Erle Stanley Gardner | Gardner as Experimental Writer
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Dead Men's Letters
The Case of the Murderer's Bride
The Case of the Crimson Kiss
The Case of the Irate Witness
Sheriff Bill Eldon stories
Jerry Bane stories
Perry Mason novels:
The Case of the Substitute Face (1938)
The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938)
The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939) (Chapters 1-5, 12-14)
The Case of the Baited Hook (1940) (Chapters 1-6, 10)
The Case of the Empty Tin (1941)
The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942)
The Case of the Borrowed Brunette (1946)
The Case of the Hesitant Hostess (1953)
The Case of the Runaway Corpse (1954)
The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955)
The Case of the Terrified Typist (1956)
The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) (Chapters 1-3, 5, 6)
The Case of the Bigamous Spouse (1961)
The D.A. (Doug Selby) novels:
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) (Chapters 1-8, 15)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1941 - 1942)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1945 - 1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948) (Chapters 1 - 15, 18)
The Bertha Cool and Donald Lam novels:
The Bigger They Come (1939)
Turn On the Heat (1940) (Chapters 1-4, 12)
Owls Don't Blink (1942) (Chapters 1-6)
Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)
Crows Can't Count (1946)
The Count of Nine (1958) (Chapters 1-8)
Pass the Gravy (1961) (Chapters 1-7, 15-16)
Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
Up for Grabs (1964)
The above list contains my favorite Erle Stanley Gardner stories, the ones I personally enjoyed, and recommend reading. They are only a portion of his vast output.
Several collections of Gardner's pulp magazine short stories available from their publisher Crippen & Landru.
One might note that the "little guys" helped by Jenkins and Leith tend to be women; so are many of Mason's clients. Since pulp readers were stereotypically male, this can hardly be to promote reader identification. It is part of a general "female orientation" in Gardner's work, a consistent sympathy and respect for women. Most of the women in the Leith tales are working women of one sort or another, and anticipate Della Street and her classically sympathetic working woman. Women in the Jenkins tales are often either flappers or their mothers, in keeping with the F. Scott Fitzgerald atmosphere of these stories. In The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938), the heroine Sylvia Martin is a reporter with a brilliant mind and a devotion to success in her job, facts mentioned twice as Gardner's main characterization of her (Chapters 3 and 7). Her rival for the D.A.'s affection, rich Inez Stapleton, leaves at the end of the book to go to law school and make something of herself.
Gardner's fiction is a vast ocean, most of it completely unexplored. Only a relatively few of his pulp tales have been reprinted (eleven volumes to date, plus some tales in anthologies), although many of those that have been are of high quality. He also wrote a vast number of novels, which are much more obtainable. Many of these novels are very mediocre. They are morally wholesome and unobjectionable, but lack all plotting inspiration. Unlike Carr, Christie or Queen, he was not a consistent producer of high quality fiction. Gardner at his best, however, was a much more interesting author. Here we survey some of the major trends of his career.
Gardner's best works tend to fall into certain chronological periods: 1926, 1930-1933, 1938-1942, 1946, 1948-1949, 1952-1956 and 1961. Books and short stories from these years tend to have Gardner's richest plots. It is possible that Gardner put more interest in and attention to plotting in these years. It is also possible that his inspiration grew larger in general during these periods. The 1938-1942 era is especially rich in important Gardner works, and might be the peak of his career.
However, not all pulp fiction is tough or hard-boiled, at least not to the extent found in Hammett, Nebel's Dick Donovan tales, Paul Cain, Todhunter Ballard, Forrest Rosaire, Lester Dent's Oscar Sail stories, or Raymond Chandler. These writers represent an extremely hard-boiled tradition, but a great deal of pulp fiction is not especially like this. Much instead involves mystery stories in what might be called the "pulp adventure" tradition. This tradition found its greatest outlet in Dime Detective magazine from 1931 to 1945, but it appeared in many other pulps of the 1930's and 1940's as well. While this tradition peaked in the pulps, it also influenced some mystery books of the era, such as Bengal Fire (1937) by Lawrence G. Blochman.
The stories of this tradition were what many people think of when they think of a typical pulp detective story. They involve a complex, imaginative, well constructed plot, lots of action, breezy dialogue and story telling, and courageous, adventurous lead characters. There is often a great deal of humor, and an atmosphere of pleasant escapism. There is a lot of action, but not the emphasis on shocking, raw brutality often found in the hard-boiled tales. Nor is there so much emphasis on stylistically creative description, as there is in Hammett and Chandler and Dent. The prose is much simpler.
Gardner's work seems poised between these two poles. Some of it seems hard-boiled - but much it is closer to "pulp adventure".
Another important example of the early "pulp style of plotting" is the title tale in Dead Men's Letters, a collection of stories published in Black Mask in 1926 - 1927 by Erle Stanley Gardner. These stories all feature Ed Jenkins, a.k.a. The Phantom Crook. The title story "Dead Men's Letters" has features in common with the pulp style of plotting, and is the second earliest example of this kind of fiction known to me.
In some examples of the "pulp style of plotting", when a mysterious action occurs, we readers don't know which of the many characters performed it. However, in "Dead Men's Letters" we and Ed Jenkins always know who is exactly doing what. What we don't know is their motivation, or the underlying story-lines, how such events fit into a big picture. Trying to figure out these underlying motives and stories forms the puzzle in "Dead Men's Letters".
Daly's tale, and presumably some of his other uncollected early work, clearly served as a model for Erle Stanley Gardner. Gardner's Ed Jenkins tales bear a family resemblance to Daly's work, features in common including:
The first three tales in Dead Men's Letters are the best. Oddly, there is a distinct sign of influence by F. Scott Fitzgerald at work in the first two of these tales, "Dead Men's Letters" and "Laugh That Off". These are set in a world of debutante flappers and their romances, exactly the characters and setting of Fitzgerald's immensely popular Saturday Evening Post tales of the period.
Eventually, the underlying hidden framework of the characters' relationships and actions is revealed by the end of "Dead Men's Letters". In a previous Ed Jenkins tale, "Laugh That Off" (1926), a quite similar framework is used for the characters and their relationships. But in "Laugh That Off", this framework is shared with the readers immediately, and there is nothing hidden about it. "Laugh That Off" has no mystery elements - instead it is a thriller without mystery. "Laugh That Off" appears after in "Dead Men's Letters" in the collection Dead Men's Letters, although it was published in magazine form a few months before. It is just as well that "Laugh That Off" appears later in the book: if it appeared earlier, it might "spoil" the mystery of the hidden relations in "Dead Men's Letters".
SPOILERS. "The Cat-Woman" (1927) shows a structure that will recur in some of Gardner's novels, such as The D.A. Draws a Circle and The D.A. Breaks a Seal: a crime in the past with a surprize solution, affecting a more thriller-like situation in the present. The mere fact that there is any sort of crime or mystery in the past, in "The Cat-Woman", is a carefully hidden feature, though. In The D.A. Draws a Circle the crime in the past is a full puzzle plot; the past crime in "The Cat-Woman" comes close to being a puzzle plot, with some hints to the solution scattered in the story.
A somewhat similar game plan will be found later in many Perry Mason tales. Perry interferes with the police, and with evidence left behind by his clients. He lays elaborate schemes to interfere with this reality, and make it look completely different. While the motives are different, the same plotting imagination is behind both the "good crooks" of the pulps and Perry Mason.
In both cases the violence is associated in the stories with, but not caused by, China and the Chinese. Gardner was at one time lawyer for most of a Chinese community in California, and was very sympathetic to their problems and concerns.
Gardner's women are often at the center of both the mystery and the violence of his plots. Many of these women are willful and sexual, including both gangster's molls, and the adulterous women who show up so regularly in the Perry Mason tales. Gardner's portrait of women seems to draw on commonly held beliefs that women are a source of repressed energy in society, one that can come to the fore in many explosive ways.
More comically, Lena's sarcastic, earthy dialogue during her first visit with the hero, anticipates Bertha Cool.
"Hell's Kettle" is a thriller, not a mystery. But it does show structural features related to "the pulp style of plotting". There are a number of independent actors: the Kid, Lena, the mysterious night club woman, policeman Clancy. We don't always know how some of these characters are aligned, or opposed, especially the night club woman and Clancy. We usually know their actions - but not always why they are doing it, or whose side they are on. Further, a mysterious unseen person with a machine gun appears late in the tale, whose motives are also obscure. Oddly, we don't learn the answers to these riddles, rather, their solution is seemingly postponed to the tale's sequel.
The hero rents a house with two apartments in it. This anticipates a bit the "two neighboring households" tales Gardner would write later in his career. However, while it resembles such tales in architectural layout, "Hell's Kettle" does not actually people the apartments with separate households.
The Lester Leith (and closely related Paul Pry) tales are different from anything I know of, inside or outside of pulp fiction. But one can find a few comparisons:
Of the stories in The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith, one of the weaker is the first, "In Round Figures" (1930). It does have a colorful con, and serves to familiarize readers with the Leith formula. The figure of the fat woman in this tale anticipates Bertha Cool, Gardner's gargantuan female private eye.
"A Thousand to One" (1939) has the best puzzle plot of the five stories. We are getting close in time to The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942), Gardner's masterpiece in the puzzle plot novel.
"In Round Figures", "The Bird in the Hand", and "A Thousand to One" are constructed according to similar templates. Puzzle plot ingenuity occurs in most of these tales, around a whole series of puzzling kinds of mysteries:
"Lester Leith, Magician" (1939) has lively storytelling centering around magic; the puzzle plot elements are close to zero here, however. The thief does have a clever hiding place for his loot. The tale is the closest among the five stories to the "pulp style of plotting", in which different groups of characters are all competing at cross purposes, here to obtain a necklace of pearls. This story also shows Gardner's sympathies with the Chinese. A sociological note: a dropped and shattered plate in Leith's magic act is said by Gardner to be noteworthy to women in the audience because they regard such an event as a "domestic tragedy". That was true for the poor people who were Gardner's main readers in the pulps, but not at all for the rich socialites on the cruise ship in the story who were Leith's fictional audience. Here the mask of luxury that permeates the Leith stories slips, revealing the reality of hard times beneath.
