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.