Pulp Fiction

When I’m sick, I tend to grab Perry Mason mystery novels and read them. I only do it when I’m sick, because they’re far too degraded and awful to read at any other time.

I have a large collection of them.

Erle Stanley Gardner was, during his lifetime, probably the best-selling mystery writer in the world, outstripping heavyweights like Agatha Christie. He had started out, in the late 1920s, writing for the pulp magazine market, and his writing never got significantly better. He was a dreadful writer. His prose was stilted, his characters constructed of the flimsiest cardboard, his plots consistently preposterous to the point of absurdity.

But he was dreadful in a highly consistent, thoroughly professional way. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what the public wanted, and he supplied it unerringly. Above all, he knew how to keep readers turning the pages! And that’s no small skill.

Mark Twain once wrote a short essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences.” From time to time I imagine that it might be fun to write “Erle Stanley Gardner’s Literary Offenses.” Nobody would pay the slightest attention, of course. Gardner is beyond passé. But it would be fun.

Tonight I was reading The Case of the Lucky Loser. Summarizing the plot would take many paragraphs, because Gardner’s plots were always rich in twists and turns. What we learn in the final chapters, when Perry Mason has gathered the clues and stripped away the murderer’s web of lies, is this: Banner Boles, the ace troubleshooter for the Balfour Corporation, has been having an affair with the beautiful young wife of Guthrie Balfour. Guthrie Balfour follows his wife to a motel where she is meeting Boles and secures the room next door, which is conveniently vacant. He has brought along a tape recorder with a contact microphone, so he is able to listen to and record what is happening in the next room — a circumstance that has no relevance at all, as the tape is later erased. When his wife leaves, Guthrie barges into the lovers’ motel room with a pistol, but without knowing the identity of his wife’s paramour, because the room is in darkness and the contact mic wasn’t good enough to let him recognize the voices. In the ensuing struggle, the gun goes off.

This is where Gardner’s grasp of the absurd reaches its height. It’s almost as if he was satirizing himself, or thumbing his nose at his readers. When the gun goes off, Banner Boles cleverly drops to the floor and pretends to have been shot. Guthrie Balfour thereupon rushes out of the room in a panic, convinced that he has murdered his wife’s lover. Later that night, he arrives home, still carrying the pistol, and his wife uses it to shoot him. She then calmly calls her lover and they arrange an elaborate subterfuge that involves making it impossible to identify the body by staging a hit-and-run accident, driving over the corpse’s head several times so that the bullet hole won’t be spotted by Gardner’s crew of unusually credulous and bungling police detectives.

There’s a lot more silliness beyond that. Gardner never even tries to explain why Boles and Mrs. Balfour think it would be smart or prudent to implicate young Ted Balfour as the hit-and-run driver, or how they engineer it. But let’s rewind the tape a bit. Banner Boles has just been caught practically in flagrante by his girlfriend’s husband. The husband has a pistol, and fires it. Does Boles try to defend himself, in this moment of mortal peril, by grabbing the pistol or bopping the husband on the jaw? No. He falls down and plays dead. He has, at this moment, no conceivable way of guessing that the enraged husband won’t empty the pistol into him as he’s lying on the floor. Playing dead is probably the worst possible tactic in such a situation, and Boles is portrayed consistently as a smart and effective operator — but there we are. Gardner needs Boles to play possum (or thinks he does) in order to finish off the plot in the way he wants.

Just about every one of Gardner’s novels has a plot twist that is as bad as this, or worse. He was a virtuoso. I really ought to write that essay.

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3 Responses to Pulp Fiction

  1. phillipkay says:

    Is it bad art, or good something else? You’ve left me musing about the HUGE place what one might positively call trash culture plays in our lives. I overhear people talking about bad taste advertisements, being a fan of improbable horror cinema, not being able to recall the title of the last best seller they’ve read and couldn’t put down (It was by Dan someone, Dan Smith? Dan Jones?). Does it all serve a purpose or just fill in time? I mean, is there a reason for Agatha Christie? I remember some letters from Raymond Chandler to his friend Gardner in which he expressed his (Chandler’s) admiration for Gardner’s writing skills. Maybe that’s what Gardner was for? Detective stories are a good place to look for a reason. For some, 99%, there are just detective stories, for others, 1%, there are good detective stories and bad ones and the difference is important. Seems like the two groups are reading for different purposes. I don’t like the snobbery that says some books are good, some bad though. It’s like, some of us love the actual books we read, some the process of reading; a question of emphasis is all that separates us.

    • midiguru says:

      I suspect that most or all readers of mystery novels would tell you there are good ones and bad ones! But different readers will naturally have different criteria for what constitutes good and bad.

      Gardner’s writing is the literary equivalent of a TV script. If you watch Law & Order, you’re swept along by the events on the screen, and probably never notice when some howling implausibility or outright impossibility is tossed in your lap. By the standards of commercial fiction, if you’re swept along, it’s good. No other consideration matters. By that standard, Gardner is a fine writer. But if you care about plausibility (the likelihood that real human beings, in the situations he describes, would do what his characters do), he’s a disaster. Likewise if you care about prose style.

      I can read Gardner on both levels at once. Maybe that’s because I’m left-handed….

  2. phillipkay says:

    The reference you make to TV is significant. Video values in fiction, such as pacing, make for the best seller, and the more this happens, the more likely so called literary values, such as psychological plausibility, will result in a book being left on the shelf. I call this passive reading, a video induced literary reaction. (Within video as well: George Lucas’ MTV style of cutting has widened the gap between commercial and art film such as Bergman’s quite a lot). For a writer this might well mean a choice between writing the literary equivalent of a bromide or not writing at all. (Used to be intensity made up for pacing, as in Crime and Punishment; and brio, as in The Three Musketeers, not to mention the sentimentality of Dickens). Not sure I envy you being able to read ESG on both levels at once though: to find a book both absorbing and improbable at the same time. I thought Chandler’s art of murder essay a devastating reply to all that. Yet we do read for other, therapeutic, reasons. You for instance read ESG when ill. Self expression, knowledge of human nature and entertainment: can they all be combined in a work of fiction? Perhaps not in so called popular fiction. I find that so snobbish though. I want one book to master them all. I used to be left handed: now I stutter.

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