Monday, July 29, 2013

In the dog days of summer, I thought I'd post a few reviews of Gardner's works involving
animals. I'm starting with a feline book, Cats Prowl at Night. For the collectors, there is a MapBack version of this title available. 

In Cats Prowl at Night, Bertha is hired by Everett Belder to settle a claim against him and take a percentage of its worth for payment. The client has put everything in his wife’s name and has no assets to be forfeited in a lawsuit. He wants Bertha to act as a proxy to settle the claim for him.
In this case, Lam is said to be serving at the front, blocking any possibility of his last minute intervention in the case. Bertha again nearly manages to be arrested for breaking and entering; however, she manages to solve the case even though Sergeant Sellers must rescue her from the killers.
Despite the humor of situations involving Bertha, this is not one of the better cases for Cool and Lam. Too many of the plot elements are recycled from previous books. Harkening back to Double or Quits, two of the victims die from carbon monoxide poisoning. The case revolves around an estate, similar to those in both Bats Fly at Dusk and The D.A. Cooks a Goose.
Before publication Gardner’s agent, Eve Woodburn, asked for a rewrite of the book.

I have read Cats Prowl at Night very carefully. As you know, I’ve always been keen about Bertha and I felt the humor was something extra special in this book. I particularly liked the situation when Bertha gets in the lawsuit and I liked the cross fire between Bertha and Sellers.

Thayer Hobson called me up before I had finished the book and asked me how I liked it and I told him that as far as I had read I liked it very much. He said he didn’t and you’ve heard from him by this time as he is writing you today. After I had finished the book I talked with him again.

I found the ending, ie the explanation of the crime a bit confused. I read it twice yesterday and once today and it still doesn’t seem to be very clear cut. But outside of that, I really enjoyed the book.[i]

[i] Letter from Eve Woodburn to Erle Stanley Gardner, January 28, 1943. Erle Stanley Gardner collection. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin, Austin, Texas.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Happy Birthday / Traps Need Fresh Bait

Today marks Erle Stanley Gardner's birthday. He was born on July 17, 1889. I thought I'd blog about the only appearance of a birthday for any of Gardner's series characters. 

Traps Need Fresh Bait begins with a rare event in any of Gardner’s series, a character aging. The office surprises Lam with a birthday party in his honor. Barney Adams, an executive at an insurance company, interrupts the celebration. The company is concerned because advertisements have begun to appear in local newspapers, requesting witnesses who saw a particular automobile accident. Adams is concerned because the accident had clearly been caused by one party. The advertisements appear to want to subvert justice as only witnesses willing to testify that the innocent party was actually to blame for the accident are requested. Lam suspects something even more suspicious after he receives Adams’ business card.
Donald investigates and learns that the accident has already been settled with the insurance companies, leaving no possible lawsuit or reason for the advertisement. Donald tries to apply for the job as witness, but is rejected. He meets another applicant for the job of witness there. Lam is accused of murder because he is in the vicinity of a murder while tailing the woman. The plot device had been used before when characters lied to implicate Lam, but in this case, it just appears that Sellers has it in for Lam.
Gardner is especially cynical about women in this book, calling them “creatures of intrigue. They love to set obscure causes in motion to bring about results that will take place behind the scenes.”[i]

[i] Gardner, Erle Stanley (as A.A. Fair). Traps Need Fresh Bait. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1967. Page 104.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Case of the Waylaid Wolf

At age 70, Gardner was still able to keep a good pace. In 1960 alone, he produced three Perry Mason novels, all of which would rapidly become fodder for the television show.  These late novels show certain common traits such as a concentration on secretaries as suspects, marriages gone bad, a blurred line between Gardner’s own life and Perry’s along with a number of recycled plotlines. 

 The Case of the Waylaid Wolf is exactly what it sounds like. Arlene Ferris, a secretary at Lamont Rolling, Casting and Engineering Company, experiences car trouble after working late and agrees to accept a car ride home from Loring Lamont, the son of the company’s founder.  
After a few excuses and detours, the pair  ends up at a company-owned cabin, where Lamont says that he is to wait for a man to pick up some papers. Following a phone call, Lamont’s attentions turn brutal, and Ferris escapes in Lamont’s car. She calls on Perry Mason the next morning to determine her options. While she’s meeting with Mason, they learn that Lamont was killed out at the cabin.
The timeline and forensics details play a large part in this case. The time of death was determined in part by the contents of the victim’s stomach. Arlene Ferris claimed that a meal including scrambled eggs was prepared, but never eaten. The coroner puts the death at minutes after the meal was consumed.   
 The Newsweek piece gave details on Gardner’s creative processes for The Case of the Duplicate Daughter. Gardner had indicated that he felt a creative streak coming on. He’d avoided alcohol that evening, went to bed at 2 a.m. and woke at 6 a.m. to begin work on the book, dictating with two recorders in front of him. “All right, gal, hold onto your hat. Here it comes,” he had been reported to say. Gardner dictated in the voice of each character, indicating paragraph marks to the secretaries, but leaving all other punctuation to their knowledge of the rules of grammar. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Bachelors Get Lonely

During the early 1960s, Gardner began to subtly change the Cool / Lam series. The duo took on cases that Bertha Cool felt would bring them respectability. Gardner had done this years before with Mason, when he tried to break into the slick magazines. Additionally, like the Perry Mason books before them, the Cool / Lam books began to lose something in terms of the plotting. Gardner was in his 70s by this point with pressures from the television show and writing multiple books per year. The plots became more predictable, frequently involved automobile accidents, often recycled and thin compared to the more robust multiple story line plots of the 1940s.

