From the Used Shelves

Wednesday Oct 29 2008
by Whodunit

One of the observable tendencies of many customers in Whodunit is to gravitate toward the big names of the best-seller lists, in the process depriving themselves of a variety of very good reading. We thought that this month in the newsletter we would introduce readers to several excellent authors who are extremely prolific (which means there are usually examples of their work on the used shelves) but not as well known as the superstars.  The three we have chosen for this month are all English authors who collectively have written over 100 crime novels in a variety of styles and genres, but have not been particularly associated with series, preferring instead to write mostly one-offs.  They have each had extended careers, however, usually producing about a book a year over the long haul.

Margaret Yorke (b. 1924) published her first book in 1957, so she has been around for over half a century.  She has written five books in a series featuring Patrick Grant, a doctor, but has also produced over forty novels that are not part of a series.  Her work is literate and “cosy” in the original sense of the term, revolving mainly around female protaganists, small villages, and closed universes.  Sometimes there are policemen, sometimes not.  She is a splendid plotter.

Robert Barnard (b. 1931) published his first crime novel in 1974.  He has produced two series characters, Scotland Yard detective Perry Trethowan appearing in five books and D.I. Charlie Peace starring in eight.  As well there are nearly thirty one-offs, set in a variety of locales and featuring a number of imaginative situations.  Barnard has a great sense of humour and his books are often quite funny.  Like Yorke, he writes literate stuff free of unnecessary bad language or violence.

Robert Goddard (b, 1959) wrote his first book in 1986.  He has produced three novels featuring Harry Barnett and seventeen one-offs, often historical in setting.  He is also a master of “romantic suspense”.  His novels often do not involve traditional murders or crimes, but are usually quite long and complex in plot and setting.

 
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER

Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson) were the big American stars of crime fiction in the United States between the wars.  All four continued writing well beyond 1945, and each has left a substantial body of work behind.   Despite their later reputations, neither Dashiel Hammett nor Raymond Chandler was very well known before 1945.

The first thing you need to know about ESG is how to spell his name, since otherwise you will not be able to Google him. It is “Erle” not “Earl,” and “Gardner” without an i. Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, in 1889, but his family joined the exodus of easterners to California, and he graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909.  He subsequently attended law school for about a month, then taught himself sufficient law to pass the California bar examination in 1911. He then practiced law in Merced and Ventura, California before becoming a full-time writer in 1933.  A man of boundless energy, Gardner practiced law, specializing in civil liberty cases, and apprenticed as an author by writing hundreds of short stories for the American pulp magazines from the early 1920s.  The “pulps” - printed on cheap newsprint and sold for 10 cents to a quarter per copy - provided the most popular and characteristic American form of crime fiction in the post-war period: the pulp tradition.  Some of this tradition was hard-boiled, but most was not. In the interwar period, the tradition revolved almost exclusively around the private detective, who represented both mythic and actual roots in American development.  

Mythically, the private detective came from the American fictional tradition of the solitary Vigilante, the masculine private avenger, who goes back at least as far as Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and can be seen in such later figures as the “Lone Ranger.”   He also had origins in the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the United States.  The Pinkerton Agency had originated just before the Civil War.  During that war it had served as a private intelligence service for the American government.  In the later 19th and early 20th century it had become basically a security agency for Big Business, supplying strikebreakers and infiltrating labour unions suspected of radical and anarchistic tendencies.  Pinkertons also attempted to break up many of the early western gangs such as the James boys, and it was the Pinkertons who harried Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to South America.  Early Pinkerton influence could be seen in the “Nick Carter” series and in the Jimmie Dale novels of Canadian Frank L. Packard, which many see as the prototype for early Gardner fiction.

The pulps also had little time for either rich character development or detailed scene-setting. They specialized in action (not always violent and seldom very bloody) and punchy dialogue, usually of the “wise-crack” variety featuring the demotic language of the streets. Plots were inventive and intricate, but seldom very well integrated. The pulps silently acknowledged their connection to the traditional mystery story by featuring puzzles to be solved, such as locked rooms, disappearing weapons, unbreakable alibis, and impersonations.  

From the pulps Gardner learned to write chiefly in dialogue, always a characteristic of his style (as opposed to the Queens of Crime, who wrote large chunks of description), and to keep the action moving.  Perry Mason worked in Los Angeles, but there was little sense of place in his novels; the Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series was slightly better, Gardner’s breakthrough protagonist was not a p.i., but a defense lawyer who worked with clients who were assumed by the court system to be guilty.  

Gardner did not invent the courtroom novel, but he certainly exploited it to the nth degree.  Among other things, the courtroom enabled him to concentrate on dialogue and to pull rabbits out of the hat on cross-examination. The rabbits often involved the solution to traditional type puzzles of the locked room and disappearing weapon variety. Outside the courtroom, Mason regularly subverted the role of the police.    The courtroom was, of course, ideal for early television, with limited sets and lighting requirements, and the TV series with Raymond Burr was a hit from the very beginning.

By the time he was finished, Gardner had written nearly 150 crime novels, 85 featuring Perry Mason and 8 (as A.A. Fair) starring the team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  He also had a series with a D.A. (Doug Selby) as the protagonist and wrote one-offs under a dozen other pseudonyms. He dictated his books to a team of secretaries, employing one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. At his peak, Gardner was alleged to clear $26,000 a day in royalties, and this in pre-1960 dollars!

Erle Stanley Gardner was in some ways ahead of his time.  He purchased Argosy Magazine in 1949, partly as a vehicle for his interest in defending wrongfully-convicted victims of the legal system, which he called “the Court of Last Resort.”  But in his attitude toward women, he came straight out of the pulps.  Della Street (based on one of his secretaries whom he later married after the death of his wife) was the ideal female helper for Perry Mason: subservient, supportive, always at his side.  Mason books were mainly published in an era in which paperback covers featured sexy and alluring women, whether or not they had anything to do with the plot.  Mason books were no exception. But in truth most of Mason’s clients were women.  They were inevitably glamorous; some of them were schemers, others “molls”, still others were “frails” or innocent victims, but few of them were either particularly intelligent or autonomous.  Bertha Cool was an autonomous woman, but she was hardly glamorous. There is little romance in a Gardner novel.  And if Gardner acknowledged the existence of women, he virtually ignored minorities, gangs,  and street crime.  Perry Mason worked in a Los Angeles in which there was no sign of a black or a chicano or a homosexual, and in which the drug trade did not exist.  Crime was a sanitized middle-class business.

The fashion in crime novels has increasingly moved away from Erle Stanley Gardner’s strengths - intricate puzzle-plots and breezy dialogue - in favour of what he did not do well - character development and description of place.  But while he was very much a creature of his time, he is still worth reading.   The novels he wrote as A.A. Fair are probably the best for the modern audience.



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