Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Whiffs of Dover

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love a comedic mystery. I’ve written extensively about Craig Rice and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, but this week I’m going across the pond to England in the 1960s for a dose of Dover. 

Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover was the character created by Joyce Porter for a series of mysteries. Dover is unlike any DCI you’ll ever read about. He’s surly, mean, obese, attention-seeking, fame-grabbing, hard drinking, lazy, and borderline corrupt, and yet he’s one of the funniest detectives around. I recently found two of this series at Grave Matters and I bought them up in a hurry.

In Dover Two, which some critics call the best of the series, he’s sent to the scene of an attempted murder. Dover’s actually glad to be there since he’s tired of hearing about Bigamous Bertie and Superintendent Roderick. A young woman, who is both unattractive and insistent for a suitor, has been pestering the men of Curdley. She was shot several months prior to Dover’s arrival. The woman had been in a coma since the attempted homicide; however, her death makes it a homicide and Dover, along with Sergeant MacGregor, go to Curdley.

They find the town to be in a long-standing feud between the CoE townsfolk and the Catholic residents. Dover is a Methodist, which makes him somewhat immune to the battle. He and MacGregor follow a wide range of clues from pillowcases to the infamous Bigamous Bertie himself. MacGregor, who is a paragon of virtue, is outdone by Dover at nearly every turn in this case.

Focusing on the original crime, Dover finds a somewhat impossible crime situation for which he has a few choice words. The only people in the vicinity of the shooting have eyewitnesses to their locations. Since the walls along the road where she was shot were high and gated, it appears that no one could have shot poor Isobel.

Under the layers of laughter is a taut mystery that is little appreciated. I wish that the Dover books would be reprinted. There are Foul Play Press editions from some years ago, but I’ve heard nothing about other reprints or eBooks of these classics. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Top 5 Cool and Lam titles

5) Owls Don’t Blink - Gardner wrote Owls Don’t Blink while staying in New Orleans during January 1942. The start of World War II stifled Gardner’s travel plans and restricted his movements. These changes would be reflected in Gardner’s works with Cool and Lam. He wrote to his parents: “Conditions are so chaotic no one knows what is going on anywhere and it is terribly hard to make plans. I am working on a story of New Orleans for a publisher and expect to have it finished with the next week or ten days. – After that, I’ll probably head directly for California and get things in shape out there so that if I come East again in the spring I’ll have the ranch running all right.” Owls Don’t Blink was the first of Gardner’s wartime trilogy for Cool and Lam. Donald has finished a case in Florida and agrees to meet Bertha in New Orleans (the city where Gardner had written to his parents a few months before) to help locate a missing woman, Roberta
Fenn. Lam finds her without trouble; she then eludes them. When Lam is on the trail of the woman again, he and Bertha find a dead lawyer in Fenn’s apartment. Fenn and a friend, Edna Cutler, had switched identities for a while to cool some suitors. In the interim, Cutler’s husband had served Fenn with divorce papers, which now put into question the legality of Mr. Cutler’s recent remarriage.  Woven throughout the case is the subplot of Bertha landing military construction contracts as a side business to the detective agency. Her motive is both profit and keeping Lam out of the military. Her actions only serve to have Lam enlist before the end of the book. He explains the entire scam on the steps of the Naval recruitment office, just before going inside.

4) The Bigger They Come – The first, and in some ways the most ingenious of the Cool and Lam books. Gardner used a loophole he had discovered in the law to allow Donald Lam to show his own character by using that loophole to save a girl he was interested in. In The Bigger They Come, Lam is assigned to serve
divorce papers on Morgan Birks, who is also wanted in connection with a slot machine con. Through Sandra Birks, the plaintiff in the divorce proceedings, Lam meets Alma Hunt. He falls hard for her, and gives Alma a stolen gun to protect herself. After serving Birks with the papers in a hotel, Lam is kidnapped and taken to see a mysterious man known as “The Chief.” Later, Birks is found murdered, shot with the same gun that Lam had given to Alma.

