Aug 242014
 
SHORT STORIES was a great adventure pulp, and this issue is especially noteworthy because it featured not just one but two of the authors who were dubbed "King of the Pulps" at one time or another: Erle Stanley Gardner and H. Bedford-Jones. They're also two big favorites of mine. There's also an installment of a Halfaday Creek serial by James B. Hendryx and stories by S. Omar Barker, Hapsburg
Jul 202014
 
We've got an actual cliffhanger cover on this issue of TOP-NOTCH, illustrating a story by Erle Stanley Gardner, the only author in this particular issue whose name I recognize. But I suspect the other stories were entertaining anyway, as I've read a number of stories originally published in TOP-NOTCH that were good. I haven't read any of Gardner's Speed Dash stories, but I ought to.
Jan 142014
 

I am reminded, unavoidably, of the infamous and surely invented anecdote about young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree - you remember, young George supposedly tells his father, "I cannot tell a lie." It comes to mind, as I write about Erle Stanley Gardner's , the very first Perry Mason mystery, written in 1933 - because Mason finds himself saddled with a client of whom the exact opposite is true: quite simply, she cannot tell the truth. Ever. At all. About anything. As you might expect, this leads to some very interesting complications. The Case of the Velvet Claws is our book today on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.

If your idea of Perry Mason is based only on the excellent long-running television series starring Raymond Burr, you'll find a much rougher, down-to-earth Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws as well as several other early Mason mysteries. But one thing is clear right from the outset of this first Perry Mason novel: Mason regards himself as a champion of the underdog, and he believes he owes his client his loyalty and his absolute best efforts to resolve that client's problems with the law.

In The Case of the Velvet Claws, a woman comes to Perry Mason's office to hire him. She wants him to prevent a story from being published in a scandal and gossip sheet that is actually the cover for a blackmailing operation. Mason quickly learns that the woman is being anything but straightforward and honest with him. And when the man who is behind that blackmailing operation is murdered, Mason finds himself on the run and suspected of murder – a murder that his client may well have committed herself. Despite the fact that his client appears to be incapable of making a true statement about anything, Mason continues to represent her and fight for her rights to the best of his ability…even as he finds himself staying one step ahead of the police, who appear to be ready to arrest him.

This earliest Perry Mason story has a great many elements which make it fit into a "noir" sub-genre; there are remarkably few people Mason (or the reader) can trust. Happy endings are pretty scarce on the ground here. And it should be noted that there are no courtroom scenes in this book - another difference from the later Perry Mason books and television dramas.

But it is a very good book indeed, and it gives the reader some excellent insight into one of America's most popular lawyer-detectives, and his passionate defense of his clients. ALL of his clients, whether they can tell the truth or not. It's available again now as an ebook and it's very much worth your reading pleasure.

Dec 062013
 
Paperback 725: Pocket Books 909 (1st ptg, 1952)

Title: TCOT the Lazy Lover
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Cover artist: Clyde Ross

Yours for: $7

PB909

Best things about this cover:
  • That dude has my ultimate respect. That is some top-notch lazy. Superfly PJs. Highball. Slippers. Smart green couch. He knows what he's doing.
  • That look in her eye is not lust. It's not annoyance. It's jealousy. Jealousy of his Red Hot Lazy.
  • I can't stop looking at her boobs, and yet I don't find them very interesting. What the hell?

PB909bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • That "Gossip … / and Murder!" heading would look great on a t-shirt.
  • Hmmm. I'm not sure we have the same definition of "crazy punchline."
  • What does it mean to be "lazy about making love"? I'm quite sure the images in my head do not match whatever happens in this book.

Page 123~

Mason took the pass Lieutenant Tragg scribbled, and went over to the detention ward. After a ten minute wait, he was taken in to see Mrs. Allred, who had quite evidently been aroused from a sound sleep and had had no opportunity to put on her make-up.

Wow. That must've been really hard on Mason.

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]
Oct 262013
 
Paperback 715: Cardinal C-379 (1st ptg, 1959)

Title: The Case of the Perjured Parrot
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Cover artist: Ric Grasso

Yours for: $8

Card379

Best things about this back cover:
  • Woman distraught over loss of parrot attempts suicide by costume jewelry, gets tired, quits.
  • "Maybe if I just lean here sultrily, my parrot will just fly back in the window."
  • I unironically love her dress.

