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.