"The Bird in the Hand" (1932) is a nicely done piece of storytelling. It deals with two impossible thefts, one committed by the crooks, and another a theft of sorts committed by Lester Leith at the end of the tale. It is closest to the "hard-boiled" world of any of the 5 tales. This era of the early 1930's was the depth of the Depression, and the hard-boiled world seemed to "fit" many readers experience. Also, the hard-boiled style was "spreading" in this period, to a new generation of writers in Black Mask, and to magazines such as Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly here, through the defection of Black Mask writers such as Gardner.
"Something Like a Pelican" (1942) is in Gardner's miscellaneous collection, The Case of the Irate Witness. It has a simple but satisfying borderline-impossible crime plot, about some stolen blueprints, plus lots of pleasant storytelling. Its impossible theft is in the same general category as the mysteries in "The Bird in the Hand". Gardner would return to this kind of impossible theft story in the opening section (Chapters 1-8) of the Bertha Cool - Donald Lam novel, The Count of Nine (1958). In all of these, Gardner introduces lots of plot complexities surrounding the central theft. The impossible crimes in these tales have structural similarities with the puzzle plot in the Paul Pry story, "Dressed to Kill" (1933), although that is not an impossible crime. There are also some relationships with the mystery of the hidden money in the Sidney Zoom tale "Lifted Bait" (1933). Many of these stories involve the complex architecture sometimes found in Golden Age books. In a number of the tales, such as "The Bird in the Hand" and The Count of Nine, someone has to smuggle a stolen object out of a building, past the watchful eyes of searchers, a seeming impossibility.
"Something Like a Pelican" has some brief but intelligent comments on film directors, that seem more sophisticated than most other writing by non-film people in that era. Gardner would later function with effectiveness in the television industry, involved with the Perry Mason TV show.
Leith and one of the characters share an interest in deluxe guns, which recalls Sidney Zoom and his policeman friend in "The Green Door".
Another Leith story available today is "The Candy Kid" (1931), reprinted in both The Case of the Murderer's Bride and The Case of the Crying Swallow, two different Gardner collections. Neither its puzzle plot, nor Leith's scheme to recover some stolen rubies, is as clever as the best tales in the EQ collection. But it is full of colorful events, and makes pleasant reading. At first, the story looks as if it will be one of Gardner's tales of impossible theft, and it includes some fairly clever ideas about how such a theft might have taken place. But it soon veers into a different direction.
The Perry Mason novel The Case of the Empty Tin also has some inventive mystery subplots, centering around communication. These especially involve the tin can of the title. These puzzles are not linked to impossible crime techniques. Gardner also includes several ingenious ideas about which of the suspects might be using the strange communication system, and why.
Paul Pry is an early example in Gardner of heroes whose last names are English words: Perry Mason, Della Street, Paul Drake, Bertha Cool, Donald Lam, Sidney Zoom, Jerry Bane, Dan Seller, Bill Pope, Senor Lobo, Peggy Castle.
Links to the Patent Leather Kid. Aspects of the Paul Pry tales anticipate Gardner's somewhat later hero, the Patent Leather Kid.
Paul Pry's assistant Mugs Magoo has expert knowledge of all aspects of the underworld. This expertise will be repeated in The Patent Leather Kid's assistant Bill Brakey. Both characters share their information with the hero, and the reader. Among other things, this speeds the narration along: we instantly get a flood of information about any underworld character that appears in the story.
Paul Pry has steel doors protecting him in his apartment hotel home: see "A Double Deal in Diamonds". This too anticipates the Patent Leather Kid.
At the end of "The Racket Buster" Paul Pry tells Mugs to get him some clothes so Paul Pry can impersonate a truck driver. Paul mentions a leather jacket as a possibility: leather jackets were indeed commonly worn by truck drivers in that era. This anticipates a bit the Patent Leather Kid and his fondness for leather clothes. Paul Pry also wears a helmet and goggles when flying in "A Double Deal in Diamonds".
Mugs' Disability. Continuing character Mugs Magoo works as Paul Pry's assistant. Mugs' extraordinary ability is remembering faces of criminals, a subject on which former policeman Mugs has total recall. He used to specialize in this with the police. Mugs also has only one arm. Mugs' back-story is in "The Crime Juggler" and "Slick and Clean" (Chapter 2). Politics led to Mugs and others being dismissed from the police. Mugs was unemployed, and became an alcoholic. Then Mugs' life turned around when Paul Pry hired him, and put his facial recognition abilities to work.
The Paul Pry tales were written before the modern disability movement. There are things that today's readers won't like, such as Mugs' alcoholism. But the tales get one thing profoundly right. Mugs is devastated to lose his police job, and thrilled to be back employed with Pry, and using his facial recognition talents. Mugs, like everyone, wants to work and contribute to the world.
Drums and Native Americans. Paul Pry's hobby is collecting and playing drums. He gets drums from many parts of the world. But he seems especially interested in Native American drums:
Navajo drums in "The Crime Juggler" are linked to the desert. Gardner had a life-long enthusiasm for the desert, that shows up in more detail in his Whispering Sands stories and related works.
Drumming helps Paul Pry think. He concentrates and thinks deeply, coming up with his ideas. Sherlock Holmes was shown thinking with deep concentration in "The Man with the Twisted Lip" (1891), by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Influence from Anderson?. In Frederick Irving Anderson's "The House of Many Mansions" (1928) and other tales, policeman Deputy Commissioner Parr walks the streets of Manhattan, with one of his officers Pelts nearby. Policeman Pelts is dressed, as always, as the shabbiest of tramps. Parr examines passerby, and compares them to his "mental rogues' gallery" of crooks. When Parr finds a crook, he sends Pelts to investigate.
The Paul Pry tales have a little of the same feel. Pry walks big city streets, with Mugs nearby disguised as a shabby beggar. However, it is Mugs who recognizes crooks among the passerby, not Pry himself.
Anderson was a famous writer at the time, with tales appearing in that most popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. Gardner might well have read him.
Stories. In such works as "The Racket Buster" (1930) and "The Daisy-Pusher" (1930), the initial scheme of the crook, and Paul Pry's countering scheme, have little to do with each other. Each scheme shows entertaining plot ingenuity, however, and the stories have pep and bounce.
"A Double Deal in Diamonds" (1931) shows Paul Pry flying from one city to another, as part of his scheme. This anticipates the flying in several Perry Mason novels. Paul Pry also takes an interurban, one of the fascinating forms of public travel in that era.
"Hell's Danger Signal" (1932) shows Gardner moving away from the Lester Leith like plot and counterplot format, and towards a close approximation to the "pulp style of plotting". Lola Beeker in this story is one of Gardner's strong independent women. It is a kind of personality towards which he had much affection, but also one which he exploited for comedy. Such characters are always doing things that no "conventional" woman of the day would do, and the narration is always pointing this fact up. Lola Beeker is remarkably beautiful, but a later incarnation of the type will be the decidedly unglamorous private eye Bertha Cool. Her introduction in her first novel The Bigger They Come (1939), is one of Gardner's best character sketches.
"Dressed to Kill" (1933) introduces a puzzle plot into the Paul Pry stories. Simpler than those in the Lester Leith tales, the puzzle is still nicely done. The plot shows misdirection based on "zones of storytelling", also a feature of some later Perry Mason novels. Here, while the reader is following the thriller aspects of the tale, Gardner is also sneaking in clues to the puzzle plot - an unexpected effect. The whole story is one of the pleasantest pieces of escapism in the series. Pry shows gallantry towards an older woman in the tale; Gardner clearly admired and liked women.
This tale and the other Paul Pry stories show a lot of metaphors based on fishing; Gardner loved this in real life.
The scheme/counter-scheme approach of the Paul Pry tales began before the series began, and survived its demise:
Bane himself is subtly different from Gardner's pre-war characters like Leith and Pry. He is younger, or at least more naive acting, more middle class, more ordinarily respectable, and with less elegance or panache. A returning war veteran, Bane is a handsome young man who disdains work and wants to have fun. He resembles in a comic way many similar good looking young men who don't want to work in Gardner's novels. These novel characters tend to have moralistic fingers wagged at them by older authority figures, who urge them to repent and get jobs. They often tend to get into deep trouble in the books, especially through gambling or embezzlement, although they are rarely the murderer or chief villains of the stories. In "The Affair of the Reluctant Witness" all this is burlesqued; the older authority figure chews Bane out in the same way, but he is presented as a joyless fogey who gets his comic comeuppance at the end, while Bane is seen sympathetically. Gardner clearly was of two minds about these young men characters.
The Hero. The Patent Leather Kid bears a resemblance to Lester Leith, Paul Pry and Jerry Bane. He is (in part) a member of the underworld who preys on other crooks. However the Patent Leather Kid is the secret identity of an apparently wealthy socialite named Dan Seller, and his activities seem to be committed out of both a need for excitement and a desire to right wrongs. And the stories point out that while the Kid acts like a crook, and hangs out with the underworld, that he never actually commits any crimes.
We never learn much about Dan Seller's background - which is typical of Golden Age mystery fiction. The first tale "The Kid Stacks a Deck" (1932) says "That he was of the finest stock, without a blemish upon his record, was evidenced by the fact he had been admitted to the club at all". There is perhaps subtle ambiguity here: Is he really from a "good family", or has he deluded everyone at his exclusive upper crust club into thinking so?
Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914-1915) is about an upper class man with a secret identity as the underworld denizen the Gray Seal.
Changing Identities. The Patent Leather Kid regularly goes through a three-stage process, whenever he changes into his secret identity:
Although Gardner does not explicitly note it, each stage of the process has the hero a member of a different social class: Dan Seller is a wealthy member of the upper crust, Rodney Stone is a middle class businessman, the Patent Leather Kid is a member of the underworld, with a flashy style of dress. It is a steady journey from the top down through the class system, each transformation taking the hero a step lower.
The Kid's apparent membership in many different classes is perhaps a metaphor for Gardner himself. Gardner met a wide variety of people as a lawyer, and wrote sympathetically about many classes in his fiction.
Using back stairs or service elevators in hotels or apartments is a regular feature in Gardner. Perry Mason does it to do detective work in The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (first half of Chapter 5), for example. In The Case of the Glamorous Ghost, Perry temporarily adopts a new identity (of sorts) while traveling this back way. It recalls (in a small way) the Kid's multiple identities. Perry's new identity also involves a change of social class.
Nice Digs. It is clear that in all three identities, the Kid has nice places to stay. This was a pleasant fantasy for many poor readers in the Depression, who were "ill-housed" as President Roosevelt put it: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."
Commissioner vs Inspector. Monte Herridge at Mystery*File says that Inspector Brame was originally known as Commissioner Brame in the first Kid story. But that his title was later changed to Inspector. (In the recent paperback, Brame is largely referred to as Inspector throughout, although there are a few references to him as Commissioner.)
Commissioner makes more sense, though. Brame is a member of the same exclusive upper crust club as wealthy hero Dan Seller and explorer Bill Pope. Police Commissioners in the 1930's at least sometimes were members of the social elite, and could plausibly belong to such clubs. An Inspector, making a modest salary and coming from a working man background, would be far less likely to be admitted.
Brame often worries about the reputation of the police as a whole. It is the job of a Commissioner to be concerned with the whole police force. An Inspector would care less.
And a Commissioner is a major authority figure. The hero's taunting of Brame has more of an anti-authoritarian feel, with a Commissioner as its target.
Detective Assistants. Some of the Kid tales are thrillers, without real elements of mystery. But "The Kid Throws a Stone" has genuine elements of detection used to solve a mystery. In this story, the Kid has two people helping him in his detective work, who anticipate Perry Mason's helpers to come:
Mirroring Plot. In some Kid tales, the Kid's actions imitate the previous actions of the bad guys. It is not a straightforward echo, but often comes with a twist, to advance the Kid's goals.
In "The Kid Throws a Stone" (SPOILERS):
In "The Kid Cooks a Goose" (SPOILERS):
Counter Schemes. Some Kid tales show the familiar Gardner pattern of scheme by bad guys / counter-scheme by good guys designed to interfere with bad guys' scheme. In the final Kid tale "The Kid Steals a Star" (1934) the bad guys have a con man scheme to rob jewelry stores. During their next attempt, the Kid, Bill and Gertie interpose themselves and sabotage the thieves' plans. There is one of Gardner's large floods of plot here. And Gertie's bigger role is appealing. We learn her full name: Gertie Straub. Gertie Straub is also the name of a character briefly seen in James Thurber's humorous book My Life and Hard Times (1933) (start of Chapter 6).
Leather. It was standard for men in tuxedos to wear black patent leather evening shoes. The Kid wears these along with his tux. Far more unusually, he often dons a black patent leather mask to conceal his identity.
Jeffrey Marks' informative book Pulp Icons: Erle Stanley Gardner and His Pulp Magazine Characters (2013) claims that "The Patent Leather Kid was unique in fiction as the only character in literature clad in glossy leather." Marks' insight is a good one. As best I can tell, Marks is correct - I don't know of any other systematically leather-clad heroes in prose fiction before the Kid, with the exception of airplane pilots.
Early movies had a number of characters in black leather clothes. See this discussion in my article on Fritz Lang. These movies appeared before the Kid was created in 1932. And after the Kid, in the 1940's, leather jackets became popular in the movies. See my list of Leather Jackets in Film.
However, the Patent Leather Kid has an identity based on leather. By contrast none of these early film characters do. They are simply men wearing leather clothes.
The Kid also wears patent leather shoes with loud flashy, but well-tailored suits: see "The Kid Throws a Stone" (1932), "The Kid Takes a Cut" (1933). Other detectives sometimes wore patent leather shoes, such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. However Poirot wears such shoes because he is a Continental dandy, while the Kid is dressing like what Americans of the era called a "sporting" type.
In "The Kid Clears a Crook" we learn that Dan Seller sits in a "huge black leather chair" at the club.
In The Case of the Drowning Duck (Chapter 1), Perry Mason notices that a wealthy client wears "expensive black kid dress shoes" with his evening wear. Soon, Della Street is urging Perry to put on his leather jacket and riding boots to go horseback riding, which Perry does (Chapter 3). Della finds the boots and jacket in Perry's closet, and hands them to him. As elsewhere in Gardner, there is a sense of one person providing leather clothes for another. See "The Racket Buster" (Paul Pry asks Mugs to get him a trucker's leather jacket), "The Green Door" (Zoom gives a leather gunbelt matching his own to a friendly cop), "The Kid Throws a Stone" (the Kid gives a patent leather outfit to his assistant Bill Brakey).
Masks and Evening Clothes. While the Kid wearing a patent leather mask is new, men wearing regular masks with evening clothes are not. They are especially found in the films of Louis Feuillade, a famous French director of crime thrillers. In Le Trust, ou les batailles de l'argent (1911) ("The Trust, or the battles of money") villains wear strange black face masks with their black tuxedos.
A famous portrait of the prose villain Fantômas shows a giant Fantômas astride the city of Paris, a glamorous, good-looking man dressed up to the max in top hat, white tie and tails, wearing the sort of mask associated with burglars. Feuillade partially recreates this image at the end of his first Fantômas film Fantômas - A l'ombre de la guillotine (1913). Fantômas wears a burglar's mask along with white tie and tails. The mask is not shiny or made of leather. Instead the viewer's attention is drawn to Fantômas's huge shiny black silk top hat.
Both Le Trust and Feuillade's Fantômas films are available on DVD. Fantômas imagery is also available on the scholarly blog The Cine-Tourist. The illustration of Fantômas astride the city of Paris appears immediately. To see Feuillade's portrait of Fantômas in mask and evening clothes, scroll around half way down.
British writers also depicted crooks in masks and white tie and tails. Dornford Yates wrote about a gang of sophisticated crooks who dressed this way in his short story "A Trick of Memory" (1921). The article on Yates tells how to find the story and a contemporary illustration of the masked crooks.
Zoom is the kind of person comedian Crazy Guggenheim (on The Jackie Gleason Show) called "a rich millionaire with lots of money". He uses his wealth to defend the innocent and weak against powerful crooks who prey on them. Many of the Zoom stories, like "Willie the Weeper" (1930), "My Name Is Zoom!" (1930) and "Inside Job" (1933) are biter-bit tales, like the Paul Pry stories. In these, Zoom beats crooks through conman-like schemes of his own. However, Zoom is honest, and does not make money off of crooks for himself. Zoom is a pure good guy: he is not any sort of criminal. Zoom is characterized as a "fighter", like Perry Mason to come. The tales have a more somber mood than the light-hearted Lester Leith and Paul Pry stories, with Zoom battling for the rights of ordinary people who have been stomped on by the rich during the Depression.
Other Zoom tales are detective stories, in which Zoom solves murders. These include "Higher Up" (1931) and "Cheating the Chair" (1932). Both of these stories have some creative mystery ideas, although neither is in the first rank of Gardner puzzle plot tales. Both also have some stinging social criticism of civic corruption. They are among the most explicit tales Gardner wrote attacking social oppression, with "Cheating the Chair" being especially left-wing. These are some of the earliest actual puzzle plot detective tales by Gardner available today. The civic corruption is not just a thematic element in these tales: it is also worked into the puzzle plots of the stories. In "Higher Up" this leads to a complicating of the narrative, in that what seems like detection is also unexpectedly harboring mystery. This is an early example of an approach that Gardner will use in some of his novels, of mixing the apparent "zones" of his storytelling, and having "detection" sections actually include hidden "mystery" elements.
These detection-mystery ideas are not the only mystery aspects of these tales. In "Higher Up", both the subplot about the fingerprints, and the solution at the end of who has stolen the diamonds, involve questions of access to the house, and knowledge about its activities. This anticipates the non-series mystery "A Logical Ending" (1933). These are all plots in which Gardner uses clues to identify a criminal. Mysteries in which only one suspect has knowledge to commit a crime are associated with Ellery Queen, as in his The French Powder Mystery (1930).
Other Zoom stories mix modes, involving both biter-bit con games with which Zoom defeats criminals, and genuine detection. "Lifted Bait" (1933), one of the most satisfying Zoom tales, contains both elements. When a woman is framed for murder, Zoom has to first reconstruct the true history of the crime: a detective element. Then he uses his knowledge of the crime to destroy the frame, and bring the crime home to its real perpetrator: a con game. Such mixing of approaches shows Gardner experimenting with the forms of crime fiction. The reconstruction of the crime is a variation on the mystery elements in "Cheating the Chair".
Links to the Patent Leather Kid. In "Willie the Weeper" Zoom disguises himself as a lower class member of the underworld, moving from one hotel to another as he does so. This is a one time event in "Willie the Weeper". But it resembles the way the Patent Leather Kid regularly disguises and transforms himself, something that occurs in most of the Kid stories as part of the Kid's standard modus operandi. The Kid moves from a room in one hotel to another room in another hotel, with each change involving disguising himself as a man of a lower social class. This is exactly what Zoom does in "Willie the Weeper".
