Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

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 Knife Slipped, by Erle Stanley Gardner (2016/1939)

cover_bigMy regular readers may already be familiar with the fascinating story behind this novel. It was found among the papers of the late Erle Stanley Gardner and the story of how it now comes to be in print is probably an entire essay by itself — in fact you can read about it here in the blog of my friend Jeffrey Marks, who’s currently writing a much-anticipated biography of Gardner. Jeff cleverly put two and two together and identified the manuscript as having been rejected by Gardner’s publisher at Morrow as the second novel in the Cool & Lam series. Thayer Hobson, according to Jeff, thought there wasn’t enough character development for both Cool and Lam, and also that the novel was “too risqué for the audiences”. (See below for the details.)

So the novel was written in 1939. That’s my best guess, because the volumes before and after are cited in Wikipedia as having been published in January 1939 and January 1940, respectively. After Jeff Marks brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime, it was published for the very first time a few days ago (December, 2016). Hence the unusual date after the title above.Truthfully, its first edition is December, 2016. But it is quintessentially of 1939.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here for fans of Cool & Lam, but I suspect if you read this novel you may well become a Cool & Lam fan even if you weren’t before.

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?

Donald Lam is a skinny little runt who is smart as a whip and down on his luck. He’s staying employed at the shabby little detective firm of Cool & Lam at the whim of Bertha Cool, an extra-large matron with chubby fingers that glitter with diamonds; she has a mind like an adding machine and a mouth like an open sewer. Sorry. There’s just something about Gardner’s writing in this book that makes me use language like that; I think that’s more metaphors in one paragraph than I usually use in a longer piece. But all the language in this book is short and punchy and terse and vulgar, and it’s left me wanting to get a lot of pulp-fiction metaphors out of my system.

bigger-they-come1

An early representation of Bertha Cool in Pocket #228

Anyway, Bertha is keeping Donald on a short leash. In their first meeting, 1939’s debut novel, The Bigger They Come, he more than proved his worth but took Bertha out of her comfort zone. Donald demonstrated, in that novel, that his disbarment had deprived the bar of an excellent lawyer, when he manipulated a little-known loophole in the law to allow someone to literally get away with murder. Bertha knew that Donald’s talents could make her money; she just had to find a way for their clashing personalities to get along.

Bertha is keeping Donald short of money, but he’s not starving, merely hungry. That makes him grateful to accept assignments like the one that arises after mother-and-daughter clients Mrs. Atterby and Mrs. Cunner hire Bertha to find out the identity of the buxom blonde that Edith Cunner’s husband is keeping in an apartment. However, that’s just the start. After Donald tracks down Mr. Cunner and the blonde, and makes friends with the building’s pretty switchboard operator, Ruth Marr, he finds out that Cunner has yet another apartment under another name. Ruth has a crush on Cunner, and Cunner spends an evening with a steady stream of police officers and firemen who drive up to his place in official cars, stay a few minutes, and leave.

The plot is fascinating, so I won’t reveal much more. There is, of course, a murder; the police are looking for Donald and Ruth Marr, whom it seems have been framed. It seems as though Cunner is connected to a city-wide corruption scheme, and there are already political reformers on the case. Bertha smells money and decides to … well, I’ll let her tell it to Donald.

“Bertha said, … ‘He called the police and told them I was trying to blackmail him.’
‘Were you?’
‘Not exactly. Bertha was trying to cut herself a piece of cake, and –‘
‘And what?’ I asked.
‘And the knife slipped,’ she said.
‘But I suppose it’s my finger that’ll be cut,’ I said.
‘For Christ’s sake, Donald, don’t be such a pansy! In this game you’ll be getting in jams all the time. Get the hell out of here and lie low until I can find out what it’s all about. Bertha won’t be idle, lover. Right now I’ve got something by the tail, and I don’t know whether it’s a bear, a lion, or just a bunch of bull.'”

Delightfully put, and it turns out not to be bull. There’s actually a twin plot structure to this; Bertha is pursuing the money off-stage, and Donald (and Ruth) are running around for our amusement, trying to stay out of the hands of the police while finding out more about what’s going on and pursuing the identity of the murderer. Finally Donald comes to a crucial realization about the clothing choices of a mysterious visitor to the soon-to-be corpse and identifies the murderer; Bertha swoops in and finds a way to extract the maximum amount of money from the situation.