3) You Can Die Laughing - You Can Die Laughing, the title for the first of the two 1957 titles, comes from a saying that Lam tells a client twice during the course of the story. Gone are the courtroom scenes and the lack of action of Beware the Curves. A client hires Cool and Lam to locate Yvonne Clymer, who also goes by the name of Mrs. Drury Wells. From the start of the book, the client is not honest with the firm. He spins a tale of oil and land grabs to Bertha, only to report a routine missing persons case to Donald. Clymer inherits property and cash if she can be found; otherwise the estate goes to a cousin. The client wants Clymer to sign some paperwork regarding the mineral rights for that property. Unlike many cases where the client is merely an impetus for the story, this client continues to barge into the action, trying to wrest control of the investigation from Donald. Hence, Donald gives him the titular response at one point.

2) Try Anything Once - Lam runs up against the law and Frank Sellers again. An important client asks Lam to keep his name out of a murder case that took place at the motel where he was having an assignation with a woman who was not his wife. Lam impersonates the client, but Sellers doesn’t fall for it, and catches Lam when Lam must either lie directly to the police or admit some of the truth. The police want to learn the
name of Cool and Lam’s client, as the victim was a deputy DA on the trail of a killer when he was murdered. Lam follows the dead man’s tracks to find out what the victim had discovered and why he ended up at the motel. Sellers throws Lam in the drunk tank at one point to keep him away from the crime and the suspects, a move that only temporarily keeps him away from the action and one that leads to a rare apology from Sellers.

1) Top of the Heap - When the firm gets a new client who wants to find two young women, Lam smells a trap. John Carver Billings the Second wants to find the pair he had met previously. When Lam goes to investigate, he finds a prescription label that leads him right to the girls in question. Lam suspects that the girls represent a faked alibi for the heir, and he begins to investigate likely crimes covered by the alibi. One of the crimes is the disappearance of a mobster’s girlfriend, following the mobster’s death. Donald thinks that might be the only crime that would be sufficiently worth the trouble of the alibi.

Fools Die on Friday, Some Women Can’t Wait, Beware the Curves, Double or Quits, and Bats Fly at Dusk, would like round out the top 10 for me. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Yes, Another Top 5 list

Okay, I'm going to jump on board here, but here are my top five Christies.

5) Appointment with Death - One of Christie's Middle Eastern mysteries, this one set in Petra. This is one of her prime examples of the least likely suspect mysteries, and the victim is one of the most evil people in the Christie canon. I don't think there can be much question about Christie's feelings on evil after this book.

4) A Murder is Announced - I had to have at least one Marple on my list, and this is the favorite of the Marples for me. Christie took on the changes in the English country life after WWII in this book. Everyone in the book has been affected by the ravages brought on by the war. I think this is one of Christie's books that best shows her ability to record social issues and changes. She's often accused of ignoring changes in society, but this book shows that can she record these upheavals accurately when she wants to.

3) The Hollow - This is a story that just sticks with me. The set-up is simple, but effective and the solution even more so. Along the way, we get to know each of the characters in more detail in all of their conflicting thoughts and behavior. I always wonder how much of Christie's own experiences were used in writing about a woman whose husband is unfaithful.

2) And Then There Were None - this book has been on almost everyone's top 5 lists. How can you top a book where everyone is a victim and no one is the killer?

1) Death on the Nile - without a doubt, my favorite Christie. So much so that I actually went to Egypt and took the same cruise up the Nile (though no one was killed on my cruise, more's the pity.) I particularly enjoy the Middle East books by Christie and this is by far the best of them. The book is an incredibly well-plotted mystery along with one of the best cast of characters. Even the minor characters are memorable. There's humor in the book as well as a compelling mystery.

My 6-10 would likely include: Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, Evil Under the Sun, Sleeping Murder, The ABC Murders, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Top Ten List for Perry Mason

In honor of Erle Stanley Gardner’s birthday today, I thought I’d do a top 10 list of my favorite Perry Mason novels. There are as many lists as there are folks reading the books, so you can take mine with a grain of salt, but I can say that I’ve read all 80 of the books and from that standpoint, I do feel qualified to make this list. (Well, that and 3 years writing a biography of him!) 