A difference: the Kid regularly moves through three hotel rooms, while Zoom moves through only two.
"Willie the Weeper" (1930) appeared two years before the first Kid tale "The Kid Stacks a Deck" (1932), which creates both the Kid and his multiple hotel rooms / transformations of appearance. It thus seems likely that "The Kid Stacks a Deck" drew on, and made more complex, ideas first presented in "Willie the Weeper".
An Attack on Individuality. In "Willie the Weeper" (1930) Zoom says civilization is trying to turn people into standardized cogs, both destroying their individuality and wearing them out.
The next year in Murder in the Mews (1931) (Chapter 1) Helen Reilly complained that the modern machine age was standardizing life. This is a different but perhaps related view.
Hawkman. "Willie the Weeper" briefly refers to Zoom as a "hawkman", to emphasize his ferocity and wildness. Ten years later in 1940, the comic book super-hero Hawkman would be created. Please also see my article on the 1960's version of Hawkman.
An Influence on Merle Constiner?. The setting and cast of characters in "Higher Up" anticipates Merle Constiner's short stories of the 1940's. We have a small mansion on the outskirts of town, home to an eccentric rich person who is pursuing a hobby in a non-standard fashion, one that involves a lot of strange financial transactions and eccentric visitors to the home. There are also strange servants, and a long history of events building up to the crime. The pawn shop opening anticipates the seedy small businesses in Constiner's work.
Sidney Zoom's present to the police Sergeant in "The Green Door" includes a leather gun belt that matches his own. Similarly charged: the scene where the Patent Leather Kid hands his bodyguard-assistant Bill Brakey black patent leather clothes, to wear as part of a scheme. The clothes are duplicates of the Kid's own leather outfit. See "The Kid Throws a Stone" (1932). "The Kid Throws a Stone" was published just two months after "The Green Door".
"The Kid Throws a Stone" also emphasizes the Kid's close relationship with macho explorer Bill Pope. The two men lock eyes in an intense mutual gaze, twice in the story.
The novella "Death Rides a Boxcar" (1944) features a pair of young Army buddies as sleuths. Both are strongly attracted to the women in the tale. But both also have an idealized buddy relationship. The two men share a hotel room, and carry on a conversation while one is taking a bath. Also, when one of the men is sweet-talking what he thinks is a girlfriend through the door, the object of his address suddenly morphs into a tough, athletic police inspector. The soldier and the inspector go on to develop an unusual relationship.
The Bertha Cool - Donald Lam novel Top of the Heap has gay undertones, explored in detail in the section on that novel.
A perhaps similar character to Sidney Zoom in Gardner's later novels is attorney A.B. Carr, who views highly the handsome young D.A. Doug Selby: see The D.A. Breaks a Seal (Chapter 3). Although Carr is a major character in six novels, Gardner never actually specifies a sexual orientation for Carr, telling us whether Carr is gay or straight. Zoom and Carr are both strong, strong-willed and domineering genius men of great practical effectiveness. Both are laws unto themselves, and distinctly social outsiders. Both men have elements of pathos, along with great success. But both are such high energy figures that it is clear that they have hope for the future.
Castle shows both intelligence and determination in her detective work. The tale has feminist elements: people keep telling her that showing all this brain power is no way to get a man, but she perseveres with her detection anyway, keeping true to her sensible convictions throughout. The story looks as if it were designed to be the start of a series, but Gardner apparently wrote just this one novella, unfortunately.
The story is not "fair play": there is no way a reader could logically guess its solution, since Gardner keeps introducing new facts, characters and situations as the story goes along. There are other aspects of the mystery solution that rely on coincidence, also a technical flaw. This is too bad, because otherwise it is a fun piece of storytelling, with Gardner's usual flood of plot detail.
Like the Gramps Wiggins novel The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943), this tale is a bit racier than most of Gardner's other work.
Reed Sampsel solved mysteries (in Dime Detective) that came to him in his business as a palmist. His talents as a palmist are treated as "genuine": he can look at the lines in someone's hand, and make accurate deductions about their character and life history. "The Hand of Horror" suggests that palmistry is based on a sound scientific foundation. It also claims, that other psychic abilities are real. And shows Sampsel getting an accurate "feeling" about the contents of an unopened box. I find all of this dubious in the extreme. Gardner uses Sampsel's palmistry ability to allow him to make detective discoveries. As best as I can tell, neither palmistry nor psychic powers play much role in most of Gardner's other detective tales - and a good thing too!
Both palmistry and psychic powers are depicted by Gardner as firmly based in science (rather than magic or the supernatural). Therefore Reed Sampsel and his adventures should be regarded as science fiction.
Sampsel has an office and a loyal secretary; as a character he reminds one of Perry Mason. He is a high powered business man, and something of a know it all, always pontificating about what makes for success in life, just like Mason. Such high toned sermonizing was very big in 1930's mainstream fiction, reaching a peak of sorts in the novels of Lloyd C. Douglas.
"The Hand of Horror" (1933), the only short story available today, is full of gruesome horror effects. The tale might be "sick", but it is not boring.
The best part of the story is Chapter 1; it has good storytelling, and a tabloid reporter who talks entirely in headlines; this is quite funny and clever.
The scenes in a sinister doctor's office anticipate those in "The Hand of Horror" (1933).
There is perhaps something autobiographical in this tale of speeded up time. It occurs in the story by speeding up an individual's metabolism. Gardner himself seemed to live at a much faster pace and get far more done per hour than the average person. The story perhaps shows in an exaggerated way his own perceptions of rapid living. It also reflects the perennial anxiety of his characters to make the most of their time, to be efficient.
Civic Corruption. A distinguishing feature of the Corning tales is that they take place in "York City", a town run by a corrupt political machine and its crooked cops and D.A's office. So Corning is constantly fighting both rich powerful people and their police stooges. His character has as many run-ins with the police as Gardner's crook characters, such as Ed Jenkins and Lester Leith.
Civic corruption was a persistent theme in Black Mask in 1932. For example, see Ed Lybeck's "Kick-Back" (January 1932) and Raoul Whitfield's "Inside Job" (February 1932). The magazine showed real guts taking on this theme, and clearly felt that it was doing a public service by discussing this issue.
Detection and Plot. The Corning tales all show him investigating some mystery. The mystery usually comes to some sort of ingenious solution, although the stories are not quite fair play puzzle plots. The greatest emphasis is on Corning's detective work, vigorous, well done attempts to solve the crimes. This detective work is in the classic mystery tradition, one that ultimately goes back to Anna Katherine Green, although Gardner was probably not directly influenced by her.
"The Top Comes Off" (1932) and "Close Call" (1933) share a simple mystery plot pattern:
"Making the Breaks" (1933) mainly sticks to the above paradigm - but with some pleasant extras. It has more real mystery: there are several mysterious characters whose actions and motives the detective (and the reader) have to decipher. These make the frame more puzzling. And Corning has to figure things out more by determined investigation, and following up some clues, rather than by simply finding a witness. All of these things probably make it the richest of the Corning stories.
A Predecessor to Perry Mason. Corning has been seen by some critics as a dry run for Perry Mason. There is certainly some truth to this. Both:
Leg Man. "Leg Man" (1938), is a tale with some decent plot twists. It is notable for its extreme cynicism of tone, especially about marriage and divorce. It contrasts with the pious tone of moral uplift which dominates the Perry Mason tales (after the first few hard-boiled ones), many of which contain little mini-sermonettes on the proper attitudes needed for making it as a businessman and being a success in life. Gardner explores in depth complicated scenarios involving divorce and blackmail, back before the age of no-fault divorce.
Gardner then has Wennick intervene with a Rogue-like scheme, to stop the blackmail.
So far, none of this has involved any mystery. But Gardner then adds a murder mystery puzzle, that takes up the last section of the tale. It builds on everything that has gone before.
An idea about matches found in the non-series tale "Snowy Ducks for Cover" (1931) is turned into a full, fair play clue in "Leg Man". There are also two other indications of the killer.
"Leg Man" includes bugging equipment, used to listen in on an adjoining room. This will return in the non-series tale "Death Rides a Boxcar" (1944). In both stories, the equipment is part of the story-telling, rather than a component of the mystery puzzle.
Take It or Leave It. The Pete Wennick tale "Take It or Leave It" (1939) shows Gardner's gifts for intricate plot construction. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Like some other Gardner mysteries, it legitimately gulls readers, by mixing "zones of storytelling". In "Take It or Leave It", what looks like an attempt by quasi-detective figures to cover up the crime, actually contains clues to the murder mystery and how it was done.
"Take It or Leave It" is also a Gardner tale, in which a frame is so convincing, that it looks as if one suspect must be guilty. Such an iron-clad frame, exposed at the end, has borderline links to the impossible crime. Something that doesn't look possible - that anyone else could be guilty - is shown at the end to be in fact the truth.
Related Gardner works:
Laying the groundwork for Cool & Lam. The Pete Wennick stories lay the groundwork for the Bertha Cool-Donald Lam novels, which begin with The Bigger They Come (1939). Wennick anticipates Donald Lam:
The Bigger They Come has a plot construction somewhat like "Leg Man", with the first half being a nonviolent tale of Wennick or Lam's counter-scheme, and the second half being a murder mystery built on top of it.
The book also has a Brigid O'Shaughnessy character, in Eva Griffin, who lies, bats her blue eyes at men to manipulate them, and has aliases. Like Spade, Perry puts her off, and is on to her scheming. Perry's secretary Della even chews him out for his lack of loyalty to Eva, just as Spade's secretary does her boss at the end of Falcon. After the serious appearance of Brigid throughout Falcon, Gardner plainly felt readers were familiar with such a character, because Eva and her escapades are played at least a little bit for laughs throughout Claws. Later filmmakers have also felt Brigid was humorous: such diverse actresses as Bette Davis (Satan Met A Lady - William Dieterle, 1936), Barbara Bain (Goodnight, My Love - Peter Hyams, 1972), and Stephane Audran (The Black Bird - David Giler, 1975) have had a field day spoofing her. In fact, there is a surprising amount of humor in this first Perry Mason novel, unlike the largely serious later books of the series. Some of the satire about politics seems more timely than ever.
