The Tuesday Night Bloggers – The Great Detectives (Part 2)

The Great Detectives: Two court officials

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Great DetectivesIntroduction

I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives.  Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver.  (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.)  The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.

My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.

Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.

District Attorney Doug Selby

9781671002630-ukRecently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.

51AK97dcFUL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.

25236894Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.

d-a-goes-to-trial-pb-407-erle-stanley-gardner-6th-prt-1949-646197f534cefca83504e68a746713ccIn the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.

v1.bTsxMTU5NjUxNDtqOzE3NzI5OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQThere was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.

Dee Jen-djieh

Judge Di (c. 630 - c. 700) of the T'ang court

Judge Di (c. 630 – c. 700) of the T’ang court

First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.

810CKYghySLThe historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):

“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”

5418And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.

x500So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.

ec7c898106057d3daf6082444ef5b372--deeOne thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”…  and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.

x500So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.

van Gulik artwork

A courtroom scene, illustrated by van Gulik himself. Note the flail and rod in the hands of the attendants; not just for show.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.

9780226848754_p0_v1_s550x406As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.

I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.

image-w1280

Khigh Dheigh (left) as Judge Dee in the 1978 made-for-TV movie.

edbda5af07a0dfe4286274317c356ae7Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).

61HCF1BKN5L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van DoverThe Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
51R7JAQizoL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read)Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)

Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)

9099296004Author:

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American mystery writer best known for her creation of Dr. Basil Willing, psychiatrist, star of at least 14 volumes (including one collection of short stories).  What little I know about McCloy includes her marriage to Davis Dresser, creator of Michael Shayne, and her hard work on behalf of Mystery Writers of America, whose first woman president she was. She received an Edgar Award for her mystery criticism in 1954. The general quality of the Willing series is very, very high; a couple of themes seem to repeat throughout her work and this one is on the theme of the “double”.

Publication Data:

First off, let me apologize to MW Books, whose copyrighted image I have borrowed to illustrate this; my policy is to use an illustration of the book which I have read in anticipation of a review (so that, if I quote a page number, you’ll know what I’m talking about), and this is seemingly the only image available on the internet of my particular edition of this book. I will note that they have a couple of copies available on Abebooks.com at a huge price and I hope they accept this misuse as trying to advertise their product.

This is the eighth volume in the Basil Willing series. The first edition appears to be Random House from 1950. First UK is Gollancz, 1951, and first paper is probably Dell #519. I personally think this is a nice example of Dell covers from this period and so I’ll show it to you further down in this review. My own copy, shown above, is Collier mystery 02274 from 1965. Having seen a number of copies of this specific book over the years, my memory suggests that Collier would republish with identical insides and a cover upon which only the price went up. This one is 95 cents; you can tell how close you are to a first printing by comparison.  I have no idea if there are editions cheaper than 95 cents; it’s possible.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a 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, and a similar warning should apply. 

This book is generally considered to be one of McCloy’s best; at least, so excellent a critic as Anthony Boucher said so in his introduction to a reprint of another McCloy novel, Cue For Murder, and I nearly always agree with Boucher. So that’s a good context for this novel; she’s generally considered to be a clever and intelligent writer and this is one of her best.

Faustina Crayle is a pretty, meek, and inexperienced teacher at Brereton Girls’ School just outside of New York. The principal, Mrs. Lightfoot, calls her in and fires her without explanation, beyond that she is likely to be a bad influence on the students and the school. In fact, as it soon comes out, Faustina is said to have a doppelganger; an identical twin spirit whose appearance presages disaster and death. Another teacher at the school, Gisela von Hohenems, becomes interested and communicates the situation to Basil Willing, psychiatrist and detective. Willing investigates when another young teacher, Alice Aitchison, is found dead at the foot of some stairs during a school social event, and an eyewitness account puts Faustina on the scene — except that at the time of the murder, she is making a telephone call to Basil from a long distance away. During the main events of the plot, Willing proposes marriage to Gisela and is accepted. Some schoolgirls give fairly crucial evidence about the doppelganger‘s activities but it takes Willing’s investigation of Faustina’s unusual history, financial prospects and little cottage home to bring events to a dramatic close and explain events completely. (I’ve deliberately omitted a fairly crucial plot point in case you haven’t read this novel; you will enjoy it more this way.)

That’s the plot of this book, pretty much. The atmosphere in which the plot is contained is a huge contributor to its success; this is a beautifully written book and that’s a major part of its effectiveness.

Why is this so good?

2131-1There are two things about this book that contribute to its general excellence; the writing style and the general structure.

