Saturday, October 24, 2020

Erle Stanley Gardner’s pulp fiction, part 2 - the Lester Leith stories

Erle Stanley Gardner is best remembered for the Perry Mason mysteries. Aficionados of golden age detective fiction also know him as the creator of other series characters such as private detectives Cool and Lam and DA Doug Selby. Before achieving immense success as a novelist Gardner had been an unbelievably prolific writer of short stories and novelettes for the pulps and had created several other series detectives who gained huge followings. One of the most popular was Lester Leith who appeared in around sixty short stories between 1929 and 1943.

Lester Leith is a gentleman thief. He’s also a hero rogue rather in the style of the Saint. Such heroes were immensely popular in the 1920s (Blackshirt being a prime example). He is a thief who preys on other thieves. He is a rich man and most of the money he steals goes to charity although, like the Saint, he keeps enough of his ill-gotten gains to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle for himself.

And as is the case with the Saint the police go to great lengths to bring Leith to justice but he’s always one step ahed of them. They have even planted a police spy on him, posing as his valet. This amuses Leith. He nicknames the spy Scuttle. While his charitable donations are sincere he seems to be motivated primarily by the sheer joy of irritating the police. Of course Leith has a nemesis, or at least a would-be nemesis, in the person of Sergeant Ackley. Ackley regards himself as a pretty clever fellow and he is convinced that sooner or later he is going to catch Leith. The trouble is that while Ackley is sneaky and devious the truth is that he’s not all that smart, and perhaps not all that honest.

Ackley’s invariable method is to get his spy to tempt Leith into attempting to solve a carefully selected case

False Alarm was published in the 5th November 1932 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.
Leith has become interested in a crime involving a phoney fireman. While a fire raged in one house the foeman slipped next door and cracked the safe belonging to George Crampp, a retired businessman who claims to be penniless but who is suspected of having had a considerable amount of dishonestly acquired money in that safe. For this case Leith will need to buy up every single fireman’s costume in every single costumers’ in the city. He will also need a hundred dollar bill soaked in gasoline, crumpled up and then ironed flat. And last but by no means least, he will need to find an attractive red-headed woman with an evil temper and some training in boxing.

Sergeant Ackley thinks that this time he is finally going to nail Leith. Leith has spotted a clue that no-one in the police department has spotted and he has a fair idea of the solution to the mystery, and how to profit from it. It’s a typically clever little Gardner story.

The Seven Sinister Sombreros is another Lester Leith case, published in Detective Story in February 1939. This time Sergeant Ackley hopes to use the case of the drugged guard to trap Lester Leith.

A man named Bonneguard has formed a new political party, or perhaps it would be truer to say a new political cult. Whether Bonneguard has any actual interest in politics is uncertain but his new party is proving to be very profitable for him. Profitable enough that he has over $100,000 in the safe in his home. Or rather he had $100,000. The money has now been stolen. It was not just a guard who was drugged - two guards and a guard dog were immobilised but the source of the drug is a mystery.

Leith issues his instructions to Scuttle - to allow Leith to save the case Scuttle must procure for him a monkey wrench, half a dozen 1936 Fords, a ukulele, some cowpunchers, seven cowboy hats and a miniature replica surfboard. And of course, a hula dancer. In fact, several hula dancers.

There are really two plots here. There’s the search for the solution to the crime and then there’s Leith incredibly devious scheme to relieve the thief of the money without getting caught himself. Both plots are intricately constructed, especially the latter. A very entertaining novelette.

Gardner’s genius lay in coming up with a successful formula and sticking to it while at the same time making his plots ingenious enough to prevent the formula from going stale. He had a formula for the Perry Mason books. And based on these two books it appears that he had devised a perfect formula for Lester Leith stories. Sergeant Ackley tries to tempt Leith into investigating a particular crime, Ackley sets a trap, Leith orders Scuttle to obtain a collection of outrageous props, Leith stays one step ahead of everybody and there is always a colourful dame in the case.

These are light-hearted stories combining humour with skilled plotting. They’re great fun. There is a paperback collection of some of the Lester Leith stories. It’s long out of print but copies can be found if you hunt around for them. I know nothing about and I have no idea which stories are included but based on the two Lester Leith stories I’ve now read it might be worth looking into.

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