman Gil Adrian shoots and kills his dinner companion in full view of a restaurant full of witnesses, then escapes. A short time later Adrian is found murdered in his Hollywood Hills home. His ex-wife is the immediate suspect, and she turns to well-known courtroom wizard Perry Mason. Perry investigates the late Mr. Adrian’s business and romantic entanglements and his very, very busy life, and although his client seems determined to dig her own courtroom grave, he manages to work out what really happened and how, and brings the crimes home to a murderer who has been heretofore not considered by officials as a suspect.

Why is this worth reading?

I could answer this easily by actually answering the question above in a snide way. The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at my standard “What is this book about?” was “About 256 pages too long.” But the real answer to “Why is this worth reading?” is, “It just isn’t.”

Nevertheless, I’ll try be a bit more detailed. When considering whether to — or, these days, when to — issue “continuation” volumes using the characters and oeuvre of a deceased best-selling author, it seems as though the heirs have a couple of things they think are important, but only one at a time. Some estates go for sales, and some for safety. The ones who want sales, like the James Bond franchise, license the character to a lot of interesting writers, some of whom are relatively disastrous and one or two of whom knock it out of the park; once in a while they have a best-seller, and the rest of the time they have some steady sales. The ones who want safety are somehow timid; “We don’t want to actually CHANGE anything about Grandpa’s beloved character, we just want a couple of original stories that don’t contradict anything and don’t offend anybody, because the fans would buy Grandpa’s laundry lists if we bound them.”

I can’t say anything about Erle Stanley Gardner’s laundry lists, but the rest seems to be just about what happened here. This book is, in fact, arrogant; it is arrogant because it assumes that the reader is stupid and hasn’t been paying attention.  I think I can explain this without spoiling any enjoyment you might have in reading this if you were recovering from brain surgery and needed something simple for distraction. The whole book is built around a trick; something like John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, except that this trick is horribly terribly obvious from the first chapter. I think even if you had never read a murder mystery before, but only seen them on television, you would grasp what was being dangled tantalizingly before you as being, to quote the back cover, “a fiendishly twisted puzzle” — “the most baffling case of [Perry Mason’s] career.” No, it’s not. The police miss the idea, the detectives and suspects miss the idea, but to this reader at least it was absolutely obvious, and everyone was off on the wrong track.

After setting the path towards the big reveal, Chastain proceeds to muddy the waters with a few trails of red herrings about the victim’s generally evil tendencies and people whom he’d recently wronged. But all the time, dropping little references to a concept that is the base of the trick. I think you have to have read the book twice (heaven help me, I did) to grasp all the little hinties and word choices. But then about two-thirds of the way through the book, it’s as though Chastain realizes that evidence that satisfyingly demonstrates a criminal’s guilt in a way that is connected to the trick is not going to be possible, but the reader still has to be almost able to solve the crime even though the hints are gossamer-thin, and he has no physical clues to offer. So he starts dropping bigger and bigger hints about the underlying concept, and finally a huge one that ends in Perry Mason saying, “(face palm) By golly, that’s the ticket! I should have realized that 180 pages ago!” Which was when you and I and everyone else over 14 realized it.

41S8VZZ62XL._BO1,204,203,200_But the real problem with this book is that the writer, Thomas Chastain, has what I have to call a tin ear for dialogue and description. It’s not often that this happens to me, but I hit a single word in this novel that struck me as being so off, so impossibly wrong and leaden and regrettable, that it stopped me dead in my tracks and I put the book down for a minute. Paul Drake, Jr. — the book follows the characters of the made-for-TV movies — is, as most of you will remember, a handsome curly-headed cheerful guy who’s a fairly tough PI but scores with the ladies. On page 207 of the paperback, Perry asks him, “Do you think your buddy, Dumas, will notice that you’ve gone?” “I already bade him good night. He won’t miss me as long as his bottle holds out.” My word was “bade”. As far as I’m concerned, Paul Drake, Jr. never “bade” anyone anything EVER. The book is full of big clanging wrongnesses in dialogue like, for instance, Perry using carefree contractions and talking imprecisely. And for the rest of it, the writing is … mushy. The prose is bland, the descriptions are insubstantial and careless, and the characterization is non-existent. Okay, I recognize that Gardner was not known for characterization, but honestly, we don’t know much about most of the characters at all, except from context. It’s like they have one-word character descriptions hanging around their necks and that’s all you get.