Card379bc

Best things about this back cover:
  • Wait, I can't see Perry, WHERE'S PERRY!? Oh, there he is. Phew. Thanks, Giant Red Arrow.
  • Not often you see the phrase "collection of guns at the public library." At least not where I'm from.
  • Remember when people watched scripted television on Saturdays!? Good times.

Page 123~

"You're putting me in a very difficult position, Mason," Bolding said irritably.
Mason's voice showed surprise. "I am? Why, I thought you'd put yourself in it."

Perry Mason, Smug Dickhead-at-Law

~RP

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Tumblr]

P.S. This is one of 97 paperbacks I bought yesterday at the University Book Sale. "Bingeing" doesn't really get at it.

Oct 242013
 
I don't remember the first book I read by Erle Stanley Gardner, which is sort of surprising considering all the other first books by various authors I recall. It may well have been SHILLS CAN'T CASH CHIPS, one of his Donald Lam and Bertha Cool mysteries written under the name A.A. Fair. I know I remember checking that one out from the bookmobile, so that was almost 50 years ago. I checked out other A.A. Fair books, as well as a number of Perry Mason novels, from the bookmobile, and then when my hometown got its own public library I read all the Gardner novels on those shelves, too, many of them early Perry Masons in those cheap Triangle/Blakiston hardcover reprints (more like cardboard cover reprints) with the pages that were already brown and brittle some twenty years after they were published.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that I've been reading Erle Stanley Gardner novels for a long, long time, but I didn't encounter any of his pulp work until a few years later when Ron Goulart included one of the Lester Leith stories in his iconic anthology THE HARDBOILED DICKS.

Even after that it was a while before I read many more of Gardner's pulp stories, but when collections of them began to come out in the Eighties and Nineties, I was right there. I read both volumes of the Whispering Sands stories from ARGOSY. I read both Ed Jenkins collections, and the Ken Corning collection, and the science fiction collection THE HUMAN ZERO. In recent years I've picked up more Gardner pulp collections, and I'll get to them, I swear I will.

That brings us to a recent non-fiction study of Gardner's pulp work, PULP ICONS: ERLE STANLEY GARDNER AND HIS PULP MAGAZINE CHARACTERS by award-winning scholar of mystery fiction Jeffrey Marks. Appropriately enough considering its subject matter, it's a fast, breezy, slightly hardboiled volume that focuses for the most part on the many different series characters Gardner created for the pulps. The longest chapter is the one on Ed Jenkins and Lester Leith, Gardner's best-known characters other than Perry Mason, Donald Lam, and Bertha Cool. However, Marks doesn't neglect the lesser-known characters such as Sidney Zoom, Speed Dash, The Patent Leather Kid, Black Barr, and The Man in the Silver Mask, among many others.

One of the things I really enjoyed in this book is the inclusion of correspondence between Gardner and the pulp editors for whom he was writing as they fine-tuned the stories and the characters. It's an interesting look into Gardner's creative process.

Overall, this is a very entertaining book, packed with information about Gardner and his characters, and whether you're a recent fan of his work or an old-timer like me, you definitely should check it out.


Sep 272013
 

I don't have anything about Patricia Highsmith today. I've tried to read her work in the past, but unfortunately she's one of those authors whose work just doesn't resonate with me. Instead I'm going with this rerun of a post about another classic mystery author. This post originally appeared in slightly different form on March 1, 2007.


Erle Stanley Gardner piles up the complications early on in this Perry Mason novel from 1936, when Mason was still a grinning, wise-cracking tough guy, at least part of the time. In this one we have a millionaire with the bad habit of sleepwalking with a bloody carving knife in his hand; his beautiful, astrology buff niece; a hypochondriac, black-sheep-of-the-family half-brother; a golddigging ex-wife; a crackpot inventor who may be a crook; and assorted other hangers-on and shady characters. Everybody winds up spending the night in the millionaire’s Hollywood mansion, including Perry Mason, and in Gardner’s version of an Agatha Christie/old English house sort of mystery, somebody winds up dead. Mason’s sleepwalking client is charged with the murder, so Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake plunge right in with the usual mix of snappy banter and questionable legal shenanigans to prove the client innocent and uncover the real murderer.

