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)


  1. Even if the new TV series bears very little relation to the original, it is to be hoped that it will result in some new editions of Gardner's work (in the same way that the TV series "Inspector George Gently" brought Alan Hunter's originals back into print).

    Although ESG titles are not to be found in charity shops much nowadays, a search on AbeBooks gave over 2,000 titles in the UK alone!

  2. Really enjoyed this Curt - I occasionally read a Gardner book and am always impressed by how UNhumdrum they are, those exotic plots!

  3. I agree with both Symons and Gardner. Two shrewd assessments of the ones I have read.
    The earliest Mason stories show Perry skirting the edges of honesty and legality in a way most surprising to one who watched the show as a kid.