“We’re a dramatic people. We’re not like the English. The English want dignity and order. We want the dramatic and the spectacular. It’s a national craving. We are geared to a rapid rate of thought. We want to have things move in a spectacular manner.”
I read classic mysteries as an escape, so it was odd to see the current state of our nation described with such succinct accuracy in a 1934 Perry Mason mystery! (I think Perry got England wrong, however; they seem to be modeling their current government drama after ours.)
Erle Stanley Gardner ranks up with the most prolific mystery authors of all time. Most famous for his 82 novels about defense attorney Perry Mason, which gained popularity through multiple adaptations in the movies, radio and television, Gardner created numerous other literary heroes. Recently, I started covering the nine-book series featuring Doug Selby, the newly elected District Attorney of Madison City, a small Southern California town. And now, thanks to the release by Otto Penzler’s American Mystery series of The Bigger They Come, I’m excited to make the acquaintance of the private investigating team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.
Whichever series you prefer, one thing is clear: all of these 1930’s novels reflect the pulp influence of Gardner’s early work. He had been writing stories for Black Mask, Top-Notch Magazine and many other publications for a dozen years before he penned his first Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws. The Perry Mason of the 30’s more closely resembled the cunning P.I. anti-heroes of Dashiell Hammett and others. His tactics often skirt the law – hell, they step right over the border many times. But it’s important to remember something that I think the recent HBO adaptation hammered home better than any other, and that is that the legal system in L.A. during the early days was rife with corruption, and Mason saw fit to do whatever was necessary to free his clients from a system that was unfairly stacked against them.
Doug Selby is a different story, a righteous David in a world of corrupt Goliaths from every walk of life. He’s just starting out on his legal career, too, living in a small apartment and trying to build a career based on decency and a strict upholding of the law. I can’t help thinking that if only Frank Capra had made a movie about Doug Selby, Gardner would have written more novels about him and he would be more widely read today.
We’re also in the midst of the Depression. Selby is poor, and Mason is rich. When Della Street tells Perry, “honestly, I don’t see how there can be any depression, the way you spend money,’ he replies, “I’m just keeping it in circulation. There’s just as much money in the country as there ever was – more in fact, but it doesn’t circulate as rapidly. Therefore nobody seems to have any.” There’s your historical economics lesson for today. Now let’s look at the three faces of Erle Stanley Gardner.
The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
Without a doubt, the most fun about reading the early adventures of Perry Mason is discovering the man as his creator intended him to be, not the stodgy counselor of TV but a sexy charlatan who revels in taking chances with the law:
“’Kick ‘em all out, Della,’ he said. ‘I don’t like routine. I want excitement. I want to work on matters of life and death, where minutes count. I want the bizarre and the unusual.’
“She looked at him with eyes that held a tender solicitude. ‘You take too many chances, chief,’ she protested. ‘Your love of excitement is going to get you into trouble someday. Why don’t you simply handle trial work instead of going out and mixing into the cases the way you do?’
His grin was boyish. In the first place,’ he said, ‘I like the excitement. In the second place, because I win my cases by knowing the facts. I beat the prosecution to the punch. It’s lots of fun . . .’”
Mason’s fourth adventure presents us with an intriguing client and problem that includes a dash of Arthur Conan Doyle.Arthur Cartwright is “a broad-shouldered, rather heavy-set man of about thirty-two, with haunted brown eyes,” whose hands shake as he lights a cigarette. Even Della Street addresses him “in the tone which a woman instinctively uses in speaking to a child or a very sick man.” Cartwright poses a double problem regarding his wealthy neighbor, Clinton Foley: first, Foley’s police dog Prince has started howling in the night and keeping Cartwright awake, and, secondly, Cartwright wants Mason to draft a will that will leave his own fortune to Cartwright’s wife and be so airtight as to stand up in court even if he is executed for murder!!