So finally I’m into the home stretch and thinking, “Well, he has to do something to make this book come alive, or even gasp for breath. I suppose he’ll work some kind of clever reversal on the ending I foresaw on page 12.” And I came up with a couple of ways that that could be done, and I was actually taking a little interest, when — bang, yeah, it was the ending I foresaw on page 12. I don’t actually throw books across the room, because I usually hope to sell them some day, but holy moly it was tempting. This book is start to finish irredeemably awful.

Thomas Chastain was involved in the Who Killed the Robins Family? game/book/publicity stunt thingie from the early 80s; he co-wrote novels with, of all people, Helen Hayes and Peter Graves. (What we call an “open ghost”.) He wrote a Nick Carter novel, for crying out loud, and one that a critic called “undistinguished”. Wow, you have to work hard to not quite manage to pull off a Nick Carter novel. In fact, Chastain can’t write a lick, and he dragged this project and this franchise down with him. I know that Parnell Hall, an excellent writer, wanted to take over the franchise — if you’re interested, look at the first couple of Steve Winslow novels as by J. P. Hailey, because he told me that’s how he repurposed the novels they didn’t buy. They read very oddly but very satisfyingly once you know the secret, and I bet you will join me in wishing that he would have taken over the franchise instead of Chastain. As it is, Chastain wrote one more of these (TCOT Burning Bequest) and the print franchise died an unhappy death. I would suspect that his performance here was under the strict and stern guidance of the estate — it just seems like that to me, because it’s all so damn bland — so I bet he tried his best. But what an ignominious end this was to such a great franchise!

My favourite edition

Very few editions exist, thank goodness; to the best of my knowledge, one hardcover (Yes! For the library trade) and one paperback.  Both are shown here and both are undistinguished. The hardcover edition reminds me of the colours and layout of the Chastain-written Robins family book that was everywhere one summer in the 80s. I actually hope no further editions are published. It’s difficult to find a mint copy of the hardcover with the original sticker on the front saying “Perry Mason returns!” so that might be my favourite; I think I have one in a box somewhere and some collector will want it someday to complete her Perry Mason collection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Quick Look: The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1972)

30228What’s this book about?

Well-known criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason takes the case of a man who finds, due to a series of improbable circumstances, that he is sharing title to his new house with a beautiful woman who has run a five-strand barbed-wire fence down the middle of the house and is living in her half, doing various annoying things to try to drive him out and get back at her hateful ex-husband. Although the fence splits the swimming pool in half, it’s not clear which side of the house is involved when a dead body is found sprawled on the surrounding concrete. Perry (and his team of secretary Della Street and private eye Paul Drake) must defend both the homeowners in court; when he finds himself with a briefcase with his name printed on it in gold, filled with stolen bonds, he’s in almost as much trouble as his clients. It takes Perry a while to realize all of the ramifications of this briefcase but, when he does, he brings the crime home to a surprising murderer and a very surprising accomplice.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

I have to admit, I’ve laughed about this book for a long time. It was the last Perry Mason novel to be published during the author’s 80-year lifetime (one further novel by Gardner was published posthumously) and Gardner to me had seemed to echo a number of other elderly Golden Age writers whose last few books were of disappointing quality (Christie, Marsh, etc.). And I also must admit I had half composed my review before I sat down, as is my habit, to skim the book in one final burst before sketching out my comments.

Part of this writes itself.  Gardner has a consistent pattern in the Perry Mason books. Something unusual — the story hook — happens to an innocent person and he or she consults Mason for help. The story hook is something that is meant to pique the interest of the reader and present a problem that putatively will be solved by the end of the book. Why is someone paying a pretty girl to gain weight? Why did someone steal a man’s “bloodshot” glass eye?  Why is the dog in the house next door howling all night?  Well, this story hook, with the house divided by barbed wire, is just … ridiculous. Gardner tries to explain it by dragging in a divorce court judge with a sense of humour, but essentially, you just have to hold your nose and buy into it, or else put the book down.