What I have left out from the plot summary above is the atmosphere that surrounds this book, and it is really excellent. The author has done a wonderful job of building suspense from unease to downright panic, and by the time you get to the book’s climax in the bijou little cottage crammed with Victorian antiques, your nerves will be keyed up exquisitely.  When the figure in the mirror moves just a little, and there is a scent of lemon verbena in the room, you will be ready to scream like a teenage girl. I nearly did. She surrounds the theme of the doppelganger with just plain old creepiness. It’s like a well-written ghost story that builds and builds, and then Alice dies, and then it builds and builds some more as the investigation progresses and things get spookier and more eerie.

And the writing is exquisite. From the very first page, we see that this is a book where what we are shown is important to understanding characters. Mrs. Lightfoot, the matron:

“In dress she affected the Quaker color — the traditional ‘drab’ that dressmakers called ‘taupe’ in the thirties and ‘eel-gray’ in the forties. She wore it in tough tweed or rich velvet, heavy silk or filmy voile, according to season and occasion, combining it every evening with her mother’s good pearls and old lace. Even her winter coat was moleskin — the one fur that same blend of dove-gray and plum-brown. This consistent preference for such a demure color gave her an air of restraint that never failed to impress the parents of her pupils.”

It will not surprise the reader to learn that not only is this portrait parle of Mrs. Lightfoot  effective at demonstrating what we need to know about her character, but it is somewhat important to note that the colours of dresses are mildly significant to the plot. Not crucial, but useful to remember that Mrs. Lightfoot could not have disguised herself with a dress she would not have owned. And also, for an audience of women who are assumed to find the details of dress and ornament very important, there is plenty here to interest them. I am assuming here something that seems obvious to me but with which others may disagree; that McCloy is writing for an audience of women.  I’m not saying that all women find such things interesting, but it is certainly fun to speculate for a moment about what “season and occasion” would mean in the life of a woman who tries to communicate restraint with her clothing and can afford to indulge her whims, regardless of one’s sex. Similarly, other clothes are described effectively to contribute both to our understanding of the character and to the plot. Alice Aitcheson, the young victim noted above, “stood, profile to the open door, facing a dressing-table. She wore a long-skirted gown of corded silk the same vivid burnt orange as her scarf. There were outrageously high-heeled black suede pumps on her feet with huge rhinestone buckles. The sleeves were elbow-length, but the neckline dropped dangerously over her thrusting bosom.” She is trying to flout the sedate conventions of the girls’ school;  she has recently graduated to adulthood, being allowed to choose her own clothes.  The book then (p. 78) devotes a paragraph to the reaction of each of the middle-aged unmarried teachers; “old Miss Chellis in dingy blue taffeta … Mademoiselle de Vitré, in voluminous raisin velvet … Miss Dodd, carefully smart in well-cut beige crêpe … silver-haired Mrs. Greer, in pale blue with Parma violets …”  I really enjoyed the moment where “all the girls in white voile looked as if they were thinking, That’s it! That’s the way I’m going to dress the very first chance I get!” An accurate observation of all ages of women and communicated in a few well-chosen words that say a lot to a female audience accustomed to assessing other women’s character from their clothing. “Carefully smart” says a lot about income and upward mobility, doesn’t it? That’s what makes it so effective that the colours and style of clothing are essential to the plot. The murderer — for indeed there is a murderer, I am sorry to say, because the murder was not committed by a non-existent doppelganger — dressed in clothing that reminded other characters of Faustina Crayle, seen from afar, and used the clothing’s resemblance to further the plot by clever improvisation. I wonder if it’s possible to demonstrate the depth and range of nuances that were available to the contemporary reader but perhaps not to today’s. One of the reasons that the murderer can imitate Faustina Crayle so well is because there was a fad for camel’s hair topcoats at a certain girls’ school. Does it need to be explained to today’s reader what “topcoat” means, and that an actual camel has painlessly sacrificed its outer covering in the name of fashion? I had to Google to figure out how corded silk differed from other kinds of silk, and I hope Wikipedia has a photo of Parma violets so that today’s reader can appreciate just how effective this would be against pale blue.

The other reason this is such a good book is a little more complex and relates to the way in which this volume picks up on themes and territory carved out by other writers (and, if you accept my assumption that McCloy is writing for women, how she translates male-created trophes of detective fiction into female contexts).  Two of these themes were easily apparent. McCloy has taken something from Erle Stanley Gardner, “the interesting situation or ‘hook’ at the beginning of the book that leads to murder in an unusual way”, and John Dickson Carr, “the supernatural situation at the beginning of the book that leads to murder and must be explained in real-world terms by the end”.

Gardner was a pulp writer who had learned in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace that the reader had to be hooked, and so the initial chapters of Perry Mason novels are filled with what I might describe as wacky premises. A beautiful girl is being paid to put on weight (TCOT Blonde Bonanza).  A man loses his glass eye and it shows up clutched in the hand of a corpse (TCOT Counterfeit Eye).  A scientist wants to know if it’s possible to hypnotize a gorilla (TCOT Grinning Gorilla). I have to say, this is a premise that Gardner would never have used because his fiction is always strongly rooted in reality; Mason wouldn’t spend a moment considering a supernatural premise (the closest is perhaps TCOT Glamorous Ghost). But this is something of the level and quality that Gardner would have been able to use effectively.  A shy young girl who learns that people around her keep seeing her in two places at the same time, and it scares the hell out of them? That to me sounds like a job for Perry Mason, but Paul Drake would have been following any and all people involved to find out where they were, and that would have given things away too early.