At first, Mason is concerned about his client’s sanity, especially when Cartwright announces, “You know, a dog howls when there’s a death due to occur in the neighborhood.” But the man is willing to leave a tenth of his own fortune to his attorney as payment for services rendered, and so Mason commits himself to one of the cleverest little cases of his career. For those of you seeking a story that will somehow mimic the TV series, I advise you to look elsewhere. Perry doesn’t enter the courtroom until Chapter Seventeen, a brief but spectacular scene where he destroys a key prosecution witness using tactics that I maintain would get any other lawyer disbarred.
And that’s really what Howling Dog is all about – Mason’s tactics. This Perry bears no resemblance to the likable but stodgy version that Raymond Burr perfected (and I loves me some Raymond Burr!) This Mason is on fire against anyone or anything that stands in the way of his doing anything in order to protect his client. For most of the novel, he keeps Della Street and his detective sidekick Paul Drake in the dark, and even though they both warn him a dozen times that he is “skating on thin ice”, they stand loyally beside him and lend a hand to every bit of chicanery he deals out.
This is Mason’s story, and everyone else takes a backseat. We watch him set up one strategy after another, and it all comes together in a dynamite climax in court, one that would fit in beautifully in the series. But wait until the final page to see that Erle Stanley Gardner could be just as devious as a Christie or a Carr when he wanted to be.
It’s hard to imagine how one could turn the structure and solution of this particular novel into an episode of Perry Mason. And yet, it did happen. In fact, there are two adaptations of Howling Dog: right after its publication, it became the first of six films made about Mason by Warner Brothers, starring Warren William as the attorney, with Mary Astor as the defendant. It is extremely faithful to its source. As for the Season 3 episode . . . . well, I appreciate that the screenplay doesn’t pad the case with extraneous suspects. And we do get to see some of the lengths to which Mason will go to protect his client. Plus, there’s only so much of a full-length novel that can fit into a fifty-minute teleplay.
However, every liberty that is taken with the original story lessens its impact here. Someone watching this would have no sense of the lengths to which Gardner would go to illustrate the ambivalent relationship between the workings of the law and the concept of ideal justice. The biggest loss here is this: va uvf obbxf – naq va gur srngher svyz, juvpu va 1934 jnf abg fb fgevpgyl obhaq ol gur Cebqhpgvba Pbqr – Tneqare jnfa’g bofrffrq jvgu znxvat rirel qrsraqnag jubyyl vaabprag. Gur jbaqreshy gjvfg ng gur raq bs Ubjyvat Qbt vf gung, sbe nyy uvf fubjobngvat va pbheg, Znfba znl irel jryy unir frg n jbzna serr jub jnf grpuavpnyyl thvygl. (Gur jubyr guvat vf yrsg nzovinyrag ng gur raq.) Ohg gryrivfvba va gur 50’f – 60’f bcrengrq ba n fgevpg zbeny pbqr jurer Znfba’f qrsraqnag UNQ gb or vaabprag be ryfr or chavfurq sbe n pncvgny pevzr.
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
If there’s something a little dark and mysterious about Perry Mason at the start, a little bit of the Batman about him, then District Attorney Doug Selby is definitely the Man of Steel: more outwardly earnest, honest and true, more by the book, more “what you see is what you get.” He’s young, and cute, and dedicated wholeheartedly to playing a clean game in a dirty little town.
There are only nine novels featuring Selby, but it was clear from the get-go that Gardner was playing a long game here. Sure, there appear to be stand-alone cases in each book, but Gardner builds upon the community of Madison City that he presented in The D.A. Calls It Murder, and for my money – at least in Books One and Two – the story of Doug Selby facing down the powerful and the corrupt of the town is the more intriguing aspect.
The mystery begins with the death of a stranger, a hitchhiker who Sheriff Rex Brandon and Doug had picked up. The man is later found in a cabin in at the Keystone Auto Camp, the 1938 version of a motel. He has been asphyxiated by carbon monoxide, and it is assumed that he caused his own death by misusing the cabin’s heater. The stranger had no business being in the cabin, and Selby’s first theory is that he was lying in wait for one of its legitimate renters in order to exact revenge. But there are way too many questions: about the man himself, about the heater, about the renters . . . and the D.A. and the sheriff begin to investigate, aided as before by ace girl reporter
Lois Lane, er, Sylvia Martin.