One might point out that when Hammett and Gardner were both writing for Black Mask in the 1920's, their stories did not seem especially similar, aside from their hard-boiled milieu. But when Gardner started writing books in the 1930's, he seemed sometimes to be influenced by such later Hammett novels as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.
The Opening. The best parts of this book are the pre-murder portions (the first six chapters), which form a pretty good hard-boiled story, gripping and fast moving. They are also the parts that most resemble The Maltese Falcon. The rest of the book is one of Gardner's flatly plotted murder mysteries. Already, here in 1933, Gardner has "perfected" his laborious Mason novel plotting technique. All too many of the Mason books will be written in this style. Mason becomes much less hard-boiled in these chapters, and more just a routine sleuth.
This treatment of the events leading up to a murder as a separate story is not unique to this novel. The opening of Owls Don't Blink (1942) is a well done missing persons case, with some good sleuthing by Donald Lam tracking down a missing woman. There are also some ingenious plot complications. After the first murder, the book becomes much more routine.
Kitten is helped by several factors. The plot is much more unified than in many Gardner novels. All the action relates to a single underlying plot, instead of the endless disconnected subplots of so many Perry Mason novels. So the reader is following a unified story, and an interesting one at that. The characters are all members of a single household, which aids the effect of unity. There are also many likable characters, and a pleasant romantic thread in the story, which gives the book a warm feel. In some of Gardner's poorer books, all the characters are no good criminal scum. Here, even the police have their warm side, even the usually ferocious Lt. Tragg.
The Case of the Terrified Typist (1956) is another book in which perspectives on what we have been reading shift in the final sections. It is far less unified in plot, however, than The Case of The Careless Kitten. Many subplots of The Case of the Terrified Typist resemble the pulp stories Gardner wrote about rogues and their ingenious schemes.
Gardner's "The Case of the Irate Witness" (1953) is apparently the only Perry Mason short story, strictly speaking (as opposed to novellas). As a puzzle plot tale, this story is just about perfect. As in The Case of the Careless Kitten, Gardner shows he knows full well what a good puzzle plot story is, and how to deliver it. I hope there are more works of this quality in Gardner's immense oeuvre.
The title witness lives out in the desert by himself, and is fiercely independent, like the desert characters in Whispering Sands. He hoards money in cans, like the rural hermit in The D.A. Cooks a Goose. "The Case of the Irate Witness" also offers social commentary, all the more potent for not being spelled out, criticizing a company town where everything is owned by one corporation.
The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938) is another one of Gardner's strange, experimental mystery stories. It is far from perfect, and not quite fair play in its plotting, but it is full of some imaginative plot twists.
In 1940, Gardner wrote two novels that were influenced by Freeman Wills Crofts. The second, The Case of the Silent Partner (1940), is a straightforward imitation of Crofts' The Cask (1920). It is smoothly written, but a very minor book in Gardner's canon. (Gardner's early The Case of the Lucky Legs (1934) is another routine imitation of Crofts' novel.) Much more creative is the first, The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). Gardner solves most of the case half way through (Chapter 6). There are a few more interesting revelations in Chapter 10, but the end of the novel where the identity of the killer is revealed has little ingenuity. Gardner shows originality in the strange construction of the story, and in the puzzle plot itself. This Gardner book, and several other novels, deals with unexpected, hidden connections between disparate "zones" of storytelling.
The Lam-Cool novel Turn On the Heat (1940), also mixes modes, but in a way less involved in mis-directing the reader. It starts with Lam and Cool getting a mysterious commission to search for a woman who disappeared years ago. The sleuths have to solve two mysteries: what happened to the woman - and why are people interested now? The second puzzle is "a mystery about a mystery": why are people investigating an old mystery case? The opening section (Chapters 1 - 4) explores the possible connections between the two questions, in sometimes ingenious ways. After this, the book turns into a none-too-interesting murder mystery. More explanations of the opening puzzles eventually do turn up (Chapter 12).
Also inventive as a puzzle plot mystery is The Case of the Borrowed Brunette (1946). This involves two mysteries. The earlier chapters leading up to the murder are themselves an excellent puzzle plot tale. They are in the tradition of such Conan Doyle works as "The Red-Headed League" and "The Copper Beeches", stories in which ordinary people are offered strange and mysterious jobs. They also recall Donald Wandrei's pulp mystery story "Impossible" (1935), in his collection Frost. The later parts of this book are a murder mystery, somewhat in the same tradition as The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). These sections are too drawn out for the puzzle contained in them. But they do offer an ingenious puzzle plot with a solution that surprised me.
The early sections (Chapters 1 - 7) of The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1948) contain a similar Doyle like mystery. Once again, people are being recruited by advertisement, and once again the mystery is two fold: who is doing the recruiting, and what is the purpose of such odd requests. Here, however, the tone is one of raucous comedy, complete with some good natured spiciness about dating. This is typical of Gardner, to look for the humorous sides of things.
A few of the Whispering Sands stories are detective tales, as well as being Westerns. "Law of the Rope" (1933) and "Carved in Sand" (1933) mix mystery puzzle plot elements, with Zane's reconstruction of events during a crime by tracking trails left in the desert. This sort of reading of physical trails and evidence at a crime scene goes back to Gaboriau in mystery fiction. Gardner gives it a unique twist by having all the trails, footprints, horse tracks and clues be Western desert based. The puzzle plot ideas are also based on desert lore. The Whispering Sands tales as a whole seem pretty minor, but "Carved in Sand" especially, winds up being a satisfying tale.
"Written in Sand" (1930), an intricately plotted thriller with elements of mystery and desert tracking, is unusual in Gardner's work, in that it gives a detailed picture of a particular geographical region, here the South-East corner of California near Yuma.
Oddly enough, the work by another author that seems closest in approach to Whispering Sands is a science fiction novella, Clifford D. Simak's The Trouble with Tycho (1961), which deals with prospectors in the "desert" of the Moon's barren landscape. Simak's short story "Mirage" (1950) in Strangers in the Universe deals similarly with the Martian desert.
The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito. The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943) is Gardner's attempt to integrate his desert mythology with the Perry Mason series. The book gets off to an amusing start (Chapters 1-3), with a desert ecosystem being recreated on a lavish estate. This symbolically combines his gruff prospectors, with a mansion full of rich, litigating suspects in the Perry Mason tradition. A look at an idealistic nurse (Chapter 4) extends the philosophizing mood of this opening. Gardner suggests a interest in liberal politics in this section, something that will briefly return in The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1945 - 1946).
Unfortunately, the novel's puzzle plot develops into one of those complex affairs in which several different groups of crooks are all up to different schemes. This coincidence sinks any logical unity the book's mystery plot might have. Best mystery idea: there is an interesting explanation about the drowsy mosquito (end of Chapter 19, start of Chapter 20).
Up for Grabs. Gardner returned to a desert setting for parts of Up for Grabs (1964), a late Bertha Cool & Donald Lam novel. This story also full of desert atmosphere, but less wild and primitive than the tales in Whispering Sands: much of it takes place at a dude ranch in Arizona. As in the Whispering Sands stories, there is a bit about desert tracking in Up for Grabs (end of Chapter 4).
The horse wrangler, Buck Kramer, is an especially nicely developed character. There is quite a lot of horse information in Up for Grabs, more than I remember in the Whispering Sands stories. The funny gambit with the horse (end of Chapter 13) recalls the horse finale of the Western thriller "Flight into Disaster" (1952). Buck Kramer's name also recalls cowboy Buck Hoxey in "Flight into Disaster".
The painter who takes photos at the ranch, Faith Callison, is also well-done. The book reminds one that Gardner was an avid photographer in real life, often of desert scenes. (A woman photographer with a very different personality appears in The Case of the Empty Tin).
The light-hearted Up for Grabs focuses less on murder than on clever scams. In this it recalls Gardner's 1930's pulp stories about con-men Lester Leith and Paul Pry. Just about everyone in this novel is working some angle or hustle, some harmless and legal, others definitely crooked. These little scams and schemes furnish a continuous flow of ingenious plot in the book. The story also recalls the D.A. series of the 1930's and 1940's, with a sneaky, not-quite-honest criminal attorney called A.B. Melvin, who recalls the great A.B. Carr of the D.A. books. Both Carr and Melvin are also in this Rogue, con-man tradition. There is something endearing about seeing Gardner revive the ancient traditions of his storytelling.
Both of the main mystery plots in Up for Grabs are riddles about traffic accidents, also the subject of The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1941 - 1942), which has a completely different puzzle plot, dealing with such accidents. Gardner shows plenty of ingenuity in both novels. A third kind of puzzle plot about accidents, different from the other two, is found in a small subplot in The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948). Gardner re-used the plot of The D.A. Takes a Chance in the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Cautious Coquette (1949) and in The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949), where it plays a more central role in both novels.
The Clue of the Screaming Woman. "The Clue of the Screaming Woman" (1949) has a mountain setting, rather than the desert. But it resembles Gardner's early desert mysteries, in centering its plot around tracking trails left by suspects and victims. The story is loaded with vivid detail, with the mountain setting and tracks done well. There is also more romance than in many Gardner tales. This novella can be found in the anthology Ellery Queen's Secrets of Mystery (1979).