Of course John Dickson Carr’s many excursions into quasi-supernatural themes and premises are great work. A book like The Plague Court Murders as by Carter Dickson, with its eerie atmosphere and ghost who fires invisible bullets. The Three Coffins, where the murderer is said to have risen from the dead. The Unicorn Murders, where the victim has a conical hole in his forehead that it’s suggested was created by a unicorn’s horn. Vampires (He Who Whispers), tarot cards (The Eight of Swords), old family curses (The Red Widow Murders), and cursed Egyptian tchotchkes (The Curse of the Bronze Lamp) — all are offered to the reader as potential solutions and disposed of by the end of the book as products of a human agency. (Yes, I am familiar with the contents of The Burning Court and except it here.  I also except the couple of Carr’s historicals where time travel is attained by means of the Devil.) In a way, both of these are the same process for Carr and Gardner; raise something interesting as the “hook” and then explain it or dispose of it for the amusement of the reader. In Carr’s mysteries, half the fun is waiting to learn the way in which Carr will explain how the coffins have been moved around inside a locked mausoleum if not by ghosts (The Sleeping Sphinx), or whatever the pseudo-supernatural bunkum is that surrounds the plot. I believe that generations of readers have found this enjoyable, where the writer creates a spooky premise, builds it through the book, and then reveals its basis in reality at the climax.

And that’s the pattern here. McCloy spends a lot of time and effort building the doppelganger theme and making it work in a realistic way into the plans of the murderer, who discovered that an unintended resemblance to Faustina Crayle could be used to mystify proceedings and divert suspicion. In other words, it comes about almost by accident; the murderer seizes upon their resemblance and weaves it usefully into a plan. Honestly, I find it easier to believe that murderers could work like this than they do in the works of Carr, with mind-boggling intricacy.  Think of, say, conceiving the idea to fire a crossbow through … well, let’s just say The Judas Window.  Would you like to bet your freedom on the chance that you would be able to execute the mechanical activities necessary to make that idea come together? I wouldn’t. I admit there is one coincidence in Through A Glass, Darkly that strained my suspension of disbelief; the idea that staid, matronly Mrs. Lightfoot in her moleskin camouflage would prefer a cologne generally used by men called vervaine (I believe this is the modern vetiver). But I forgive this easily because the work is so good, and because the mechanical part of the murderer’s plot which underlies the climax is based on simple materials available at the five-and-dime (I believe this is the modern dollar store). I am far more willing to believe that McCloy understands how people really commit murder than Carr.

Mike Grost, in his Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, suggests that doubles and impersonation are a common theme in McCloy’s work. I am indebted to him for this suggestion — not so much for his observation that “dramatic or surreal” events often underlie the events of her books (or rather, I agree with him but I think he has failed to appreciate why this is so, the “hook” is an elementary writing technique for people who hope to sell their work). If doubles and impersonation are a common theme, this has to be the most significant example of it in McCloy’s oeuvre. Through A Glass, Darkly is certainly a well-written book with a great deal of creepy atmosphere, effective and subtle characterization, a good deal of interesting observation of the minutiae of dress and ornament of the late 1940s in the US of interest to social historians, an intelligently conceived plot and a theme that is woven through the action of the book. I highly recommend this novel to you.

Notes for the Collector:

As noted above, MW Books of both New York and Ireland has copies of this, in an undistinguished Collier paperback edition, at about $100 each. Then a VG copy of the first edition is $90, and you can get an autographed copy of the Dell first paper (which I think is perhaps the most collectible, due  to its artwork by Robert Stanley, the signature and this book’s membership in the earliest numeric run of Dell Publishing) for $30. A paperback republication from 2012 will set you back as little as $2.59 plus shipping.

The Case of the Lazy Lover, by Erle Stanley Gardner

Title: The Case of the Lazy Lover (A Perry Mason Mystery)

Author: Gardner, Erle Stanley

Publication Data:  1st edition William Morrow, 1947.  First paper Pocket, 1952; this is the second printing of Pocket #909, 1953.  Multiple editions in multiple languages exist.

I remember some months ago sounding off about the Perry Mason novels written between 1939 and 1947 as being my favourites, because they were the most puzzle-oriented.  This fell out of a box in my collection and it caught my eye, demanding to be re-read.  Certainly it had been a number of years since I had come across my own copy or any other; although this is not scarce, it can frequently be tough to lay your hand on any specific Perry Mason novel merely by browsing your local used bookstores.  I have to say, it was a very pleasant rediscovery.