So I was chuckling to myself as I went through the first third of the book, because the story hook really IS silly. It’s also a bit meretricious, because the beautiful woman part-owner of half the house makes a point of parading around in skimpy lingerie and swimsuits (to try to entice the man into making a pass, at which point she sues him for the other half of the house, I think) — and you can almost see the cover of the paperback, can’t you? The second third of the book caught me up a bit, though. In Perry Mason novels, Act II is reserved for the client(s) doing something stupid and self-incriminating that drags Perry into ethical minefields, and Perry frequently starts fooling around with the evidence so that no one really knows what happened anyway. Act III, of course, is always courtroom drama.

Well, I think I’d forgotten just what went on in Act II of this novel, which involves Perry making a flying trip to the casinos of Las Vegas, chasing a witness. There’s a chapter that details exactly how the profession of shill works (a beautiful young woman employed by the casino is friendly and enticing to gamblers while they’re gambling, then vanish when they put away their wallets, and another beautiful girl steers them out the door). Perry actually goes through the hands of two shills while he’s keeping an eye on his witness. Then Perry is caught with the briefcase filled with stolen bonds — and someone has monogrammed his name on it in gold. The police take everyone back to LA for Act III, Perry figures out what actually happened, and his clients are found not guilty.

c16399But as I skimmed, I started to realize that there are things in this book that are quite cleverly handled. Certainly the characterization is at the same low level of most other novels in the series; Gardner had apparently absorbed the dictum that if you create any realistic characters in a murder mystery, they stand out and distract the reader. But the plot is fast-moving, even if it doesn’t quite make sense all the time (Perry races off to Vegas for no really good reason, when detectives are available). The clever things are very mystery oriented and they start with a nice little piece of deduction about how a man would put his arm into a swimming pool to get something. Then there is the chapter on casino shills, which is interesting information and offers some fun moments with Perry interacting with the two women.

At the end of the book, Perry gets his clients acquitted by throwing suspicion on a third party, but no one is sure really whodunit. Perry sits back with his clients and Lieutenant Tragg and performs a clever piece of extended analysis on the planted briefcase that reveals a very surprising character’s involvement in the crime.  And honestly, I have to confess, it went right over my head the first time I read this book, I recall.

So instead of inviting you to laugh at this poor effort by an octogenarian writer, I decided it would be more honest to tell you that the old maestro really did have some skills. Yes, the hook is ridiculous. But once you suspend your disbelief, and stop looking for characterization, you will find an interesting plot with some well-hidden clues and a surprise at the end. Much more okay, overall, than I’d remembered.

cce4c1e6d73b74c237f13fb155c3f290My favourite edition

Very few books published in 1972 have a cover that I would call attractive; it was not a great period for book design. My favourite edition is really the cheerfully vulgar Pocket Canada edition shown to the left. Pocket Canada did an edition of the final few Mason novels that was executed with their usual lack of production values — two models, wearing as little as possible, sprawled on a seamless with something resembling the weapon, with the type sprayed over the top without a care as to how people actually look at books in stores. Those were the days, weren’t they? This is actually one of the Mason novels that can take some time to acquire, if you don’t use eBay or Abe — many people find a reading copy via a book club imprint is the only copy they can find.

 

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or QuitsAuthor:

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his Perry Mason series, of course, but this was his best-known pseudonym. His Wikipedia entry is found here. As A. A. Fair, he wrote 29 novels about the private investigation team of Cool and Lam: Bertha Cool, a tough middle-aged professional detective, and Donald Lam, a scrawny gumshoe and disbarred lawyer who is the protagonist of the stories.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1941 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “E”, “Read a book with a detective ‘team’.” Cool and Lam are a corporate team of private investigators. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The edition I re-read for this post is at the top of this post; Dell D361, with cover art by Robert McGinnis, a 1960 reissue of the original Dell mapback #160 (later reprinted as #718).

The first edition was Morrow, 1941. Many, many paperback editions exist, including some interesting ones from England. There was a 1942 edition as part of a three-in-volume from Detective Book Club in 1942 (with Christie’s The Body in the Library and an F. Van Wyck Mason title), and a 1946 Triangle Books edition that apparently used the same cover art on the dust jacket as the first edition, which has doubtless led to some difficulties over the years.

dell0160About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

After a lengthy illness, Bertha Cool has slimmed down from her former 220 pounds to a mere 160 pounds “of solid muscle”. As part of her recovery process, she’s taken up fishing. Donald Lam accompanies her to the pier one day, and the two meet a prospective client, wealthy Dr. Devarest. His wife’s jewelry has been stolen and he wants it recovered but, before Donald can get to work, Dr. Devarest is found dead in his garage, poisoned by carbon monoxide. 