The Case of the Perjured Parrot. The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939) is a Perry Mason tale, set not in the desert, but in a mountain forest. But it has another hermit-like nature-lover, and an emphasis on reading clues from a murder scene to reconstruct a crime. These clues are indoors at a fishing cabin, not outside, however, making a further difference from the desert tales. Some of this detection is done not by Perry Mason, but by a country sheriff who is good at "reading trail". This Sheriff anticipates Gardner's later series character Sheriff Bill Eldon.
The long opening (Chapters 1-5) tells a pleasantly elaborate tale, with a great flow of story and several nice twists and turns. The solution (Chapters 12-14) is none too surprising, and the novel does not excel therefore as a puzzle plot mystery. Still, the solution's twists are decent, and continue both the deductions from crime scene clues and the book's pleasing flood of story.
The Case of the Perjured Parrot consists of one long murder investigation, of a single murder. It is more unified than many Gardner books. There is no preliminary mystery subplot in the opening chapters either: Perry Mason starts investigating the murder in the first chapter. Perry works less to defend a single client in this tale, and more purely as a detective, as well.
The Case of the Perjured Parrot, like The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito, has a bit of high technology in it. Gardner perhaps had some artistic association between nature settings and technology, in his story-creation process.
Much better is the mystery plot itself, which contains a pretty well done impossible crime. Gardner's impossible crime technique is eclectic here; it involves both mechanical ingenuity and psychological trickery. Gardner utterly eschews any supernatural atmosphere here. Instead his interest seems piqued by a complexly laid out crime scene, something that comes across with great visual intensity. Today we would say that the crime scene has "mandala" like elements to it, as a complex geometrical pattern that is meditated on throughout the story; but probably such a concept was not explicitly in Gardner's mind in the 1940's.
The crime scene is outdoors, and involves elaborate traces, tracks and constructions in the ground. Such "earthworks" recalls the desert trails in such Whispering Sands stories as "Law of the Rope" and "Carved in Sand". Gardner had a real flair for constructing such "worlds in the dirt". The crime scene in "The Clue of the Runaway Blonde" is probably more interesting as a whole, than for the specific impossible crime idea Gardner uses.
Gardner's story reminds one a bit of other impossible crime tales of the era that were also set in the outdoors: John Dickson Carr's She Died a Lady (1943), and Fredric Brown's "Whistler's Murder" (1946).
The Case of the Singing Skirt. The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) has Perry Mason engineering the impossible appearance of a gun (Chapters 5 - 6). This sort of plot is the exact opposite of the impossible disappearances and thefts that run through Gardner's work. It is related in technique, in that Perry has to smuggle the gun into a watched building, just as crooks like Lester Leith had to smuggle objects out of watched buildings. This episode is not presented as a mystery - the reader knows what is happening each step of the way.
This section also contains the unusual ballistics idea of "dating the gun".
The Bigger They Come. The Bigger They Come (1939) has an impossible appearance puzzle too, trying to figure out how a guest made it inside a watched hotel. Gardner's solution uses a fairly common gambit in impossible crime tradition. He develops some nice new variations on it, as well.
The Count of Nine. The Count of Nine (1958), a Bertha Cool and Donald Lam novel, opens with an impossible theft (Chapters 1-8). The theft recalls the criminal schemes found in Gardner's early pulp stories about Lester Leith and Paul Pry. The subsequent murder mystery in the novel is much less interesting.
The Kid Stacks a Deck. "The Kid Stacks a Deck" (1932) has an impossible escape, as hero the Patent Leather Kid escapes from a building surrounded by police. The escape situation is related to other Gardner impossibilities, but with twists:
Later in Top of the Heap, Gardner also shows elaborate security features at a gambling casino (Chapter 16), but these are not used for any sort of impossible crime puzzle. (One also recalls the jewelry store alarms in "The Kid Stacks a Deck" and "The Kid Steals a Star", the high tech alarm in The Case of the Empty Tin, and the high tech features of the home in The D.A. Calls a Turn (Chapter 16)).
The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937) is the first book about Doug Selby. It is at its best in its opening section (Chapters 1 - 6), which sets up the murder mystery, and which contains some nicely surrealistic plot twists. However, after this the book is a complete botch, with endless subplots coincidentally piled up, and implausible behavior for most of the suspects.
The opening chapters also describe the immediate aftermath of the election that swept Doug Selby and his friend Sheriff Rex Brandon to power, so they do have an introductory role to play for the entire series of books. They also mark the first appearance of Selby's reporter friend Sylvia Martin.
I saw the dull and none too faithful film version of The D.A. Draws a Circle, the made for TV movie They Call It Murder (1971), which uses the title of this original novel. The film maintains the names of the book's characters, but does little to convey their personality.
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938) is a slow moving work, focusing on minor gambling scams. It is not very interesting. Its best aspects: building up the character of Sylvia Martin, and introducing her rival, Inez Stapleton.
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) has an interestingly plotted first half (Chapters 1 - 8). Gardner keeps putting his plot pieces together in the most unexpected ways. The various fragments keep joining up out of left field. After this opening, the book becomes less and less interesting, and gradually turns into a scheme to get a suspect to confess. Its opening is most unusual, however. The D.A. Draws a Circle is one of the most creative of the D.A. books. In addition to its many other virtues, it is the debut novel of Doug Selby's perennial antagonist, the wily criminal attorney A. B. Carr. Carr is intellectually brilliant, slick, crooked as a snake, and a richly comic figure. He is related to the Rogue figures such as Lester Leith who showed up in Gardner's pulp fiction. However, he is older, more socially sophisticated, and a clever attorney to boot, like Perry Mason. Carr is one of Gardner's best characters.
Gardner often connected up the most disparate characters possible to make a story. In Circle, he keeps coming up with strange links between the people in the novel. The book opens one of the characters moving in next to another. This encounter sets up the start of his design pattern in Circle, and is the central link around which all others grow. The later developments in the story keep coming back to this first link in unexpected ways. It is a recurring base throughout the whole story. We are not used to this sort of thematic circularity in a novel. It is like a composer introducing his main melody at the start of a symphony, and then having it regularly repeat with variations throughout. Or Homer declaring at the start of the Iliad, "The wrath of Achilles is my theme". Gardner's design winds up becoming impressively imaginative. It is not quite a pure puzzle plot - it is hard to see how a reader could predict all these links based on clues Gardner provides - but it does develop into an interesting pattern of relations.
Gardner used the common mystery approach of the crime in the past and the crime in the present. Both here and in The D.A. Breaks a Seal, the past crime gets a puzzle plot treatment, whereas the present crime is used to make a complex design of relationships. This is similar to his two part construction in the Lester Leith tales, where there is both a crime and a later intervention by other characters. Here in Circle, the second crime consists of interventions in response to the first. These interventions are done by criminals in Circle, not by the protagonist as in the Lester Leith stories. As in the Leith tales, only the first of the crimes has a puzzle plot.
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940) is something of a non-starter as a puzzle plot. Its best passages deal with fingerprints, and it reuses in a modified way the gimmick of The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938). The book lacks fair play, with most of the solution dragged in suddenly in the final chapters.
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1941 - 1942) is from a period when Gardner was producing well constructed puzzle plots. Here Gardner manages to turn the disparate events of the story into a unified pattern. Of the first six Selby novels, those written before 1945, this one and The D.A. Draws a Circle are the only ones worth reading.
This story marks the return of A. B. Carr, who becomes a series character here; Gardner originally seems to have planned him as a one shot in The D.A. Draws a Circle, but he appears in this and all subsequent Selby books. Gardner manages to turn the entrance of A. B. Carr in the story into an exciting event. His entrance, often unexpected, will have a similar excitement in later books, at once thickening the plot, and suggesting to readers that events are much more complex than they first appear: always a delightful development for mystery fans. He tends to show up initially, not as an antagonist for Doug Selby, but in connection with the mystery plot itself.
The titles of the D.A. series follow a pattern Gardner previously established for the Patent Leather Kid: "The hero verbs a noun". The D.A. Cooks a Goose actually reuses the title of a Kid story: "The Kid Cooks a Goose" (1934).
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944) is a poor book. It is full of strange events that strain credulity; some of the ideas about amnesia approach science fiction.
The opening chapter, which equates an ultra-conventional family with all that is good, and a working woman with sophisticated corruption, is also hard to accept. One doubts if Gardner really believed this himself. He usually associated virtue with feistiness and get up and go, not with conventionality.
The book does score some points for the sheer complexity of its plotting. Some of the more believable plot twists hearken back to Gardner's earlier non-series newspaper mystery, The Clue of the Forgotten Murder (1934), which did them better.
Also on the plus side are the appearances of A. B. Carr here - I especially enjoyed the visit to his house in Chapter 16. Gardner shows a flair for Carr's sophisticated comic dialogue, and his high tech devices. One wonders if Carr's name is a homage to the great John Dickson Carr. Carr certainly likes Selby personally, even if they are determined legal antagonists.
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1945 - 1946) is absorbingly written. It awakes nostalgia in the reader by bringing back nearly the full cast of continuing characters from earlier Selby novels. Doug Selby is returning home from war, and it is a reunion for both the characters in the story, and for the reader. Gardner effortlessly evokes both laughter and sentiment. Most of Gardner's characters, even his villains, are essentially likable, comic figures. Gardner was full of the life force, and his people are mainly high energy figures like himself, optimistic, and always looking for the next opportunity. The opening of Chapter 12 contains an unusual passage in which the heroine speculates about the hero's future. It shows both political idealism, and romantic yearning. One wishes Gardner had followed up on his ideas here, in later novels about the D.A.
The mystery subplot about a will is well done. But the murder itself does not achieve puzzle plot brilliance.