The case covers a wide swath of area, from the relatively low-life environs of the Palm Thatch Café, a bastion of sinful – and illegal – pleasures to the palatial estate of Charles DeWitt Stapleton, who employs half the town in his sugar mill and throws his weight around with alacrity. Before he’s done, Selby will have traveled to L.A. and San Diego and had more than one face-off with Stapleton that threatens his very career as D.A.!
It seems like a complicated case, but in the end it’s a pretty simple one. Don’t go into this expecting a typical whodunnit. There are a whole lot of people doing bad things here, and Selby’s main job is to rank their sins, dole out the appropriate punishment, and find justice for the few relative innocents on board for the ride.
Truth be told, the mystery dragged a bit for me. Yet other factors besides the mystery plot provide the real fun here, beginning with Gardner’s deep dive into the culture of a 1938 SoCal town. This starts at the very beginning during a period of deep frost:
“Weak rays from a jaundiced sun penetrated the curtain of smudge smoke which hung over Madison City. Despite the fact that it was nine o’clock in the morning, the thermometer hung close to freezing. It was a period of war, during which harassed citrus growers marshaled every possible defense to repel the invasion of the frost king.”
I’ve heard a million jokes about “smudge pots” on The Jack Benny Program, but for a long time this was a huge problem for California citrus growers. To prevent the cold weather from ruining an orange crop, farmers would set out the pots that gave off heat and voluminous amounts of hot ash that choked the citizenry and blanketed every surface of the area. That sense of the whole atmosphere being poisoned provides a powerful start to this tale of inner rot.
As it is with Gardner, the prose snaps, and it’s filled with references and slang terms that I probably should have looked up, except I usually kinda sorta got the idea! Selby makes an appealing “David” trying to stand up to the power-mad or greedy Goliaths whose biggest mistake is to underestimate Selby as a small-town hick lawyer who has gotten too big for his britches. More than once, someone tells Doug that he “can’t hold a candle” to the big city attorneys and investigators. This gives the book its title and the hero his goal. What are the odds that he’ll make it?
To add to the drama, Selby seems to be involved in a romantic triangle. In the first novel, it’s easy to pick up on some sort of spark between him and Sylvia Martin. If this had ever been made into a series, each episode would have certainly furthered the “will-they-or-won’t-they” trope in which these sorts of series specialize. But the second book complicates matters by introducing rich girl Inez, with whom Doug has enjoyed many a tennis date. (Or is that a “tennis date?”) And to complicate that even further, Inez is the daughter of Charles DeWitt Stapleton. To Gardner’s credit, while it seems more than obvious which of these women is Selby’s perfect match, the author gives both of them the right amount of pluses and minuses to keep the game alive.
That game, and many more, will continue as the series progresses. While the case is wrapped up, certain elements are left dangling in such a way that we can see future challenges, both professional and personal, for Doug down the road. I’m very much looking forward to what happens next to our legal country boy in The D.A. Draws a Circle.
The Bigger They Come (1939)
If you ask for my vote for the most entertaining introduction in the ESG canon, it would be neither maverick defense attorney Perry Mason nor earnest prosecutor Doug Selby. My choice is disbarred lawyer Donald Lam who, at the start of The Bigger They Come is looking for a job. He enters the office of private detective Bertha Cool, and before you can say, “Well, fry me for an oyster!,” a partnership is born that would last through thirty novels and 77 years!
