Monday, January 6, 2020

No Cornflakes, Kiddos! The Case of the Nervous Accomplice (1955), by Erle Stanley Gardner

"I wish I had one of these facile plotting brains, like Erle Stanley Gardner, or somebody.  I have good ideas for about four books, but the labor of shaping them into plots appalls me."
--Raymond Chandler to Charles Morton, 1944

Younger than Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) by all of a year and six days, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) indeed was possessed of a nimble and prolific plotting brain.  Gardner published eighty Perry Mason detective novels in the thirty-six years between 1933 and 1969, with an additional pair published posthumously after his death at the age of eighty, nearly a half-century ago on March 11, 1970. 

This sum accounts for one novel for each year of his life and over two novels a year for nearly four decades, an impressive rate of achievement indeed; yet it isn't even counting:
  • Gardner's twenty-nine Bertha Cool and Donald Lam mysteries, published between 1939 and 1970 (an additional rediscovered novel in this series was published a few years ago)
  • his nine Doug Selby mysteries, published between 1937 and 1949
  • at least seven other crime novels published between 1935 and 1950
This comes to 125 crime novels published in that thirty-six year period, more than three as year.  Between 1953 and 1964, Gardner published three Perry Mason novels every year and during much of this time one or even two Cool and Lam novels as well, meaning that he was publishing four or even five novels a year.  With his literary fecundity  and genuine plotting skill Gardner reminds me a great deal of so-called "Humdrum" mystery writer John Street, who primarily under the pen names John Rhode and Miles Burton published over 140 crime novels between 1924 and 1961.

You might, indeed, call Erle Gardner an American Humdrum: an awesome plotting brain who for decades was able to churn out (via dictation) book after book that maintained an impressive level of plotting ingenuity, even as the books were peopled by thin characters and increasingly shorn of descriptive passages.  Perry Mason may be an iconic detective, but we never really get to know him deeply.  We don't even know whether he was really, like his creator, sleeping with his longtime secretary or, like the man who so brilliantly incarnated him on television, Raymond Burr, leading a covert life of a queerer sort.  Who knows?  The reader can use her own imagination.  From my reading the characters in the series remained remarkably static, at least after Gardner mostly shook off the series' pulpish Thirties roots and settled down to the depiction of Mason's snappy courtroom battles with DA Hamilton Burger, so familiar to us from the television series.

Gardner's remarkable consistency as a crime writer over the years, coupled with his amazing fecundity, helped make him one of the biggest selling crime writers of the twentieth century.  (The television series didn't hurt either.)  Yet after his death his star faded, though there was a nice paperback reprint series by Ballantine in the 1980s and early 1990s.  In the last decade his novels have become available in eBook editions and one was brought back last year as an American Mystery Classic by Otto Penzler; but Gardner still gets far less attention than Agatha Christie, herself enjoying a pronounced renaissance, both commercially and critically.  Maybe the coming Perry Mason series on HBO will help, though as it depicts Mason (Matthew Rhys) as "living check-to-check as a low-rent private investigator" and "haunted by his wartime experiences in France and...the effects of a broken marriage," series traditionalists may be outraged (yet again).

In a 1955 column largely lauding Gardner, mystery critic Anthony Boucher observed that

The most successful writers of mystery novels have not necessarily been the most able or enduring.  Indeed, when one thinks of Fergus Hume, J. S. Fletcher and S. S. Van Dine, who sold hundreds of copies of books unread and unreadable today, the reverse seems almost to be true.  But commercial success and genuine merit can at times be allied, as with Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner. [I have no clue why AB left Christie off this list--TPT.]

Boucher allowed (indeed, he said he knew it from experience) that some of his readers were likely to challenge the inclusion on the above list of Gardner's name:

Mr. Gardner has never been a pet of the more intellectual murder devotes...and it must be admitted that there is some basis for their charges of lackluster prose and oversimplified characterization....

Gardner, of course, needs a critical defense as much as Liberace needs a rave from John Crosby; but I can't asking the articulate few who scorn the Perry Mason novels to look more closely at their virtues--not only the extraordinary narrative pace, the solid craftsmanship of construction, the legal ingenuity, but also the half-accidental quality of genuine naturalism.  Gardner's murders are, like most in fact, committed for simple motives (usually profit) and by simple means....

This 1974 cover
(the sixth Pocket printing) is
surprisingly accurate in its depiction
of the novel's love triangle
A Perry Mason novel which I recently read, The Case of the Nervous Accomplice, which was published the same year as Anthony Boucher's column, illustrates Boucher's contentions beautifully, in my view.  This novel concerns the efforts of Sybil Harlan to win back her man, realtor Enright "Enny"Harlan, from that designing "little minx," as she's called throughout the novel, Roxy Claffin.

Roxy, you see, is five years younger (!) than Sybil (making Roxy all of twenty-one or twenty-two), and as Sybil puts it, Enny's "entranced by the color of her hair, the smooth contour of her skin, and he simply loves those great big soulful brown eyes."

