Saturday, October 25, 2014

Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp fiction

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was one of the most successful crime fiction writers of all time, selling well over 300 million books in his lifetime. In the ten years before the publication of his first Perry Mason novel in 1933 he was an incredibly prolific (and incredibly popular) writer of pulp fiction. He aimed to write 1,200,000 words a year and usually achieved his target. That’s impressive enough but becomes awe-inspiring when you consider he was still holding down a day job as a lawyer. In one year Gardner sold no less than ninety-seven stories. This was a man who could write a full-length novel in three-and-a-half days.

Gardner’s pulp stories have been overshadowed by the success of the Perry Mason books, and have been somewhat unjustly neglected. The early Perry Mason novels are interesting in that they are stylistically fairly hard-boiled but structurally they’re pure plot-driven golden age detective stories. His early pulp stories are, not surprisingly, somewhat more hard-boiled but Gardner always gave due attention to plotting. He has been accused of being a formulaic writer. There’s some truth to that, but then all genre fiction is (and has to be) formulaic to some degree. Gardner has never really been given enough credit for his ability to create consistently satisfying plots within those formula boundaries.

I’ve been exploring some of Gardner’s pulp stories, featuring three of his series characters,  and they’re quite impressive.

Come and Get It was one of the many stories Gardner wrote featuring Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. It’s more correct to describe him as an ex-crook because he’s now an amateur crime-fighter. Former thieves turned crime-fighter were immensely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, with Blackshirt and Simon Templar (The Saint) being among the best-known. 

In this story Ed Jenkins has to foil a blackmail plot against society girl Helen Chadwick and in order to do so he has firstly to foil a very ingenious scheme for a jewel heist. The clever plot involves an armoured car. This is very definitely  hard-boiled story, and a good one. It appeared in Black Mask in 1927.

Honest Money, which appeared in Black Mask in late 1932, was the first of a number of stories featuring lawyer-detective Ken Corning. Gardner only spent one month at law school but taught himself enough about the law to pass the California Bar exam in 1911. Being a lawyer who wrote pulp crime stories it was a fairly obvious move to create a hero who would combine the functions of attorney and detective. Corning was a kind of dry run for Perry Mason, although there are some minor differences between the two characters. Corning is a struggling an idealistic young attorney while Mason is a famous and well-established trial lawyer. It has to be said that while both men pursue unconventional methods Ken Corning seems to have a rather higher regard for legal ethics - for Perry Mason legal ethics are whatever you can get away with without being disbarred. Mason is the more interesting character but the Ken Corning stories gave Gardner the opportunity to experiment with what was at the time the fairly novel idea of a lawyer-detective.

Honest Money sees Corning pitted against corrupt city officials. His first case seems like a fairly minor affair. A woman who runs a speakeasy has been arrested for offering a cop a bribe. There are a few puzzling details about the case that lead Corning to suspect that something much bigger is behind this. The Perry Mason novels usually involve a climactic court-room scene but there are no such scenes in this story. By this time Gardner knew what Black Mask readers wanted and he probably felt they’d be more interested in gunplay than in points of law. 

The Cat-Woman is another Ed Jenkins story. This time around Jenkins has had some financial disasters and he allows himself to be persuaded to resume his life of crime. Or at least he is persuaded to become involved in something that is at best legally dubious. He is to steal a necklace and kidnap a girl, but he’ll be provided with signed statements from the owner of the necklace, giving him permission to steal it, and from the girl, giving him permission to kidnap her. You might think this all sounds pretty suspicious, and that’s exactly what Ed Jenkins thinks. But $10,000 for not actually committing a crime is a tempting offer. Of course it all turns out to be very complicated indeed, and while Ed Jenkins is drawn into a criminal conspiracy he still manages to be a hero. The story was published in Black Mask in 1927 and for a short story it contains an amazing amount of plot complexity. A clever and very entertaining tale.

Ed Jenkins features again in a 1930 Black Mask story, Hell’s Kettle. This is a very hard-boiled story indeed, with a prodigious body count and a climax involving not just machine-guns but hand grenades as well. It’s as tough and violent a story as you’re ever likely to encounter. Again he makes effective use of Ed Jenkins as a character trapped between the police and the underworld. Jenkins is a fairly typical pulp hero but with a few intriguing features. There’s a hint of tragedy about him - no matter how hard he tries to escape the world of crime he knows he will never entirely succeed and will always remain an outsider. He deals with this philosophically. Gardner had no interest in self-pity and he wasn’t likely to create a hero who indulged in such emotions. There is however just a touch more complexity to Jenkins than you expect to find in a two-fisted pulp hero. Gardner was often criticised for his poor characterisation, a criticism that seems a little unfair. Both Jenkins and later Perry Mason have some interesting character ambiguities.

The Monkey Murder, published in Detective Story in 1939, features yet another Gardner series character, Lester Leith. Leith is another variation on the gentleman-thief and is in fact pretty much an American Simon Templar - he steals but he only steals from other criminals. Such characters usually have a police officer who is determined to hunt them down. The war of wits between the gentleman-thief and his would-be nemesis is an essential ingredient to such tales. Gardner adds a nice touch - Leith’s faithful butler is actually a police spy. And he adds yet another clever twist - Leith knows all about it but doesn’t care because it just adds spice to his adventures. 

It’s an intricately-plotted and very entertaining story. It’s not the least bit hard-boiled, the style is light-hearted and breezy, and it’s very very close in flavour to Leslie Charteris’s work (which had become enormously popular in the US in the late 30s).

Gardner developed a thorough understanding of the fiction market. He could produce exactly the sorts of tough blood-drenched stories that Black Mask readers liked, and when he started writing the Perry Mason books he took a much more sophisticated approach although the pulp influence was still very apparent in the early Mason novels. Gardner was ambitious for success and he had the persistence to achieve it, and the flexibility to vary his style to suit whichever market he aimed at. He seemed to be able to vary his approach at will. 

He was also hard-headed. When Perry Mason was adapted to television Gardner negotiated the kind of contract most writers can only dream about, a contract that gave him casting approval and final approval of all scripts, in fact virtually complete artistic control. He had the right to veto any suggestions from the network and he exercised that right with enthusiasm.

Despite the immense popularity he enjoyed during his lifetime Gardner’s Perry Mason novels are now somewhat under-appreciated. His pulp fiction is even more neglected and deserves to be rediscovered in a big way.

1 comment:

  1. I've read some of the same stories, probably in the same places, and they're pretty entertaining. Gardner published frequently in the weekly Argosy and you can find a couple of his novellas in the online collection of Argosy issues at Unz.org.

    ReplyDelete