Most of these works came from a very creative period of 1938-1945 for Gardner, when many of his best works appeared in all of his series.

If there’s sufficient interest, perhaps I can do a top 5 of the Cool/Lam books later. Since there are only 29, I’d feel silly doing a top 10.

1)      TCOT Lame Canary – this was supposed to be the last of the Perry Mason books. Gardner was tired of not being published in the slicks and he was ready to try other characters. The Saturday Evening Post bought the rights to this story after Gardner had spent significant time in revising (and it shows.)

2)      TCOT Careless Kitten  - Gardner takes an opportunity to lament the loss of individual rights. Tragg and Burger try to attack Mason by arresting Della for harboring the client’s long-lost uncle. Mason feels like the cards are stacked against the innocent victim in contemporary society. “It’s high time for citizens to wake up to the fact that it isn’t a question of whether a man is guilty or innocent, but whether his guilt or innocence can be proved under a procedure which leaves in the citizen the legal rights to which he is entitled under a constitutional government” [italics are Gardner’s].  This legal ideal would be revisited in the Court of Last Resort and in many of the later Mason books. This dedication to individual rights, first outlined in his popular literature, would later lead Gardner back to the courtroom to help innocent citizens get a fair break from the American justice system.

3)      TCOT Drowsy Mosquito – In this book, Gardner outlines his own personal philosophy. Living outdoors is needed to make you healthy. Being in touch with nature is the best cure. It’s shown when the client actually lives outside of his house, enjoying a tent more than a bedroom. Of course, the client is killed, so maybe it’s not all that healthy?  It also is one of the few times that Perry and Della are in immediate danger. Since they appear in about 40 books, you know that nothing happens to them, but it’s interesting to see how Gardner handles it.

4)      TCOT Borrowed Brunette – one of the first of the titillating titles. There would be many to follow but this is one of the first. It’s also an interesting premise which uses a variation of the Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” by advertising for a particular type of woman. Gardner liked to say that he didn’t read within the genre, but this story (and others) show that he did.

5)      TCOT Drowning Duck – Gardner introduced a character very much like himself in this book, a rugged outdoorsman who lived away from society. It’s an interesting look at how he perceived himself. Gardner also used some current science from that era for the catchy title. He spoke with mystery author Sally Wright’s father to get the details straight.

6)      TCOT Buried Clock Gardner makes his only reference to World War II where one of the main characters is recuperating from an arm injury received during combat. He goes to a cabin in the woods in order to convalesce after his wartime service and hears the ticking of a clock outside. He finds the clock and noticed that the clock is not set to the current time

7)      TCOT Empty Tin - Mason makes a few good legal observations, based on Gardner’s early legal career. Mason tells Lieutenant Tragg that a suspect heard two shots instead of one. When the suspect questions Mason about this, Mason points out that the police do not want to uncover a single witness who contradicts all other witnesses.  According to Alva Johnston, Gardner had used this strategy in the 1920s when he’d been questioned in Ventura after Gardner had gotten a mobster there acquitted of murder. Gardner used the acquaintance to research his own pulp stories and learned a great deal about mob activity in Ventura. When the police picked up Gardner to question him about some of what he had witnessed during his research, Gardner began by avoiding answering the questions. However, he soon became overly helpful, telling wild stories filled with details that contradicted other witnesses and including his own guesses about the case as part of his testimony. Obviously, no prosecutor would want to put such a witness before a jury, and Gardner was released and not bothered.

8)      TCOT Velvet Claws – The first book in series. It’s fascinating to see how well Gardner creates these characters who don’t change much over the course of 40 years and 80 books. It’s a bit more hard-boiled than most and doesn’t have the courtroom scene at the end of the book, but it’s still a pageturner.