dell0160backAt this point in the book, an important event happens that is pivotal to the remainder of the series (this is volume 5 of 29).  Up to this point, Donald has been Bertha’s employee, but he faces up to her here and demands a partnership stake in the agency. Bertha refuses and Donald resigns and announces that he is moving to San Francisco. After his three-day vacation in San Francisco, Bertha arrives and capitulates; henceforth it will be Cool & Lam on the office door, and they will jointly supervise faithful secretary Elsie. Bertha realizes that, although she is highly competent at the ordinary detective business, Donald has the brilliant mind and detective instincts that are necessary to bring in the big money. She hates the idea, and they continue to bicker like cat and dog for the remainder of the series, but Bertha’s first love is money and she does what she has to do to bring it in her direction.

dell0718After this brief segue, Donald knuckles down to work. An important point in the book is whether Dr. Devarest died by accident — specifically, was it by “accidental means” or “accidental death”. If it was by accidental means, the insurance company must pay double. However, Donald and the insurance company are aware of the precise difference, and Mrs. Devarest hires Donald to make the insurance company pay $80,000 instead of $40,000. As happens in every book, Donald meets and romances a couple of attractive young women to get information and leads (and continues his long-standing flirtation with the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand). However, one unique thing happens in this book. Donald is about 5’6″ and weighs 130 pounds and never carries a gun; in nearly every book he is beaten up by someone. In this novel, though, is the only recorded instance of Donald winning a fight (against an insurance adjuster). In two previous books he’s taken boxing and jujitsu lessons and this is the only time that they pay off.

Donald works away at the twin questions of death by accidental means and Mrs. Devarest’s missing jewelry.  He performs an interesting piece of extended deduction with a counterweight which may or may not have been attached to the garage door which trapped the doctor in the exhaust-filled garage. Lam learns there’s an ex-con working as Mrs. Devarest’s chauffeur, and the late doctor may or may not have been having an affair with his nurse. Meanwhile, the querulous, hypochondriacal and self-absorbed Mrs. Devarest might be carrying on an affair with her own physician, Dr. Gelderfield, who seems to be dancing regular attendance on a patient who has largely imaginary problems. Pretty young Nollie Starr, the nurse, has apparently absconded with the jewelry but is nowhere to be found — except that Donald figures out where she is in a single morning with a clever ruse — she rides her bike to play tennis early in the morning, so he searches all the tennis courts at the crack of dawn until he finds someone who meets her description. Donald then tells Elsie to come down and smash Nollie’s bicycle with her car and tell her to report it to the Auto Club; when the compensation claim is made, Donald gets Nollie’s true address and not the fake one she’d provided. Nollie is soon found strangled (with a pink corset string that’s been wound tightly around her neck by twisting it with a potato masher, which is a pretty bizarre murder method) and Donald has another crime on his hands. And the jewelry is still missing, although it is starting to look possible that someone with access to the late doctor’s safe had a hand in the jewelry’s disappearance.

As is common in the Cool & Lam novels, Donald ends up on the run from the police, who want to arrest him; Donald has to stay one step ahead of the police and the murderer. There’s a great scene near the end where Donald is hiding out at Elsie’s apartment, and she’s making him a great big steak dinner. Bertha and a police lieutenant show up unexpectedly and Elsie is bullied into serving them Donald’s steak dinner while he hides a few feet away. Donald finally realizes the murderer’s identity a few minutes after the murderer has inveigled him into taking a long drink from a bottle of whisky that’s been heavily adulterated with morphia. Donald phones the police and confesses to everything he can think of, just to get the police and an ambulance to his location in time to save himself. In a charming and clever finish, Donald is in the hospital and has been given a huge dose of caffeine to counteract the morphia; the caffeine produces a talking jag and the final chapter consists of him explaining all the inter-related crimes to a fascinated Bertha and the police lieutenant, talking like a machine gun. 

5020631953_d222b88486_zWhy is this book worth your time?

It’s hard to say just how much influence Erle Stanley Gardner had upon the course of detective fiction; in one sense, he was a very successful writer of pulp-style stories with complicated, fast-moving plots and very little characterization who wrote pretty much the same thing over and over again. But then again, he sold three hundred million copies of his books. He captured in a massive and authentic way the attention of a huge number of Americans, and more fans around the world in 23 languages.

