My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

Here’s another of my favourite puzzle mystery writers.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Yes, the author of Perry Mason is one of my favourite mystery writers. I have to say my affection goes back a long, long time. I was a precocious kid who read his way through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at an early age and moved directly into the mystery section of the local library — which, since at the time I was living on a small Armed Forces base, was composed of a bunch of Perry Mason novels and some writers I’d never heard of.  Perry Mason was fairly tame to adult sensibilities, and when I asked my mother to explain why Perry Mason was so interested in Della Street’s ankles as she got in and out of the car, she knew my pre-teen self couldn’t come to much harm.  So I enjoyed them as mysteries and left the grown-up stuff for others.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner is not generally considered a writer of puzzle mysteries, by and large.  His blueprint was simple.  Start with a strange situation that would catch the reader’s attention — something mildly sexual and unusual, for which the average person would want a good lawyer on their side.  Add Perry Mason on the side of someone reasonably innocent.  Bring the situation to a rapid boil and add a murder.  Arrest Perry’s client and spend the rest of the book having Perry run amok while trying to exonerate his client.  Pretty much the last half of all the novels takes place in a courtroom.  Finish it off with a dramatic resolution wherein the guilty party confesses on the stand (for the most part) and stir with a dash of humour at the end.  And, by and large, Gardner didn’t feel the need to add any pesky characterization to complicate the mix.  Most of the characters in Perry Mason novels are labelled with a job and saddled with an alibi, and that’s their only distinction from the next suspect.

As an aside, Gardner did have one way of making his characters memorable; he gave the men unusual middle names. Possibly this was to protect himself from lawsuits because James Greevus Smith, banker, could be distinguished from almost any other James Smith, banker.  This didn’t happen so often with female characters, but married women often had an unusual maiden name.

Anyway, in terms of the traditional puzzle mystery, this lack of characterization is not a bad thing, by and large.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it was usually deliberate, in order to prevent the murderer being more noticeable by dint of being better characterized. It may well be, as I’ve often seen suggested, that Gardner was simply a writer who was unable to do much in the way of effective characterization, in which case his focus on puzzle mysteries was a mere fortunate coincidence or deliberate choice.  He was an experienced lawyer — it was unlikely for him to select the Western upon which to focus, let’s face it.

In his earliest novels, Perry Mason is more of a hard-boiled hard-punching lawyer who goes toe to toe against the villains and isn’t afraid to slug the occasional client-menacing gangster (for instance, The Case Of The Sulky Girl, TCOT Velvet Claws, TCOT Howling Dog, etc.).  But around the middle of World War II, he seems to have swerved in the direction of the puzzle mystery. I’ll suggest that the three most difficult puzzles in his oeuvre are TCOT Empty Tin (1941), TCOT Buried Clock (1943) and TCOT Crooked Candle (1944), but everything from about 1939 to 1947 is more strongly puzzle-oriented than the remainder of the novels. These novels actually have clues, physical clues, and are not merely sets of alibis against which to measure a set of circumstances.

And Gardner in this period avoids something that sustained his work in later years, which is to say the number of gorgeous women in sexualized situations is kept to a minimum.  By the 1960s, Gardner’s plots were pretty much what I call “femjep” — a beautiful woman is in physical danger from a criminal, or is the object of a bizarre plot that she doesn’t understand, and Perry steps in and saves the day, while the novel stops to describe the heroine physically and fairly lustfully every once in a while.

If you’re curious as to whether Gardner could write a good puzzle mystery — your mileage may vary.  Certainly he had a knack for coming up with story hooks that drag you into the novel (Why is a pretty young woman being paid to put on weight?  Why would someone steal a man’s glass eye?  Why would someone bury an alarm clock set to sidereal time?).  When he’s at his most puzzling, these hooks are absolutely relevant to the plot and not just discarded as soon as they’ve done the job of getting you to commit to the novel.  (For instance, that stolen glass eye is found clutched in the hand of the corpse.)  And occasionally, Gardner steps out and adds as much characterization as he can manage.  For instance, TCOT Empty Tin has a nosy spinster who is played for laughs — unusual in Gardner’s work — but who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943) has some interesting “salty prospector” characters. And TCOT Vagabond Virgin (1948) has an actual attempt at a rounded characterization in the person of the titular hitchhiking tramp — as well as an interesting puzzle at its core.

If you’re looking for a puzzle mystery, you could do worse than the novels I’ve mentioned here by name. The paperback editions are not so omnipresent as they were when I was a teenager, but a visit to a good used bookstore will usually net you a couple of dozen titles from which to choose — try anything with a copyright date in the 1940s and you won’t be far wrong.

PS: Gardner also wrote a series of novels as by A. A. Fair about the adventures of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, private investigators.  I can’t say that these impressed me as being anywhere near strict-form puzzle mysteries, but they are very enjoyable — more so than the last 15 years’ worth of Perry Mason novels, by and large.  These should be read chronologically.

One thought on “My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

  1. […] remember some months ago sounding off about the Perry Mason novels written between 1939 and 1947 as being my favourites, because they […]

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