Bachelors Get Lonely embodies most of the later books' flaws. Montrose Carson is an example of the “big, substantial, solid businessmen” that Bertha has her eye on. Carson’s office experiences a series of losses in its business ventures. Lam lays a trap, pretending to be a wealthy businessman with a property to lease. Carson gives each member of his staff a unique dollar amount that the lease should go for. Lam easily determines the office leak when the price is just over one of the staff’s given amount. The path leads to Herbert Dowling, one of Carson’s competitors and to a series of women who work for and love the two men. After Dowling is murdered, the police implicate Lam because of the tracking device he’d installed on Dowling’s car.

Gardner uses the chance to discuss restless men in this book, appropriate to the title.
“It’s hard to describe a man like that, Donald. He’s emotionally restless. He’s—Well, I’ve always felt that we had a perfect companionship and that much of his present trouble is that he had been search for something to take the place of that companionship.”[i]

[i] Gardner, Erle Stanley (as A.A. Fair). Bachelors Get Lonely. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1961. Page 70. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Changing of the Guard

Early in the Perry Mason series, Gardner wrote of the LAPD as a corrupt organization who were not above wiretaps, coercion and torture. As the series progressed and he desired to make the books more palatable to his middle-class audience, Gardner changed Mason's police opponents. The buffoonish Sergeant Holcomb would be replaced by Lieutenant Tragg. It would be hard to think of the TV series having Holcomb, so the change was fortuitous. 

The Case of the Baited Hook would be Sergeant Holcomb’s last major appearance in the series. Mason leads him around by the nose. The lawyer takes the time to dictate to the switchboard operator, Gertie, while Holcomb waits. Holcomb nearly arrests Mason after the lawyer has already named the guilty man and had him detained by the police. In order to stop Holcomb from pursuing the arrest, Mason plants a damaging account of the sergeant’s incompetence in the local newspaper. Struggling to deal with the publicity, Holcomb drops his case against Mason.
 The next book, The Case of the Silent Partner, introduces Lieutenant Tragg to the series. Holcomb’s behavior had become repetitive in the last few cases, and Gardner took the opportunity to replace the policeman with a brighter and more vivid opponent. While never mentioned outright, Della alludes to an incident where Mason got Holcomb transferred. Gardner would later say that Tragg represented the improved, less corrupt LAPD.

Tragg follows Mason’s every step and gives the lawyer more chances to defend his actions than did Holcomb. For the first few chapters of the book, the policeman and the lawyer work side-by-side to investigate the poisoning of a hostess. Once Mason has a client, the two become adversaries, and the case quickly becomes a competition as to who can properly interpret clues and solve the crime. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Proof is in the Photos

           A dozen years ago now, I wrote the following passage for my biography of Craig Rice:

Despite the lack of new work, Craig continued to promote herself and her work. She was her own best publicity machine when a fan from Colombia, South America, sent her a twelve-foot boa constrictor. Rice quickly named the snake Malone and posed with it for pictures and gave the reptile to a local animal shop. Shortly after that, the boa gave birth to 72 baby boas, setting a scientific record. Again Rice posed with the children of Malone as they slithered across her desk, typewriter, and books. After the photo shoot, the animal keepers had to dismantle the typewriter to return all of the young snakes back to the pet store.

 I was surprised at the time that a few fans questioned the story. Rice had often told wild tales about her exploits -- couldn't this have been another example of that? I was surprised by the questions. The story had been reported to me as fact, and I had taken it that way. 
Fast forward to 2013. Lo and behold, I find a photo that shows Craig, the typewriter and the boa with all of its wriggling progeny. It's not for the weak hearted, for sure. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Case of the Buried Clock

In The Case of the 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. Unlike his other two series, Gardner made very few concessions to the war in the Mason books. He wanted to keep the stories as timeless as possible. In doing so, all references to historical events of significance were kept to a minimum. While both Donald Lam and Doug Selby would enlist for their country, Perry Mason remained behind with
no explanation of why he had not been drafted or enlisted to fight. This decision has probably lengthened the life of the series since there are no historical markers to tie the books to a particular era.
 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. When his romantic interest’s brother-in-law is found dead in the cabin and the victim’s wife is seen throwing a gun off the side of the road leading to the cabin, Perry Mason agrees to help the victim’s wife. Gardner does a good job of showing how the police tend to stop investigating when they have found a viable suspect. In court, Mason makes the point that the police, having found a gun they suspected was the murder weapon, didn't search any further for the weapon thrown from the road. Gardner states through his character:

“They sincerely believe that everything they do has a tendency to uncover the truth, that anything they are stopped from doing is a monkey-wrench in the machinery. Therefore they look on all laws which are passed to protect the citizens as being obstacles thrown in front of the police.”[i]

The objectives of the police versus that of the citizenry is a theme that Gardner will repeat, especially when he begins work with the Court of Last Resort. In this book, too much is made of the clue of the clock and the use of sidereal time as an explanation for the clock’s timing.

[i] Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Buried Clock. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1943. page 55.