In the final chapter, Bertha informs Donald that he has to leave town for a while, essentially so that the solution to all the crimes can come out the way she wants it, without the inconvenience of Donald’s testimony. “Remember, lover, what Bertha Cool said. She wouldn’t cut herself a piece of cake without seeing that you had a slice.” So she makes arrangements for Donald to “follow a witness” to Honolulu on a cruise ship so that he can take life easy … and reveals that she knows more about the situation than Donald has suspected when Bertha makes the trip even more attractive; the witness is a beautiful young woman with a crush on Donald (who describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”). “… Bertha Cool deftly speared a French pastry and transferred it from the platter to her plate. Her eyes were twinkling with humor. ‘Now try to say “no,” you little bastard,’ she said.”

Why is this book worth your time?

gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a big Cool & Lam fan; I used to say I’d read all 29 of them, but now I’m happy to say that I’ve read all 30 (and I dearly wish there was another box full of manuscripts in an archive somewhere). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that, to me, the Cool & Lam novels represent ESG’s attempt to have more fun with his writing. Perry Mason is always an officer of the court, but Donald Lam actually spends the night with women, and Bertha Cool slaps women around about once a book and swears like a trooper. The Cool & Lam novels are just as fast-moving as Perry Mason’s adventures, and there’s a fairly high amount of detection involved in the stories; just that they’re a little sexier and a little more vulgar.

 

This particular volume is fascinating, at least to me, because I can see the direction in which ESG could have taken Cool & Lam from this novel. To be honest, this novel is quite a bit “harder” than the volume that actually took its place as the second Cool & Lam adventure, and more so than any volume at the top of my memory. In this one, Donald is about to be murdered when he beans his opponent with a rock and nearly kills him; Donald empties the man’s wallet (calling the money “sinews of war”) and leaves him in a ditch unconscious with the murder gun slipped into his holster. Bertha allows the real murderer to escape in exchange for large amounts of money, deliberately stirring up trouble with city politics in the process, and sends Donald to Honolulu so he won’t have to testify to the inconvenient truth. This is NOT Perry Mason pronouncing sententiously that he’s an officer of the court. This is Bertha Cool delivering a lecture on how city politics works (at the end of chapter XII) that will curl your hair with its cynicism and accuracy. She describes a middle class woman to her face as a bitch, a slut, and a tart in the course of three sentences; near the end of the book she hits a middle-aged woman “flush on the jaw” — “like a man”. And there is no love lost between Bertha and Donald; as noted above, when Bertha is cutting herself a slice of cake, she doesn’t care if the knife slips and cuts Donald.

In fact I’m at a loss as to why this novel was rejected for lack of character development of the main characters, although I think that ties into the second reason it was rejected. There actually is a lot of character development here, it’s just that it’s very risqué for the audience of 1939. Donald spends the night with a female witness — to my mind, unusual for 1939, at least that it’s pretty clearly stated that she’s available for sex — and quixotically tries to rescue her from the consequences of her romantic inclinations. (There’s a lovely moment of writing where a woman describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”, or what we would today call a sex addict, but Donald realizes that she’s been sold a line by a man who wanted to break their engagement  … and he doesn’t tell her, merely allows the reader to see that he knows what happened.)

Here’s a little passage that I think is very revealing of Bertha’s character:

“Bertha Cool said, ‘Let’s quit beating around the bush. What’s her husband doing, cheating around, going to whorehouses, or keeping a mistress?’ …
Mrs Atterby said reproachfully, in a low voice, ‘I always use the word “houses of prostitution” in talking to Edith, Mrs. Cool.’
‘I don’t. I call ’em whorehouses,’ Bertha said acidly. ‘It’s easier to say. It’s more expressive, and it leaves no room for doubt.'”

In the same conversation, Bertha delivers this little speech:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, cut out the weeps! By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do — those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighborhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.”

And she also mentions casually that married men are lousy lovers, and she’s tried two of ’em. Having read all 29 books, I don’t remember any other instance in which Bertha mentions having had lovers.

I think there’s plenty of Bertha, but perhaps not enough Donald here. And that’s perhaps because the quality of writing in this book, in terms of subtle characterization and descriptive writing, is well among the strongest of any of Gardner’s work. Gardner knew better than to tell — he only showed, for the most part. (We’ll except the last few novels he wrote in the late 60s, though.) Here, the showing of Donald’s character is subtle and enlists the reader’s help to fill in the blanks. If you’re not paying attention, you miss the conclusions you’re supposed to draw. When you read the book, try to figure out what Donald’s actual attitude is towards Ruth Marr, start to finish throughout the book. To me, it makes Donald seem more like a fallible human being who is capable of holding two different attitudes towards the same woman at the same time. But in order to realize what’s going on, you have to pay attention to what his motivations are — and Gardner never tells you those, he only shows you.