In the 1950s in North America, when you talked about Perry Mason or Erle Stanley Gardner, people knew exactly who you meant. Perry Mason was at the top of the television rating charts and the books were selling at the rate of 20,000 units a day. I can remember as a child seeing a spinning rack of paperbacks in a drugstore; of the four sides of the rack, two were devoted to Perry Mason novels. Gardner influenced an entire generation of people about what a detective looked like and how he acted, and I have to think that every mystery writer who is currently over about 40 years old owes him some kind of debt.

The thing is, though, that as I mentioned above, all the Perry Mason novels are sort of the same — all 82-some-odd of them. There’s a very clear pattern that repeats pretty consistently, although it did change in one crucial respect as the series progressed.  In the earliest novels, Perry will hit people, commit petty crimes (like break into a witness’s home or disable his car), and just generally raise hell in order to protect his client.  In the first series novel, TCOT Velvet Claws, Perry’s client thinks it’s possible that Perry committed the murder to protect her. As time progressed, Perry became more and more aware of his responsibilities as an officer of the court, and once or twice delivered a sharp lecture about how there was a big difference between his own sharp but ethical practice — juggling guns around so that no one knew which was which was a favourite pastime — and, you know, illegal stuff. Especially after the influence of the television series and its artificial morality had a strong influence, Perry developed a huge stick up his ass and became more of an armchair detective, leaving PI Paul Drake to do all the work.

And I suspect that’s where Donald Lam came from, and with him Bertha Cool as a foil; Gardner wanted to have more fun with the writing. Gardner wrote a dozen Perry Mason mysteries before 1939, when he published the first Cool & Lam novel, and I suspect he was just bored with Perry’s necessity to stay on the side of the angels. Donald Lam is everything that Perry Mason cannot be. Mason is ethical and uptight and a cypher — in the entire course of the 82-or-so books, we never see his apartment, we never learn anything about him, we never know his history or his politics or, indeed, anything about him personally except his taste in food. His constant desire for steak dinners and cocktails and baked potatoes is like a trophe in the series, and there are many, many scenes set in a restaurant where Perry has a conference over dinner, or is interrupted by a client, or a witness, or a telephone call as his steak is being delivered. Poor Paul Drake is constantly surviving on soggy hamburger sandwiches and coffee.  If it weren’t for food, they’d be invisible in their own books.

Donald Lam, on the other hand, chases girls and frequently catches them. He is saucy, witty, vulgar, brash, arrogant, and really sneaky and underhanded. He is the PI who cuts corners, taints witness testimony with bribes, commits petty crimes in the furtherance of his investigation, and is constantly lying to women about the degree of his attraction to them. But they certainly have an attraction to him, possibly because he’s just a scrawny little guy and he worms his way into their affections because he constantly knows things, or can do things, that will help them. Especially when it helps them avoid the police, jail, and/or the attentions of the killer.

Donald Lam is just a hell of a lot more fun than Perry Mason or even Paul Drake, because Donald Lam is always having a lot more fun. There’s more to it than that, though. Lam is also a much more interesting detective, per se, than Perry Mason because he’s hands-on. Paul Drake gets results and brings them back to Mason for consideration, but we don’t often learn exactly how he got those results. With Donald Lam, we see what it’s like to be a detective. We see him read people and get it right. (For instance, in the opening sequence, he assesses Dr. Devarest’s relationship with his wife sufficiently accurately that he grasps the point of why the doctor has set up his study in a certain way, where Bertha misses the point completely.) We see the little tricks he uses to get information. (Like having Elsie smash Nollie’s bicycle deliberately, in order to get her address when she claims compensation from the auto club.) We see his knowledge of the law, above and beyond that of most people’s — he knows the precise difference between “death by accidental means” and “accidental death” and how it will affect the widow’s compensation. More to the point, Donald knows that a widow who feels she’s been cheated out of $40,000 will want to hire a detective agency to prove that that $40,000 is rightfully hers. He’s good with physical evidence — there’s an extended sequence where he demonstrates that he understands how a counterweight on a swinging garage door works better than anyone, perhaps even better than the murderer. He’s imaginative; we know this, because he’s capable of coming up with theories about why people would commit certain criminal acts and then correlate those theories with the actual evidence, which leads him to more investigative paths to prove his theories.