Considering how often Gardner novels deal with sexually errant spouses, they are remarkably "clean" books, by the by.  Nowhere do we hear that Enny loved Roxy's great big bazooms, for example.  (I don't even know if they were big, I'm just assuming.)  I think Perry's and Paul Drake's strongest oath in this book is "Good heavens!", which I find quaintly charming.

Sybil hires Perry to use her money ($32,750 to be exact) to buy stock in a real estate concern, the Sylvan Glade Development Company, to which Roxy, who is represented by Enright (I just can't bring myself to call him Enny anymore), wants to sell her valuable property.  (Hillside property which is going to be leveled off for a freeway, with the dirt sold.)  Sybil wants Perry to gum up the works of this transaction, with the aim of putting Roxy (That mercenary little minx!) at odds with Enright, with the result that he will see Roxy For What She Really Is and come running back to his loyal wife.  Got that?

Perry, legal genius that he is, immediately recalls the doctrine of lateral support--the right of all property to have the natural, normal support of the adjoining property--and, having become a stockholder in the company, he complains that Roxy, by having gone ahead and had her property excavated, has violated this rule.  Instead of leveling the hill and all its properties, Perry argues, the company could terrace the hill and develop a fine hillside property.

the house on the hill
It seems Perry has accomplished his task on behalf of Sybil, but a monkey wrench--or rather a revolver--is thrown into the works when Sybil finds one of Sylvan Glade's stockholders, George Lutts (the man who sold the stock to Perry), shot dead on the interior staircase of an abandoned house on the Sylvan Glade property (the one from which she spies, with binoculars at a third floor window, on her poolside husband and his bikini-clad mistress at Roxy's adjoining house down the hill.) 

Sybil runs from the house, gets a taxi and eventually makes her way to Perry's office, where she spills the beans.  Or is she keeping some of those beans to herself?  And will Perry have to climb a beanstalk of falsehoods to get to the truth?

Perry wins a victory over his legal nemesis Hamilton Burger at the pre-trial hearing over the matter of the taxi driver's identification (a clever sequence and gambit on Perry's part), but despite this Sybil is soon on trial for her life, with the odds against Sybil looking steep indeed.  Will Perry find a way out for Sybil?  Well, of course he will, but getting there is the fun part!

The resolution of the murder plot, when we learn the meaning of the title, I found quite ingenious indeed.  I spotted the culprit, based on the matter of alibis, but the exact mechanics of the crime eluded me.  I was rather reminded, in the dazzling technical precision of the plot, of another British Humdrum mystery writer, Freeman Wills Crofts.  Like Gardner, Crofts and John Street were professional men (an attorney and engineers respectively) who all first published novels in their forties (though Gardner had written for the pulps for ten years) and valued plotting above all else. 

Some would argue, however, that Gardner, with his swift narratives and legal pyrotechnics, is a different sort of writer altogether.  I see similarity as well to Rex Stout, for example, Stout being an author who might also be seen as "formulaic" (though crucially Gardner lacks the sparkling and brilliantly original narration of Stout's Archie Goodwin).  Readers of both series derive a lot of enjoyment from seeing the ways in which their heroes, Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason, nimbly manage to outwit their police rivals. 

For his part Julian Symons classified Gardner not as a Humdrum but as a "big producer and big seller," (which he certainly was), along with Leslie Charteris, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, John Creasy, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mickey Spillane, Dennis Wheatley and Edgar Wallace

The latter man was the only one in this group, opined Symons "who possessed genuine imaginative talent."  Of the rest

they have not influenced the development of the [mystery] form, and few of their books are of individual interest....their work has a machine-like nature that removes it from the sphere of literary into that of sociological consideration.  a popular character is devised, the formula for treating him established, and it is then just a matter of producing stories to feed the demand.

In short in Symons' view this is crime fiction as a "ready-made product like cornflakes or puffed wheat."

I don't know that many writers want to see their books compared to packets of puffed wheat, but for his part Gardner, who forthrightly referred to himself as a "fiction factory" (in paperback editions his novels were selling in the Sixties at the rate of 2000 copies an hour) was modest about his writing, saying:

Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can't solve.  When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution.  They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.  If I have given millions that sort of relaxation, that is enough.

Maybe Gardner was a victim, when it came to critical esteem, of his own sheer competence.  I will concede that in my reading of him it's hard to pick out one book that stands as a masterpiece above others, as you might say, with Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr.  What is Gardner's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, his ABC Murders, his Three Coffins, his Burning Court?  Yet the fact remains that a book like The Case of the Nervous Accomplice, Gardner's 48th Mason novel and the third one he published in 1955, is a terrific mystery story.  It's also, in contrast with most of the work produced by writers like Charteris, Chase, Cheyney, Creasey and company, a genuine detective novel, legitimately clued.  And that ain't cornflakes, kiddos!