I was a little startled to note that this was written as late as 1947, the very boundary I had sort of arbitrarily come up with.  Part of it, I think, is that the title gives very little hint of what’s actually going on in the novel.  (Neither does this salacious cover, which although technically accurate hints at a future that just ain’t gonna happen.)  ESG was at the peak of his powers here, or very close to, and this is one of the few really well-written Perry Mason novels.

I have to add that I will assert that even the least of them is worth reading, although his last few were somewhat more style than substance.  Gardner’s apprenticeship in the pulps made him appreciative of having found a workable formula with which he could actually sell his work, and he rarely varied from it.  Something odd comes to Mason’s attention; he devotes his attention to it and it soon turns out to be a murder case. Perry’s client is in increasing danger of being arrested.  Mason and Paul Drake and Della Street run around, mix up evidence, interview witnesses and just generally wreak havoc, to the general displeasure of the police.  The beginning of Act III is the start of the trial, or preliminary hearing, of Perry’s client on a charge of murder.  An involved trial sequence ensues and Perry solves the case during the course of the trial.  (Not, I must say, during the actual trial itself, by and large.  Mason is a “put the clues together in a startling way” detective rather than a “wait for the murderer to make a mistake and then pounce” type.)

In this case, Mason’s day begins with an envelope containing a cheque for $2,500 from a woman who is unknown to him, and no accompanying explanation.  Later that day, he receives an identical envelope with another cheque for $2,500 drawn on a different bank.  Mason investigates and is drawn into events involving a wealthy mining speculator and his beautiful wife, the writer of cheques, who is apparently having an affair with his assistant.  They’ve run away together, but the speculator needs his assistant to testify in a pressing and rather shady legal matter and will forgive almost anything if he can get the testimony he so urgently requires.  Perry has to find the wife and assistant and beard them in their love nest.

Paul Drake, of course, comes up with immediate answers as to who is where and with whom, and pretty much doing what.  The funny thing is that the assistant doesn’t seem to be all that interested in his hot inamorata, according to people like motel managers, but instead is very lazy about everything.  More complications ensue and half the cast, it seems, is in the vicinity of a muddy farm when a car goes off the road and the speculator is found dead.  When his wife is tried for the murder, Mason takes the last third of the book for a trial,  a very surprising set of revelations and a murderer whose situation no one would have guessed.

The puzzle aspect of this novel is so strong that page 168 is a full-page map showing that muddy farm and all its relevant tire tracks, footprints and even dog tracks.  Luckily for the story, the owner of that farm went out and laid down boards to cover those tracks, against precisely such an eventuality as a Perry Mason novel happening to occur, it seems.  The whole map is very relevant, of course, but quite a departure for ESG.  I can only remember off the top of my head one other such inclusion in the Mason novels, TCOT Crooked Candle (a diagram showing how a candle attached to a tabletop would end up tilted if the situs, a sailboat, was heeled by a tide).  It’s also a departure for 1947; truly, this must be one of the last examples of such a map that isn’t meant in jest or irony.

And believe me, there is some very clever stuff here.  Gardner’s hook of the duplicated cheque goes into great detail about how to establish a false identity (in 1947 terms, of course, when picture ID and PINs were unheard of).  We also learn a useful method of forging signatures.  There’s a fascinating way of getting people to sell you back the stock in your own company that involves telling them the absolute truth.  We learn how to sort the letters for a busy lawyer and what one does on the night shift at a parking garage.  We learn about footprints and tracking.  And I have to say that the solution, and the identity of the murderer, is one of the cleverest in ESG’s oeuvre.

The only poor effort is the title.  Truly not one of ESG’s best, and titles like TCOT Troublesome Tracks or Forgotten Frail come to mind based on the plot with no problem at all.  I think this must have been the publisher, or ESG, deciding to go with the sexual allusion.

Notes for the Collector: My 2nd (1953) printing of the 1st paper (1952), an image of which edition is above, cost me $5. Mine is in similarly average shape.  The market for ESG is quite well established in places like http://www.abebooks.com and prices are fairly clearly based on reality; not so on eBay, for instance, where a premium is asked for paperbacks with covers with mild sexual content such as this edition.

I note with some interest the bar of type at the bottom, which is not common for Pocket designs of the surrounding decade.  Interesting also is what they cared to make clear, that this was a “genuine” mystery and “the complete book * not a word missing”.  I’m not old enough to remember clearly, but I do remember a popular sentiment of my youth that all such “pockabooks” were trimmed in length and content; apparently Pocket cared to assert that in their case at least this was not so.  We are still firmly in the late hegemony of the twenty-five cent paperback, but in a few years this price will begin to inch up.  Anything more than a quarter was marketed as being somehow “special”.