For me this book is fascinating because there is an indefinable difference between the 29 canonic novels and The Knife Slipped. Starting with the title, which doesn’t match the cadence of the others. This Bertha is more aggressive, particularly about the business she accepts; my recollection is that later on in the series she wants nice quiet divorce work rather than political or murderous minefields. This Donald is more on the economic knife-edge, although it’s earlier in his career; later in the canon he also tends to sleep on the couch rather than bed the damsel. Certainly the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand is quite different here and not the ally to Donald she later becomes.

I can sort of understand why a cautious editor might not want to publish a book that displays Bertha Cool as a greedy overweight amoral quasi-criminal. To be honest, her personality only really has one note in this book. To me it is a fascinating and rich note, but she doesn’t change in the course of the novel. Donald’s personality is displayed in a subtle and intelligent way, at least to me, but I’ve had the benefit of reading 29 other novels in which he’s featured. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of this novel is coloured by the other 29. If your (or that editor’s) view is that there’s no character development, I’d be hard-pressed to gainsay it.

fools-die-on-friday-movie-poster-9999-1020429460

Dell 541 (left) and its reissue, #1541 (right), in which the girl has more clothes on and Donald’s still not peeking

What is certain is that everything is a bit more crude — no, a lot more crude. I can’t prove it, but I believe ESG never went as far as saying “whorehouse” in any other novel. Bertha’s amoral view of politics and government is quite strong stuff for 1939, I think, at least coming from an author like Gardner whose stories were fit for the prudish editor of Black Mask. Oh, sure, women are frequently unclothed in Donald’s vicinity, but he never actually goes much beyond passionate kisses. And as you can see in a nearby illustration, they usually have more of their clothes on. To be fair, there is a suggestion in the final paragraphs of 1941’s Double or Quits that Elsie Brand and Donald have had sex. But that’s merely because Elsie laughs at a nurse’s warning that Donald might be “abnormally stimulated” by a caffeine injection. In this book, a girl with whom Donald has spent the night (passed out) walks in on him in the bathtub and hands him a glass of tomato juice, “as utterly casual about it as though I’d been sitting in a chair at a lunch counter”, then walks out wordlessly.

 

There are plenty of these sorts of little jarring differences of tone in The Knife Slipped, and I have to say that figuring out what’s different was quite a bit of the pleasure for me with this book. If you’ve already read your way through A. A. Fair, I suspect that will be quite pleasurably for you as well.

There’s another part of this book that is quite pleasant to contemplate and that’s the amount of sheer detection in it. Bertha and Donald are smart people who know what it means to be a detective. They know, for instance, that the police will routinely stake out their offices. They know that if you’re a man wanted by the police, the last place they’ll be looking for you is a department store tearoom. They know that a man in a tuxedo never gets stopped by the police, and that an overweight dowager in an evening gown with fists full of diamond rings can get past an apartment manager like nobody else. And they are both capable of understanding the precise meaning of a witness’s description of a pair of men’s pants where the police do not, which lets them solve mysteries where the police cannot.

Summing up: I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did unless you’re already very familiar with the other 29 Cool & Lam novels. There is a certain crude energy about it that is exhilarating; the writing is great, the plotting is excellent, and for me the characterization was fascinating. The loose ends of the plot are tied off in a very satisfying way in the final moments of the book. It’s funny, vulgar, and occasionally exciting (the scene where Donald is about to be murdered by a corrupt official is excellent).  My friend Jeff Marks, an expert in all things Gardnerian, puts this in his “top 10 of the Cool/Lam cases, and perhaps even in the top 5.” I’ll go a little further; this is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work. Sad that it hasn’t been a part of the Cool & Lam oeuvre from 1939, but this late publication in 2016 fully deserves its place as what we might call “number 1.5” in the full 30 volumes.

My favourite edition

There’s only one paper edition currently, from Hard Case Crime, December, 2016. It’s shown at the top of this column with cover art depicting the 21st century burlesque artist Dita von Teese, heaven knows why. I am frankly planning on buying a couple of mint copies of this first edition, sealing them up and laying them away. I recommend you do too — you won’t lose money on it.

 

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

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

G135What’s this book about?

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

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

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

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

4701450662_2209e406ab_bWhy is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite edition

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

The Nurse’s Secret (1941)

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

Lee Patrick

Lee Patrick

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

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Regis Toomey

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

Clara Blandick

Clara Blandick

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #008

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

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

Why is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite edition

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

 

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

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

30228What’s this book about?

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

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cce4c1e6d73b74c237f13fb155c3f290My favourite edition

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