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948) is best in its first two thirds (Chapters 1 - 15, plus a later explanation towards the end of Chapter 18). These sections concern attempts by bad guys to cover up a series of crimes, followed by Selby's uncovering of the same. These sections contain some good storytelling on Gardner's part. They are not brilliant, but they make pleasant escape reading. There are some good characters, especially the humorously gossipy small town taxi driver, Gib Spencer. The gossipy resident of a small town is a common figure in comedy - one recalls the telephone operator in Mervyn Le Roy's film Elmer the Great (1933), but Gardner does this up to a T.
The novel makes use of a common Gardner approach, the "mystery plot whose events occur in two cities". Gardner makes much use of the shuttling back and forth of the characters between the two towns. This eventually builds up into elaborate, intricate patterns. There is perhaps some formal similarity between this "two city" construction, and the "two house" construction found in The D.A. Draws a Circle and other Gardner books.
Another Gardner formal device is seen in this story: the inter-blending of "detective storytelling" with "mystery storytelling". In these chapters, the detectives do much sleuthing around, visiting other cities, collecting clues, interviewing witnesses and so on. The suspects also do much interaction here, stirred up by this detective work. Without really announcing it to the reader, Gardner is soon introducing new mysteries into the plot. These mystery situations have as part of their background all the movements of the characters during the sleuthing sections. So the detective parts of the book serve as a background and formal structure for new mysteries. Gardner did something similar in his The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). This approach produces complex formal patterns of plot. It is an example of Gardner's experimental approach to mystery fiction, where he was often doing complex, innovative things with story construction. It also keeps the reader very much off base: the reader has to learn to think of the detective sections in new ways and from new perspectives, to understand the mysteries hidden within them. It is not that the reader is confused about the plot: Gardner's storytelling is always absolutely clear. It is how the reader thinks about the plot that undergoes a shift. It is "fair" in terms of detective construction, but very devious.
The final chapters of the novel contains the actual murder mystery, dealing with who killed whom and why. It seems uninventive and botched, especially compared to the leisurely storytelling of the earlier sections of the novel. There is a good deal about civic corruption in these sections, a popular theme among many Black Mask writers, but it is not developed very well.
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949) is the last D.A. novel. It is a minor book, that interweaves through a tangle of coincidences at least three separate mystery plots. It is hard to see how any reader could deduce the solutions of these tales: it lacks "fair play". Elements of one of the three plots recall The D.A. Cooks a Goose.
The book is readable, and has some pleasant enough storytelling. It is at its best in Chapter 5, which describes the latest events in the life of A. B. Carr in grand comic style. The episode about the stolen jewelry (Chapters 19 - 22) also involves Carr extensively. These sections are in many ways "comedies of manners". Carr is extremely sophisticated, Selby himself is suave, his friend Sheriff Rex Brandon is honest and outraged, and there is much comic repartee. A story like this is most interesting for what it has to say about the on-going characters, whom Gardner clearly loved writing about, than for the strictly mystery elements, although there is a nice formal reversal in the jewelry sections. Character interaction here builds on the relationships established in previous novels, such as the feuding between Brandon and Carr in The D.A. Calls a Turn.
The Case of the Empty Tin. The Perry Mason novel The Case of the Empty Tin (1941) shows much imagery in common with Circle (1939):
The two households in Circle were resonatingly different from each other, setting up a polarity that dominated the whole novel. Here in Empty Tin the two households are in delicious comic contrast: Mrs. Gentrie's home is as middle class as possible, in fact, one of the most bourgeois settings ever to show up in a Gardner book. Its conventional nature is highlighted and exaggerated to the nth degree for comic effect. The family in Empty Tin also looks forward to the middle class family in The Case of The Careless Kitten (1942) the next year. SPOILERS. Meanwhile, Kane's apartment next door is the center of a spy melodrama involving gun running to the Chinese in World War II. Gardner had deep sympathy for the Chinese, and this is one of many references to them in his work.
This contrast between households is the stuff of farce, and Gardner uses it to make a delicious surrealist confrontation. However bourgeois Mrs. Gentrie's establishment is, Gardner puts it right in the center of the mystery action, with Mrs. Gentrie's home canning being the locale for the Empty Tin of the title. It is outrageous melodrama centering itself on the most domestic activity possible of the 1930's, home canning. (Gardner had previously used home canning in "The Kid Clips a Coupon" (1934).) I suspect canning was a favorite activity of ordinary Americans, people slightly less prosperous than the middle class Gentries. It is important that Gardner put mystery in the heart of the Gentries. In a mystery novel, the importance of a character or locale is measured by how much mystery attaches to it. This perhaps seems like an unusual criterion, as least by the standards of realistic fiction, but the structural underpinnings of puzzle plot fiction make this evaluation inevitable. If Gardner had not associated any mysteries with the Gentries, they would have seemed "light weight". Combined with their everyday background, the novel would be a contrast of dull convention with the mystery laden melodrama of the spy apartment. Gardner did something completely different, however: he suggests the mystery is actually in the heart of the bourgeois family. This gives them tremendous weight and balance in the pattern of the story.
Empty Tin is full of small mysteries, which Gardner solves as he goes. These pleasant little puzzlers add greatly to the enjoyment of the book. Most of these are related to uncovering the truth about the crime. But occasionally Gardner introduces a mystery that involves a meta-level to the story. In Chapter 9, Paul Drake has to figure out how to deal with the police, then he has to deduce Perry's secrets. He shows insight and logic, in a charming episode.
Perry Mason himself functions here more as a pure detective than he does in many Gardner books. His client is not on trial, and simply hires Mason to solve the crime. There are no courtroom scenes, and no passages where Mason obscures evidence or whisks clients away from the police. Mason even cooperates with the police, feeding information to Lt. Tragg. Mason is also set-up more as a 1930's style detective hero, complete with scenes of danger and action. This book would make a good movie.
I was first alerted to Empty Tin by reader Lisa Childress. Her comments are interesting: "First of all, it is, I am pretty sure, one of the few Mason's that does not include a trial scene. Also, the Della Street portrayed here is quite different from her usual character. (In Dorothy B. Hughes' book, The Case of the Real Perry Mason, the author reveals that Della was based on three different women, all sisters, who worked for him at various times. The one in Empty Tin is not the same one in the later books. Interesting psychologically, I think). It has as a main character, a woman who in the 90's would be an executive, but in the 40's is confined to running her home with the same kind of efficiency. (Gardner spells this out explicitly. In fact, his attitude toward the women in his novels is what has kept me reading him into adulthood.) It has a Chinese element in the plot and missing heiress elements. The tone of the novel is not as cut and dried as some of the later ones, with more description than is usual. All in all, I think it is an atypical rendering of many typical Gardner themes. On another front, the plotting of the Mason books varies more than people think. Some others besides Empty Tin concentrate more on the solving of the crime than in the courtroom scenes, although Empty Tin is one the few that omits the trial entirely."
Jon L. Breen's study of courtroom fiction Novel Verdicts contains a complete list of Perry Mason novels that do not include trial scenes.
The Case of the Glamorous Ghost. The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955) is another Perry Mason novel in the tradition of Circle. The imagery of the ghost at the beginning recalls events from the murder in the earlier book. Also, here there are two apartments next door to each other in the same building, following on the two neighboring houses in Circle. Gardner rings many strange changes on the two apartments, just as he did on the two houses in Circle. They are not the same ideas as in Circle, they are fresh and new. But they have the same sort of structural underpinning, both consisting of puzzle plot mystery ideas involving two neighboring households, and all the misdirection this can enable in the plot.
Ghost begins with a torrent of story invention (Chapters 1-9). Every time the reader is convinced they know what is going on, Gardner introduces something out of left field. Eventually this inventiveness runs out of steam. Gardner replaces it by a number of things: some detective work, some mystery twists, and above all, by some well staged courtroom encounters. These later chapters are a bit thin, but pleasant.
In the opening (Chapters 1-2), information is dropped into Perry's lap, first from a newspaper article, then from a client. But starting in Chapter 3, Perry does real detective work (strongly aided by Paul Drake and Della Street, both of whom make significant discoveries.). The information they get, step by step, is the result of that detective work. Such detection makes enjoyable reading.
Despite its title, there is nothing supernatural about The Case of the Glamorous Ghost. Right from the start, the book makes clear that the alleged "ghost" is a real live woman.
The Case of the Glamorous Ghost employs bright color imagery with the luggage (end of Chapter 4). The "paint on the bathtub" scene (end of Chapter 7) also suggests color. While Gardner does not make the analogy, both color images suggest abstract paintings:
The Case of the Substitute Face. The Case of the Substitute Face (1938) contains another one of Gardner's imaginative puzzle plots. The story is too drawn out, and little of interest happens in a long section near the end (Chapters 12 - 15). But mainly the tale is fun to read, with Gardner's flood of plot and his liking for pleasant characters.
Most of the characters in the book can be considered as members of three different families. Their constant interactions can be seen as a precursor to the mysteries constructed around two households, that begin with Gardner's The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939). As in the later tales, people that seem to have nothing to do with each other keep finding themselves more and more involved. Unlike the later books in the series, the characters do not have fixed homes. Instead, they are all aboard a cruise ship during much of the plot. Other elements that anticipate Circle and the later books: the crime is once again nocturnal, mysterious in nature, and incompletely witnessed. Also, there is a high powered, crooked lawyer in the tale, Van Densie, who is a precursor to the great A. B. Carr in Circle. Van Densie never appears on stage, and he is far more minor as a character than A. B. Carr.
The book shows Gardner adding romance to his stories, with a pleasant romantic subplot among young people in the tale. The story also develops the personal relationship between Perry Mason and Della Street. During the same year, Gardner was introducing the romantic triangle that would play a continuing role in his Doug Selby tales, in The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938). Several women in this tale express doubts about the value of marriage as an institution. They prefer to remain single, and keep their independence. This recalls the blunt realism of his work: he admires people who face facts squarely, who take on life and do not run away from it.
