Something Wicked This Way Comes

Erle Stanley Gardner is my favorite bad writer. He’s most famous for his Perry Mason mysteries, which were made into a successful TV series. Gardner’s characters are cardboard and his plots are often riddled with absurdities. His prose never rises above adequate and is laced with grotesque infelicities of style. But none of that matters. In his heyday, between 1930 and 1960, he sold literally 300 million books. In spite of his many failings, Gardner was a master when it came to keeping his readers turning the page.

Today’s ramble isn’t about prose style, but I can’t resist quoting a shining example of a Gardner sentence. This is from The Count of Nine. A police officer has just flashed his badge to a very minor character. The character has not known police were even in the penthouse. Gardner writes, “His face was a mask of startled surprise.”

Any instructor in an undergraduate class on creative writing would red-pencil “startled surprise,” and would be right to do so. It’s a horrible, clumsy phrase, and “his face was a mask” isn’t much better. But the thing is, this sentence works. It conveys, in a way that is both economical and muscular, exactly what Gardner wanted it to convey.

Yesterday I was feeling uninspired in the plot department. I have a draft of the first 1/3 of a cozy mystery, but I can see that the middle is sagging, and I’m not sure what to do about it. So I took a break and read three of Gardner’s Donald Lam/Bertha Cool mysteries. These books are marginally better than his Perry Mason books. Mason is a high-powered lawyer, so nobody ever hits him: His problems are purely cerebral. Donald Lam is a private eye, and also a smaller-than-average person. He gets slugged and roughed up pretty often, and that adds to the drama. Also, there’s more variety because the Cool & Lam books are not saddled with the courtroom scenes that always fill the last part of the Mason books.

Just as important, perhaps, the Cool & Lam books are written in the first person. The Mason books are third person. In neither series do we learn what Mason or Lam is thinking or feeling. These books are about action, not feelings, and Gardner never wavers in his commitment to action. Even so, the first-person narration adds to the immediacy.

Reading three of the Cool & Lam stories back to back (they’re shorter than a modern mystery), it’s fairly easy to see how Gardner worked his low-grade magic. Each story has much the same ingredients, and figuring out whodunit is only one of the ingredients.

The first ingredient is deception. Often, the client who appears in the offices of Cool & Lam on page 1 to hire them is lying. It may be a woman who gives a name that doesn’t match the initials on her cigarette case, a fact that keen-eyed Donald Lam immediately spots. This particular client is not the murderer, and in fact her deception has no impact one way or another on the murder plot. It’s just a typical Gardner flourish. He wants you to keep turning the page to find out what the heck is going on.

The second ingredient is, of course, the mystery itself. Somebody is murdered, and Donald Lam scurries around meeting people and picking up enigmatic bits of information, some of which will lead him to the truth. That’s pretty standard fare. Gardner knows lots of variations, some of them more implausible than others. There’s misdirection — clues that aren’t really clues. Innocent people do things that will make you suspect them. But while he’s good at it, this is not where his genius lies.

Third, there’s the unreliable ally. Bertha Cool, the senior partner in the agency, is a wonderful Gardner character. She’s cardboard, and yet she’s three-dimensional cardboard. She is, by turns, avaricious, ingratiating, belligerent, contemptuous, and clueless — and that’s just about the sum total of her character. At a key point in the plot, she can be relied on to yell at Donald Lam, fail to spot the hints he’s trying to signal her with, and side with the police against him. Yet when the cops have thrown him into a cell, she’ll show up with a lawyer to bail him out and give the cops a tongue-lashing. Her antics never ruffle Lam’s feathers in any emotional sense. He has no emotions at all. But an unreliable ally keeps the pot stirred for the reader.

Fourth, we have the fight with the friendly ogre. The Cool & Lam stories all have the same homicide detective. Since the stories are set in a large city (sometimes it’s Los Angeles, but mostly it’s just a nameless generic city), having the same cop in every story is dumb, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the cop, Frank Sellers, never believes Lam. He threatens to arrest Lam. Sometimes he actually does put him in handcuffs and throw him in a cell. And then Lam explains how the murder was really accomplished, and Sellers arrests the culprit and takes the credit.

Sellers and Bertha Cool are what we might call internal antagonists. They’re not real antagonists in the way that the murderer is. Their role is strictly to keep up the pace of the action. Having the police threaten to pull the private detective’s license is standard fare in mid-20th-century whodunits; Rex Stout did much the same thing in his Nero Wolfe novels. Inspector Cramer is forever threatening Wolfe. But Wolfe is better protected. Lam is more vulnerable. And that’s the fifth ingredient: Lam is vulnerable.

Sixth, there’s sex. Gardner was writing for a mainstream middle-America audience in an era that is less progressive than our own, so there’s never any actual sex, but there are lots of hints. Scantily clad young women often appear, and even when fully dressed they will often make veiled comments about not being virgins. Mentions of the ladies’ “curves” are a Gardner staple, and the gorgeous ones (What am I saying? They’re all gorgeous!) quite often snuggle up to Donald Lam, or try to. This never happens to Perry Mason, of course. Mason notices the “curves,” you betcha, but he’s a lawyer. No canoodling.

The market for mysteries has changed in the past 50 years. You couldn’t sell a Gardner manuscript today. But if you’re working on a mystery, I would suggest in all seriousness that you figure out how to mix all of Gardner’s key ingredients into your story. If you manage to sell the manuscript, you can mention me in the Acknowledgments.

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