Gardner is in pretty good form in this one. The story zips along really fast, the wisecracks are funny, and there are some nice long courtroom scenes in the final third of the book. I had the murderer pegged pretty early on, which is unusual for me when it comes to Gardner’s books. I sometimes have trouble figuring out what happened even after Mason has explained everything. But I’ve discovered over the years that for books that are so plot-heavy and supposedly light on characterization, it’s not the plots I remember from them. The fun is in the pace and dialogue and the interaction among Mason, Della, and Paul Drake. And, of course, in watching Mason confound the long-suffering Hamilton Burger and Lt. Tragg (or in this case, Sergeant Holcomb, who hadn’t been replaced by Tragg yet). THE CASE OF THE SLEEPWALKER’S NIECE is only an average entry in the series but a perfectly enjoyable way to spend some time.



Sep 082013
 




Last week I wrote about the most important rule for thriller writers to follow, namely:

Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
I think I spoke to soon. There is a second rule that is of equal import: the overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense. 
This is not easy. Otherwise, everybody would be writing The Sixth Sense every time out. Not even M. Night Shyamalan is writing The Sixth Sense every time out! 
So what can we do to up our chances of getting our thriller ending right?
1. Think About Your Contractual Obligation 
Thriller readers will accept almost any premise at the start. They are willing to suspend their disbelief unless and until you dash that suspension with preposterousness. In other words, the readers are on your side. They're pulling for you. You have entered, therefore, into an implied contract with them. They suspend disbelief, and you pay that off with a great ending. 
I often hear writers say things like, "Oh, I've got a great premise. I don't know how it's going to end, but it will have to end sometime. And if I don't know how it's going to end, then surely the readers won't guess!" 
That is called, in philosophical discourse, a non-sequitur (meaning, "it does not follow"). I can name one big-name author right now whose last book was excoriated by readers because it had a great set-up, and hundreds of pages of suspense, and then was absolutely ridiculous at the end. I won't name said author because I believe in the fellowship, and I know how hard this thriller stuff is to pull off. 
Nevertheless, I've heard said writer say (he/she/it) does not worry about how something's going to end until (he/she/it) gets there. And said author has paid the price for it. 

2. Build the Opponent's "Ladder"
A thriller or mystery does not begin with the hook, the body, or the Lead character's introduction. In your story world, it always begins in the past with the Opponent's scheme. (NOTE: this is not where you begin your book. It's what you, the author, should know before your book begins). 
Erle Stanley Gardner plotted his mysteries with what he called "The Murderer's Ladder." It starts with the bottom rung and runs up to the top. There are 10 rungs:

10. Eliminating overlooked clues and loose threads
9. The false suspect
8. The cover up
7. The flight
6. The actual killing
5. The first irretrievable step
4. The opportunity
3. The plan
2. The temptation
1. The motivation
So what you, the writer, need to work out is, first, the motive for the scheme. This is in the heart and mind of the opponent. He is then tempted to action, makes a plan, looks for opportunity, etc. When Perry Mason gets on the case, with the help of detective Paul Drake, they look for clues along the rungs of the ladder, the place where the opponent might have made a mistake. 
The point of all this is, when you build your own ladder for the opponent, it will not only help your premise makes sense, it will give you all sorts of ideas for plot twists and red herrings.