From the series: When Perry (Raymond Burr) met Roxy (the late Greta Thyssen)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Ten Carrs of Christmas: Death in Five Boxes (1938), by Carter Dickson, aka John Dickson Carr

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Death in Five Boxes!

You probably guessed that one was coming, but I also genuinely believe that Death in Five Boxes is an underrated Carr, deserving of more attention.

And, just in case you were wondering, Vox tells us that the twelve days of Christmas run from the birth of Christ (December 25) through the coming of the Magi, aka the three wise men (January 6, the Epiphany).  So I'm on track actually to get this done on time, praise the Lord and all the saints!

Death in Five Boxes begins as so many vintage mysteries do: with a young man who secretly dreams of adventure encountering a pretty "girl" in distress.  She's standing by an elegant row house in the light of a street lamp and the young man, toxicologist John Sanders, at first wonders whether she might be "an ordinary night-prowler"--i.e., a street-walker or lady of the night.  (Carr's mysteries tend to be more sexually frank than other "classic" mysteries.  In the Golden Age, this frankness was rather refreshing, although by the Sixties it seemed merely jejune.) 

However, the girl--or young woman as we would say today--is no hooker but rather respectable Marcia Blystone, daughter of eminent doctor Sir Dennis Blystone. 

Marcia is worried about Sir Dennis, who went out to keep an assignation at the flat of businessman Felix Haye.  Marcia, who followed Sir Dennis to this building, gets John to go up with her to Felix Haye's fourth-floor flat, where, after encountering a surly clerk named Ferguson on the third floor at the Anglo-Egyptian Importing Company [AEIC], they find Sir Dennis and the two other guests of Felix Haye--Bernard Schumann, heard of the AEIC, and art dealer Bonita Sinclair--drugged and insensible in Haye's flat.  Haye himself is dead, stabbed with an umbrella sword-stick.  (See the illustration of the 1991IPL edition, the one I read, at the above right.)

Each of Haye's guests has queer objects in their pockets: four wristwatches, the ringing mechanism of an alarm clock, and bottles of quick lime and phosphorous.  Now there's a fine Chestertonian situation for you!  Carr by his own admission was an adept of Chesterton in everything but religion--admittedly a rather large exception.

It turns out that all four individuals were poisoned with atropine in their drinks (white lady cocktails and a whiskey highball)--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible!  Also, Ferguson soon disappears from the building--under circumstances which seem to have been impossible!

Now the latter impossibility is soon explained, reasonably but prosaically, and while the explanation of the latter matter is held to the end of the novel and it's clever, it's not among Carr's most elaborate pieces of hocus pocus.  So perhaps this is why this novel isn't so well known as many other Carrs. 

Aside from the impossibilities, however, Boxes offers an intricate and well-plotted, fairly clued mystery problem (along with five mysterious boxes, which are broken into, their contents stolen, at the offices of Hayes' firm of lawyers).  I found it all quite satisfying.  On my second reading  of Boxes, I found had forgotten about everything about it after two decades except the poisoning method and I enjoyed it all immensely. 

John Norris has called Boxes one of his favorite Carter Dicksons.  To be sure, those Carr-hating curmudgeons Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor carrped that the novel depends on"false excitement" and "gimmicks" that are "barely plausible," but we know what wet blankets those two could be about anything they didn't (rather arbitrarily) deem "realistic."  Also people sometimes complain about the identity of the murderer, but I have no real problem with what Carr did here, aide from one niggling doubt about something the murderer did.

1940s Dell mapback edition
after which the back of the 1991
IPL edition was modeled over
John Sanders isn't the ass some Carr heroes are, although Carr-like he does to decide to commit the offense of breaking and entering in order to impress a girl (Marcia, of course).  This leads, incidentally, to a section of the book which would have graced any hard-boiled tale in terms of its splendid narrative tension.  (There's another such section as well, involving posh policeman Sergeant Pollard, who played a prominent role in The Ten Teacups, which would have fit wonderfully in a domestic suspense novel.)

Marcia Blystone seems very much a standard Carr leading lady, in both her youthful attractiveness and willfulness and her underlying sympathy with naughtiness, but she doesn't cross the line into irritating, for me anyway, in contrast with some Carr leads I could mention.  (I'm looking at you, Miss Audrey Page.)

Sir Henry Merrivale doesn't come into the story until it's a third over, but he's in splendid form throughout (aside from his pratfall introduction), humorous yet withal a figure of some real character.  (It wasn't for some more years yet that Carr would turn poor HM him into a buffoonish performing monkey.)

It's Sir Henry who here expresses an important credo of Carr's (it's important in the book too): "There's a lot of stuffin' that needs to be removed from shirts, and a good spring-cleaning wanted in the home of the humbugs."  Carr loathed the canting pious hypocrite, who committed sins in private which he sanctimoniously denounced in public; and if that isn't a timeless message I don't know what is.  Bravo, JDC, I shall raise a white lady to you!

recipe at Basco Fine Foods (recommended to readers of the book)