And as a human being, he’s also much more interesting than Perry Mason. Mason has Della Street and Lam has Elsie Brand, but Donald and Elsie have a much more natural and realistic relationship; and it’s fairly clear that they have actually had sex, although Gardner cannot say so due to the mores of the times. (In the final two paragraphs of this particular book, a nurse warns Elsie that Donald might be ” abnormally stimulated” by the caffeine and the implication is that he’ll attack her sexually. “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”) Throughout the series, Donald is much, much more attractive to women than Mason — or even Paul Drake. Over and over again, Donald encounters beautiful young women who don’t take him seriously, but who later find themselves falling for him without knowing why. He’s charming and witty, but he’s not sexless like Mason. Gardner was never known for characterization, but I’ll suggest that Donald Lam is perhaps his most well-written character. He’s absolutely his most human protagonist.

Ultimately, the Cool & Lam novels are less formulaic, less predictable, and more quirky. I’m not sure why they never gained the public’s attention as much as the Perry Mason series; possibly that had something to do with CBS’s advertising process for the TV series. If you want to read a book that shows why Erle Stanley Gardner was a good plotter, but without aching to remove the stick from Perry Mason’s ass, you should definitely give Cool and Lam a shot. The earliest books are the most interesting and fresh; by the end of the series (and the Perry Mason series also), Gardner was played out of new ideas and was reduced to inventing unusual hooks and then writing tepid books around them.

It’s interesting to note that in 1958, CBS produced a pilot for a proposed Cool & Lam series, directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, starring Billy Pearson as Donald Lam and Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. It never went anywhere, sadly; I’m not sure why. It would have been very unusual to see an overweight, hard-edged woman on TV in the late 50s, and Benay Venuta was more statuesquely beautiful and icy than “160 pounds of barbed wire”. Billy Pearson actually played a jockey in “TCOT Jilted Jockey” on the Perry Mason series, so he was the right size and weight for the role, but he and Venuta just didn’t seem to have any chemistry. And possibly CBS didn’t care to have so much power in the hands of Paisano Productions, since negotiations about the Perry Mason series were apparently already difficult. You can see the first 30 seconds of the credits on Youtube here.

1024038465Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, some deluded person in California wants $950 for a first edition, VG in jacket. The more reasonable prices are clustered around the vicinity of $100 to $200; not many copies are offered but my general sense is that not many are wanted either. A. A. Fair doesn’t seem that collectible. It seems odd to me that the Detective Book Club edition commands prices in the $50 range but it may well be that this is because the three-in-one volume contains The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which makes this far more attractive to Christie fans than Gardner completists.  Experienced collectors will be aware that Triangle Books editions are pretty much rubbish, but I still see them listed with extraordinary prices. They were very, very cheaply made, and I have to admit that if you can find one that has survived in decent condition, you have a rarity. Their paper stock was especially awful; I’ve occasionally had the experience of having a page crack in half as I was turning it. I’ve never met a Triangle collector; I can’t think of what would motivate someone to collect ugly reprint editions of good books, but it takes all kinds. I’ve seen at least one copy of the first edition wrapped in a facsimile of the Triangle jacket (as noted above, they used the same cover art).

I think that the most collectible editions are paperbacks; pride of place goes to the Dell mapback #160, because there are so many mapback collectors. Dell #718 has a cover by Fred Scotwood, not well known and not much collected; however, there is a dreamlike quality to the illustration that is quite attractive. Dell D361 has the McGinnis cover shown at the top of this post, and he’s widely collected. There are a couple of interesting UK paper editions, one from Corgi and one from Guild Books; I have no idea how collectible these are in the UK but I suspect there are plenty of Corgi collectors.