3. Write the Opponent's Closing Argument 
This is an exercise I give in my writing workshops. It's simple yet powerful. At some point in your plotting, whether you are an outliner or a "pantser," pause and put your opposition character in a courtroom. He is representing himself before a jury, and must now give a closing argument that attempts to justify why he did what he did. 
This step rounds out your opponent, gives him added dimensions, perhaps even a touch of sympathy. It also keeps you from the dreaded moustache-twirling villain. No stereotypes, please. 
I see a pantser in the back row, raising her hand. "Yes, ma'am?" 
"I just can't write that way! I have to discover as I go along!" 
"And you know what you'll discover? That you have to force an ending onto all that material you've come up with. So you'll go back and try to change, mix and match, but will then discover there are too many plot elements you can't alter without changing everything else around it, so you'll end up compromising at the end. Sometimes you'll make it, but even popular writers who do it this way only bat around .400 on their endings. But if you follow the three steps above, your pantsing writer's mind will still be able to play, but play with a purpose." 
"But . . .but . . ." 
"But me no buts! This isn't easy, you know. If it was, celebrities wouldn't hire ghost writers when they try to cash in on the thriller market!" 
Make sense? Have you ever found yourself backed into premise implausibility? What did you do about it? 
Jun 102013
 


Look at what I just found on the Amazon U.S. Web site: a sales page for The Black-Eyed Blonde, Irish author John Banville’s long-promised novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. According to that page, Banville’s book--which will appear under his Benjamin Black pseudonym--is due out from publisher Henry Holt on March 4, 2014. It was originally slated for release sometime later this year.

As Tom Williams, author of last year’s Chandler biography, A Mysterious Something in the Light, notes in his blog, there’s a history to the name of this new Marlowe outing:
The title was one of several potential pulp titles listed in Chandler’s notebooks. It has been used before, as the title of an authorised short story by Benjamin M. Schutz in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: A Centennial Celebration, and, perhaps more interestingly, by Erle Stanley Gardner as the title for one of his Perry Mason stories. Since Gardner and Chandler were great friends it is possible that the Chandler suggested the title to Gardner. There is no mention of it in the correspondence I have read, but Ray and [his wife] Cissy were occasional visitors to the Gardner ranch and perhaps, over a coffee or a whisky, the title was mentioned. We will never know, of course. Gardner’s book is long out of print so it seems, for now at least, Chandler will be associated with the title once again.
Hmm. I own a paperback copy of Gardner’s The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde (1944). Maybe I ought to read that before tackling Banville/Black’s forthcoming tale.
May 242013
 

This post originally appeared in slightly different form on July 20, 2007.

This Perry Mason novel was originally published in 1955, an era during which Gardner’s work was still consistently good, although as far as I’m concerned his best books were published during the Thirties and Forties. The edition pictured is the first paperback, from February 1958. I have no idea why there was a three-year gap between the William Morrow hardback and the Cardinal paperback.

As for the story itself, it starts off in a typically intriguing Gardner fashion: Perry Mason receives a phone call at his office from a young woman who wants to hire him. It seems that she lives in a trailer, the small kind that can be pulled behind a car, and while she was out sunbathing -- nude, of course -- somebody stole the car and trailer, literally driving off with her home. She wants to hire Mason to bring her some clothes and find out who stole the trailer.

Well, you know there has to be a lot more to it than that in an Erle Stanley Gardner book, and of course, there is. It turns out the young woman is the daughter of a man who is serving time in prison for masterminding an armored car robbery, and wouldn’t you know it, the nearly four hundred thousand dollars in loot that was stolen in that robbery has never been found. The daughter is convinced that her father is really innocent and wants Mason to prove it. Meanwhile, various factions are equally convinced that the daughter really knows where the money is hidden. Sure enough, once Perry Mason gets involved in the case, it’s only a matter of hours before there’s a murder, and Mason’s client is arrested and charged with the crime.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job of keeping up with the plot in this one, something I often have a hard time doing in a Gardner novel. I spotted some clues, recognized some misdirection, and was convinced that I had the solution figured out. Then, with only a few pages left in the book, Gardner throws in a perfectly logical twist that I never saw coming at all. I wound up being about half-right in what I figured, and for a Perry Mason novel, that’s not bad, I suppose.

This book is also interesting because of the trailer angle. Gardner was known for going off to the desert and staying for weeks at a time in a trailer, so he puts his knowledge of such things to good use here, throwing in a few nuggets of information about how such trailers are set up and what they’re worth.
The Mitchell Hooks cover on the paperback edition is okay, but if ever a book was crying out for a McGinnis cover, you’d think that one with a title like THE CASE OF THE SUN BATHER’S DIARY would be it.


UPDATE: And sure enough, there was a later edition with a McGinnis cover, which you can see below.