There’s a “Jack and Mrs. Sprat” vibe going on here and more than a little reminder of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin: Lam is 5’6 and weighs 125 soaking wet, while Bertha is, well, corpulent (“She wiggled and jiggled around inside her loose apparel like a cylinder of current jelly on a plate.”) and revels in it. When she tells the story early on of how she became fat, you can’t help but take her to your heart and celebrate her emancipation from the patriarchal society out of which she was sprung. Gardner is never subtle and not particularly kind when he reminds us over and over of her weight, but you can imagine that Bertha would put him in his place. Here she is explaining herself to her client:
“And don’t mind me when I cuss because I like profanity, loose clothes, and loose talk. I want to be comfortable. Nature intended me to be fat. I put in 10 years eating salads, drinking skim milk, and toying with dry toast. I wore girdles that pinched my waist, form-building brassieres, and spent half of my time standing on bathroom scales. And what the hell did I do it for? Just to get a husband! . . . For god’s sake don’t get married with the idea of putting a man up on a pedestal and yourself down on your hands and knees, scraping cobwebs out of the corner. You keep on doing that, and someday a cute little trick will look up at your husband with big blue eyes, and you’ll find that you were in the place you made for yourself, just a damn floor scraper with rough hands, sharp features, and calloused knees – I know what you’re thinking, that your husband won’t be like that, but all husbands are like that.”
From start to finish, The Bigger They Come was a blast. Firmly rooted in Gardner’s pulp roots, it is hilarious where a Perry Mason book is occasionally witty and Doug Selby’s adventures are earnest as hell. I walked into this one (thanks to my pal JJ’s own warm thoughts about Cool and Lam) thinking that here was Gardner’s chance to step away from the law and immerse himself in Philip Marlowe territory. But no – Donald Lam turns out to be something of a legal genius, and his machinations in court here provide a sensational climax that showcases a theory that helped get Lam disbarred in the first place. And the lengths to which he’s willing to go in order to prove the legal establishment wrong are quite something – and immensely entertaining.
Lam’s first task for Bertha Cool is a simple one: serve divorce papers on the husband of Bertha’s client. The trouble is that Morgan Birks is on the run, both from the cops and from the Kansas City mobsters that he double-crossed. In order to get his job done, Donald first has to find the missing man. This leads our pipsqueak of a hero down a rabbit’s hole of double crosses, flipped identities, two beautiful dames who can’t possibly be any good, and more physical pain than any slightly-built assistant shamus should have to endure.
I’m trying to throw out as much as I can here without giving away the multiple twists and turns which delighted me throughout. I have no idea whether Gardner was able to sustain these pleasures for twenty-nine more books, but I have gone ahead and collected most of them and intend to find out! Suffice it to say that The Bigger They Come works both as a case and as an introduction to this long-term partnership. By the end, Bertha has come to recognize what a treasure she has found in the unprepossessing-seeming Donald, and the two have started to establish a relationship based on mutual need and a fond distrust for each other.
I can’t help but think that Cool and Lam would have enjoyed more renown if they had only been dramatized as Perry Mason was. How could this colorful pair not make fireworks together on the screen! It turns out that attempts were made on that score. Turn on the Heat, the second published adventure (not the second Cool and Lam novel, but more on that another time) was adapted for radio on The United States Steel Hour in 1946, where Donald Lam was played by none other than Frank Sinatra (who was Lam-scrawny at the time). Alas, I can’t find that recording. Also lost is a 1955 TV episode of Climax based on The Bigger They Come that starred Art Carney and the great Jane Darwell as Lam and Cool.
You can go to YouTube and watch the pilot that Gardner himself made in 1958 starring jockey Billy Pearson as Lam and film actress Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. Loosely based on Turn on the Heat, I thought it was mediocre at best: Pearson isn’t really an actor, and Venuta neither looks nor sounds like Bertha. The most fun here is watching Erle Stanley Gardner himself pitch the series to the viewers, all while relaxing on the set of . . . Perry Mason! In the end, one can sadly understand why Cool and Lam wasn’t picked up as a series, but I wish someone would try again.
Thanks for taking this lengthy wallow with me through the three main facets of Erle Stanley Gardner’s career. There are other characters to discover as well, like Terry Clane and Gramps Wiggins and plenty of one-offs. Who knows how much of it I will be able to take in throughout the coming years?
But it will be fun to give it a try . . .