Vintage Golden Card 001

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

Here’s another of my favourite puzzle mystery writers.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Yes, the author of Perry Mason is one of my favourite mystery writers. I have to say my affection goes back a long, long time. I was a precocious kid who read his way through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at an early age and moved directly into the mystery section of the local library — which, since at the time I was living on a small Armed Forces base, was composed of a bunch of Perry Mason novels and some writers I’d never heard of.  Perry Mason was fairly tame to adult sensibilities, and when I asked my mother to explain why Perry Mason was so interested in Della Street’s ankles as she got in and out of the car, she knew my pre-teen self couldn’t come to much harm.  So I enjoyed them as mysteries and left the grown-up stuff for others.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner is not generally considered a writer of puzzle mysteries, by and large.  His blueprint was simple.  Start with a strange situation that would catch the reader’s attention — something mildly sexual and unusual, for which the average person would want a good lawyer on their side.  Add Perry Mason on the side of someone reasonably innocent.  Bring the situation to a rapid boil and add a murder.  Arrest Perry’s client and spend the rest of the book having Perry run amok while trying to exonerate his client.  Pretty much the last half of all the novels takes place in a courtroom.  Finish it off with a dramatic resolution wherein the guilty party confesses on the stand (for the most part) and stir with a dash of humour at the end.  And, by and large, Gardner didn’t feel the need to add any pesky characterization to complicate the mix.  Most of the characters in Perry Mason novels are labelled with a job and saddled with an alibi, and that’s their only distinction from the next suspect.

As an aside, Gardner did have one way of making his characters memorable; he gave the men unusual middle names. Possibly this was to protect himself from lawsuits because James Greevus Smith, banker, could be distinguished from almost any other James Smith, banker.  This didn’t happen so often with female characters, but married women often had an unusual maiden name.

Anyway, in terms of the traditional puzzle mystery, this lack of characterization is not a bad thing, by and large.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it was usually deliberate, in order to prevent the murderer being more noticeable by dint of being better characterized. It may well be, as I’ve often seen suggested, that Gardner was simply a writer who was unable to do much in the way of effective characterization, in which case his focus on puzzle mysteries was a mere fortunate coincidence or deliberate choice.  He was an experienced lawyer — it was unlikely for him to select the Western upon which to focus, let’s face it.

In his earliest novels, Perry Mason is more of a hard-boiled hard-punching lawyer who goes toe to toe against the villains and isn’t afraid to slug the occasional client-menacing gangster (for instance, The Case Of The Sulky Girl, TCOT Velvet Claws, TCOT Howling Dog, etc.).  But around the middle of World War II, he seems to have swerved in the direction of the puzzle mystery. I’ll suggest that the three most difficult puzzles in his oeuvre are TCOT Empty Tin (1941), TCOT Buried Clock (1943) and TCOT Crooked Candle (1944), but everything from about 1939 to 1947 is more strongly puzzle-oriented than the remainder of the novels. These novels actually have clues, physical clues, and are not merely sets of alibis against which to measure a set of circumstances.

And Gardner in this period avoids something that sustained his work in later years, which is to say the number of gorgeous women in sexualized situations is kept to a minimum.  By the 1960s, Gardner’s plots were pretty much what I call “femjep” — a beautiful woman is in physical danger from a criminal, or is the object of a bizarre plot that she doesn’t understand, and Perry steps in and saves the day, while the novel stops to describe the heroine physically and fairly lustfully every once in a while.

If you’re curious as to whether Gardner could write a good puzzle mystery — your mileage may vary.  Certainly he had a knack for coming up with story hooks that drag you into the novel (Why is a pretty young woman being paid to put on weight?  Why would someone steal a man’s glass eye?  Why would someone bury an alarm clock set to sidereal time?).  When he’s at his most puzzling, these hooks are absolutely relevant to the plot and not just discarded as soon as they’ve done the job of getting you to commit to the novel.  (For instance, that stolen glass eye is found clutched in the hand of the corpse.)  And occasionally, Gardner steps out and adds as much characterization as he can manage.  For instance, TCOT Empty Tin has a nosy spinster who is played for laughs — unusual in Gardner’s work — but who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943) has some interesting “salty prospector” characters. And TCOT Vagabond Virgin (1948) has an actual attempt at a rounded characterization in the person of the titular hitchhiking tramp — as well as an interesting puzzle at its core.

If you’re looking for a puzzle mystery, you could do worse than the novels I’ve mentioned here by name. The paperback editions are not so omnipresent as they were when I was a teenager, but a visit to a good used bookstore will usually net you a couple of dozen titles from which to choose — try anything with a copyright date in the 1940s and you won’t be far wrong.

PS: Gardner also wrote a series of novels as by A. A. Fair about the adventures of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, private investigators.  I can’t say that these impressed me as being anywhere near strict-form puzzle mysteries, but they are very enjoyable — more so than the last 15 years’ worth of Perry Mason novels, by and large.  These should be read chronologically.