The Case of the Crimson Kiss. "The Case of the Crimson Kiss" (1948) is a Perry Mason novella. It is an unusual combination of the whodunit mystery and the inverted detective story. Its format shows that Gardner was quite experimental with his plot approaches, often trying new and unusual mystery formats, as in his Lester Leith tales. As in the inverted tales of Freeman, science plays a role. It also has unusually good storytelling throughout, with many complex twists of the plot. Perry Mason does little to obfuscate trails of evidence or evade the police here; instead he concentrates on what I enjoy much more, detection.
It shares the two apartment approach found in the Circle tradition.
Death Rides a Boxcar. "Death Rides a Boxcar" (1944) is a novella, featuring a pair of servicemen as detectives, Jayson Burr and Gabby Hilman. Jayson Burr was named a decade before Raymond Burr starred as Perry Mason on TV, one of those strange coincidences. (Previously a character in The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942) was named Roland Burr.)
Its plot is hardly fair play, which is made worse by its strange construction, with its villains off stage throughout the story. But there are some pleasant detective ideas in the complex plot, and lots of original train lore. Plot aspects recall The Case of the Empty Tin:
It can be seen as a somewhat distant descendent of the Circle tradition. There are not two houses, but there are two families, who are very different in tone. Each comes to Cool & Lam with a mystery: a missing person case. At first, the cases seem to have nothing to do with each other. But soon Donald Lam is uncovering more and more connections. The mysterious events turn out to be nocturnal once again, and involve strange disappearances, in the Circle tradition.
The Case of the Bigamous Spouse. The Case of the Bigamous Spouse (1961) also deals with three families, two of which are linked right away by sharing a common, bigamous husband.
Like Pass the Gravy of the same year, mysterious events occur "on the road" and at night, with a service station playing a role in the events.
This light-hearted work has plot, plot and more plot, in the Gardner tradition. The solution is not quite fair play: there is so much plot, that it is hard to see how a reader could deduce all the events in the book before they happen. Still, the flood of storytelling makes for enjoyable reading.
The Case of the Turning Tide. Gramps Wiggins first appears in The Case of the Turning Tide (1941), a novel in which he only gradually emerges as the detective, from among a large cast of characters. Gardner's Foreword to this book explicitly marks it out as an experimental mystery, one in which he tries out new techniques of narration. Gardner has often been an experimental writer. But this is one of the few times in which he openly described one of his own books as being a non-traditional mystery story.
Unfortunately, I think The Case of the Turning Tide is only partially successful. The plot of the book never attains plausibility or true logical coherence. And Gramps' character is rougher and less appealing here than in his second case.
The book also shares a problem with some other minor Gardner novels: it starts out by introducing us to a likable young man whose business problems we care about, then pushes him into the background for much of the rest of the novel. Salesman Ted Shale in The Case of the Turning Tide (Chapters 1-4), inexperienced young lawyer Frank Neely being helped out by Perry Mason in The Case of the Restless Redhead (1954) (Chapters 1-3), and financial consultant Kerry Dutton in The Case of the Troubled Trustee (1965) (Chapter 1) all share this fate. All of these books decline after their openings. I also like the illustration of Ted Shale rescuing a drowning woman on the cover of the old Pocket Book paperback. If these young men don't have much to do with the mysteries they open, they at least show Gardner's abiding interest in people and their work. Gardner relished the complexities of people's jobs.
The Case of the Smoking Chimney. Gramps Wiggins' second and last book The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943) is entertaining throughout, but awfully thin as a mystery. Gardner's murder plot is easily guessed. The story is best in the early chapters (1 - 11), which describe the events leading up to the murder. These deal with a real estate scam. In classical detective novel fashion, each character is given a motive for the crime. It is not the sort of complex cat's cradle of The D.A. Draws a Circle, or the mini-mystery opening of Owls Don't Blink (1942). Instead, it sets up links among a group of very disparate characters, eventually showing how information flows among them. Gardner shows storytelling inventiveness here.
The Case of the Smoking Chimney has much in common in setting and approach with Gardner's novels about Doug Selby, the D.A.:
This book also has some of the most detailed look at food and cooking in any Gardner novel, in keeping with its comic tone. Gardner's characters like plain food, such as pancakes and bacon for breakfast, steaks and potatoes for dinner. Despite this lack of gourmet tastes, especially compared with someone like Rex Stout, it is clear that his characters really enjoy eating. There is often a feeling of social defiance to eating in Gardner. It seems to occur when his legal characters are pulling off some scheme in defiance of authority, and they take a break from their labors to go out and eat. Food in Gardner tends to be fried. He also likes sweet toppings on desserts such as syrup on pancakes or whipped cream on strawberry shortcakes. There are many men who tend to cook for themselves in Western cabins: the cowboy Buck Hoxey in "Flight into Disaster", the ex-prospector in Chimney. Gramps Wiggins likes to cook for himself in his trailer. Gramps tends to cook in a pan over heat. He likes to fuss with the pan while its cooking. The description of the cook in Chapter 2 of The Case of the Empty Tin (1941) says that she does more baking than frying - the two types of cooking in which Gardner takes interest.
People in Gardner rarely get dressed up. They are usually working, and seem indifferent to what they are wearing. Exception: when his male characters go to gambling establishments, something of which Gardner strongly disapproves, they are often in evening clothes. Gardner suggests that this too is bad: it intimidates them, make them uncomfortable, and separates them from common sense. The fancy clothes represent a loss of good judgment. Gardner novels on this topic:
Vice. It is more hard-boiled than most, and often looks at vice, soon to be the subject of the Perry Mason The Case of the Hesitant Hostess. It has two interesting portraits of women who are "bad girls": Millie the loose woman (end of Chapter 9) and the ex-stripper Irene (Chapter 15). Gardner is sympathetic to both.
The rest of this discussion has SPOILERS.
Gay Men. Top of the Heap also looks briefly at two men, whose characters are intertwined with aspects of gender. The newsboy (Chapter 8) is one of the few teenage men in Gardner. He is escaping from a life of crime, something that peer pressure pushed him into. He did not want to be "called a sissy": fear of a queer label leads to bad judgment and crime. Now he is entirely on his own, a frightening portrayal of social aloneness. It is hard not to wonder if he is indeed queer, and if we are getting a glimpse of gay life of the time, teenage runaways on their own. This evening encounter with a lost man recalls the Sidney Zoom tales, and Zoom's nocturnal cruisings through parks.
Bill (Chapters 16-17) is different: a fantasy of toughness. He develops a perverse relationship with hero Donald Lam, which also has a queer undertone. The encounter echoes one with a policeman (end of Chapter 6), which has a similar perverse charge. Both men grip and seize Lam. And both deceive him.
Mystery Plot. The plot of Top of the Heap is not one of Gardner's best. The ultimate mystery solution (Chapter 17) is merely routine, tying together the disparate subplots. It does have an interesting aspect: a new wrinkle on the "two-city" theme that runs through Gardner.
Two earlier chapters have neat plot surprises, both of which border on the surrealistic. The encounter with a stuffy businessman (Chapter 14) turns out to have some unexpected features, which form links to an earlier character who seems to be from a different world. Gardner built whole books out of unexpected character connections in The D.A. Draws a Circle. It also suggests that the character of the businessman is not quite what he seems.
And the second encounter with Irene (Chapter 15) includes a surreal surprise, recalling Gardner's desert fiction, but in a totally unlikely setting.
Hostess resembles its contemporaries in film noir. In particular, the crooked night club that is the center of Hostess resembles the one in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) of the same year. Both take place in the same sociological coordinates. In both, the night club maintains an aura of respectability, and is patronized by middle and upper middle class citizens, mainly men. In both, the club is a gateway into vice, a place where ordinary people can meet the underworld. Both night clubs are full of hostesses, both clubs are owned by crooks, and both are under the protection of crooked city governments and their police forces. The corruption involved eventually becomes a spring board for murder. There is a similar look at a town full of crooked night clubs in Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955), although the night clubs in that film cater to a much lower class clientele, mainly soldiers from a nearby Army base. Gardner is not interested in the violence of much film noir, or its tough guy heroes. Instead, he is largely interested in How Things Work. The book has a similar subject matter to film noir, but a different tone, one rooted in Gardner's puzzle plot fiction. While Perry is not depicted as a two fisted private eye, he is shown as an idealistic crusader for justice in the book. Instead of being hired by a client, he is working here as a court appointed attorney to a poor man. He resists many attempts to discourage him, pays huge sums of money for his crusade out of his own pocket, and makes several speeches about the need for justice. This recalls the idealistic policemen and civic leaders in the film noirs of the era. The whole book is Gardner's version of a film noir, fascinatingly adapted to his own writing style.
Mystery Plot. Hostess is richly plotted. It involves several puzzle plots, whose solutions are sprung on the reader at various times throughout the story. These are quite clever. The finale leaves several holes in the plot - the bad guys' motive for framing the poor man seems weak, for example - but the book as a whole is a well plotted story.
SPOILERS. The book is also unusual in that the crimes are not traced to a single perpetrator, in the Golden Age tradition. Instead a whole gang of crooks turns out to be involved. This does not surprise the reader greatly, and it does not violate "fair play": Gardner has indicated all along that most of these people are both working together, and up to no good. Still, it is a shift from the typical mystery novel construction.
Della Street. Della Street takes an active role in this story, as she did in The Case of the Empty Tin (1941). Perry and Della's journey to Las Vegas in this tale recalls a similar visit to another city in Empty Tin.
Fish or Cut Bait offers a nearly endless flow of plot. The book is hardly fair play - it is hard to imagine anyone logically deducing each new development from previous clues. Yet the plot developments also form logical extensions of previous situations. The work is another example of Gardner's seemingly inexhaustible ability to generate complex plot.