9)      TCOT Crooked Candle - reintroduces Gardner’s use of physical evidence as clues. In this and many subsequent Mason works, the case will revolve around one or two pieces of forensic evidence that the police will interpret one way, while Mason corrects their interpretation by the end of the book. These clues would become a mainstay of Gardner’s later works as he began his work with the Court of Last Resort and saw the difficulties in using circumstantial evidence to convict a man of murder.

10)  TCOT Half-wakened Wife – starts to see the merging of Perry and Gardner, particularly with a description of Mason pacing the carpet, trying to come up with a plan of action. Jean Bethell shared Gardner plotting process, which was quite similar.  Gardner would sit in a rocking chair, moving back and forth until he had worked his way across the carpet. He would then pick up the chair, move it back, and then start again. Mason’s relentless pacing ties character and creator even more closely.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Greener Pastures

All Grass Isn’t Green was the final Cool/Lam case. Gardner got the Advanced Review Copies just days before his death. While the book was not up to Gardner’s best, his perseverance is impressive given that he was dying of a particularly painful form of cancer while writing. 

Mr. Calhoun wants the detectives to find Colburn Hale, a writer who has disappeared along with Calhoun’s girlfriend, Nanncie. Lam determines Calhoun’s identity and quickly gets a line on the writer and ladyfriend in Mexico. Gardner interposes here to talk about the Mexican culture and people, more like his travel books than a fast-paced mystery. He again interjects into the story to explain about marijuana when it appears that Lam has stumbled across a smuggling ring.

The series does not have any closure, despite the fact that Gardner knew of his impending death. Cool and Lam remained just as they had been for 29 tales, ready for work and looking for clients with cash. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Case of the Postponed Novel

In the final Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Postponed Murder,  Morrow provided no notes as to the provenance of the novel; however, a few key phrases make the reader suspect the manuscript was written some 10-30 years prior to its publication. Most suggestions point to a date of somewhere during the Perry Mason television show, but there are no notes in the archives to confirm this. 

Sylvia Farr comes to Mason’s office, looking for her sister, Mae. Mae had been living in the city and writing home on a regular basis until recently. Sylvia wants to find the sister and see if she is alive and well. Mason points Farr to Paul Drake’s office.
In the meantime, Mason learns that Farr has been accused of forging a check by a rebuffed admirer, Penn Wentworth. Farr goes to Wentworth’s boat, they struggle for the gun and a bullet kills Wentworth. However, when Farr brings Mason back to the marina, the boat is out to sea. A somewhat impossible crime occurs when Mason tries to figure out how a boat with only the victim’s body on it could have launched itself.  

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Case of the Final Mason books

Following the publication of The Case of the Irate Witness and Other Stories, Gardner’s estate released two posthumous Perry Mason novels in 1972 and 1973. The first of these two novels was The Case of the Fenced-in Woman

While the book was promoted as a new Perry Mason novel, the book was in fact over a decade old. The book was originally titled The Case of the Fenced-Off Women and had been written in 1960. Thayer Hobson had rejected the book at that time for having too improbable a plot. Gardner shared correspondence with Helen King, trying to change her mind, but the decision stood until all of the principals had passed away. The book, while a completed draft, had not gone through the rigorous editing process Helen King provided. At times, it is obvious that no one edited the book to reflect the intervening decade. Word choices and situations provide clues to the actual age of the book. The three Walter
sisters remained intensely protective of the integrity of the Mason series, feeling that Gardner knew best about books and sales.
In this book, Morley Eden visits Mason to discuss a difficulty with his property. He had purchased two lots from Loring Carson, who is in the midst of a messy divorce. Carson assures Eden that he has the deed to both properties, but his assurances are hollow. In his haste to get a divorce, Carson had the wrong woman followed. This wrong woman was having an affair, making Carson feel certain that his wife would settle. The mistake costs him the deed to one of the properties.

To get back at the man who has sided with her husband, Mrs. Carson runs barbed wire through Eden’s new home along the property line, providing Eden with only half the house. During a press conference on the house with Eden and Mason, the reporters find the dead body of Loring Carson. Mason has to find a killer while Eden falls in love with his new neighbor.