For a list of all books chosen for Friday's Forgotten Books since its inception, go here.
Elaine Ash writes and edits for a living. She is Editor-at-Large for Beat to a Pulp, a weekly ezine for short stories of all genres. Blog: http://ashedit.wordpress.com Website: elaineash.com
THE CASE OF THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE, ERLE STANLEY GARDNER When I was around ten years old, I pulled a yellowed paperback from the family bookcase called The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde written by Erle Stanley Gardner. It was my first introduction to lawyer Perry Mason, and the tale was lurid and politically incorrect. I loved it. Gardner died at the age of eighty-one in 1970, the author of more than seven hundred fictional works, including 127 novels, 400 articles and more than a dozen travel books. He also wrote under the pseudonyms A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray, and Robert Parr. In the mid-1960s, Gardner’s novels sold around 20,000 per day. He is considered one of the best-selling mystery writers of all time with 325 million books distributed globally.Gardner could have stepped, larger than life, from the pages of one of his own novels. He attended law school for only a month, when he got suspended for making a boxing ring in his dorm room, and a professor got knocked down during a demonstration. The school sought a warrant for his arrest and Gardner claims he “skipped town one jump ahead of the sheriff.” Gardner eventually settled in California where he studied law on his own and passed the state bar exam in 1911, qualifying him to practice law as an attorney.In 1921, a dozen years before his first Perry Mason sale, Gardner broke into print with a story he sold for fifteen dollars entitled, “Nellie’s Naughty Nighty.” His mother read the title and was so scandalized, she refused to read another word. After that first sale, Gardner faced repeated rejection. "I wrote the worst stories that ever hit New York,” he later admitted. "My stories were terrible...I didn't know how to plot [and] I had no natural aptitude as a writer." Sweet fortune smiled eventually, but Gardner had bitter criticism to face first. His novelette, The Shrieking Skeleton was under consideration at Black Mask magazine, and the circulation manager sent a scathing note to the editor, saying, "This story gives me a pain in the neck . . . it's pretty near the last word in childishness, and the plot has whiskers...” The story was "puerile, trite, obvious, and unnatural.” The note was accidently sent to Gardner, who sat down and rewrote the story over three nights, carefully fixing everything the note mentioned. He mailed it back to the embarrassed editor, who purchased it for $160.Perry Mason became arguably the most famous fictional lawyer of all time, featured in more than 80 novels and short stories. Gardner personally cast actor Raymond Burr—dark, handsome and velvet voiced—for the TV role, and episodes still run today on television all over the world.The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde is still my favorite Perry Mason, and it’s even more entertaining today because of its little political-editorial asides by Gardner, that don’t get in the way of the plot. I love this dialogue from the black-eyed heroine, has a job reading stories to a rich man, and she passes his opinions along to Perry Mason: “He claims that the great American trouble is that we are too credulous. He says our national trait is to believe everything that’s dished out to us and then, when the gilt paint wears off the gold brick, to blame everyone except ourselves.”Gardner wrote that in 1944. The more things change the more they stay the same. Of course there’s lots of derring-do, with help from trusty, recurring characters Della Street and Paul Drake. Lt. Tragg and the crusty men of his force are always hot on the trail, but they stay a step behind Perry and his sleuthing, at the best of times. Gardner had a formula for Perry Mason novels, and it made them them reliable pulp escapism. No matter how dire the situation, Perry always solved the case in court, the bad guys were vanquished and justice was served. No wonder the books are still selling, and the series is still on TV.A magnificent collection of Gardner’s manuscripts and papers reside in The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Texas, described as, “one of the most complete records of a writing career ever made.” The library features a model of his study room, on display for viewing by visitors.Finally, Gardner is the author of the best piece of writing advice ever: “It’s a damn good story. If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
David Jack Bell’s first novel, THE CONDEMNED, was released by Delirium Books in 2008. His next novel, THE GIRL IN THE WOODS will be released by Delirium in August of 2009. You can visit his website at www.davidjackbell.com.
South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz
Published by Chronicle Books 1995
I grew up in Southwest Ohio, just twenty minutes from the Indiana border, but I never appreciated the Hoosier state until I went to college there. People will think I’m crazy, even some Indiana residents, but for my money Indiana is the most beautiful state in our union. Get off the interstate, take a state highway through the farm land and small towns. It’s a little like going back in time. South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz is a novel about Indiana. It’s also about farming, and family, and adultery, and business, and more than anything else it’s about people who stubbornly go on and fight for what they believe in regardless of the odds. It’s as beautiful as the state it takes place in, as straightforward as its people. It’s a great book, and it deserves a wide audience.
The novel is narrated by and tells the story of Arthur Conason, a thirty-year-old ore boat worker who returns to his hometown—the fictional Delfina—after being temporarily laid off. With nothing better to do, Arthur moves into his childhood home—now empty and owned by someone else—and goes to work as a hired hand for the county’s most prosperous independent farmer, Gerry Maars. Arthur can be a difficult character to like. He’s distant from his family, often cold and judgmental toward others. When he becomes entangled in the lives of others in the town—including those of his brother’s family as well as a young waitress he meets—the results aren’t always pretty. But Arthur believes in work. He works and works and works.
Gerry Maars is the opposite of Arthur. He’s deeply connected to the community. He always does the right thing. And where Arthur falls back on cynical pessimism, Gerry Maars embraces outsized optimism. No problem can’t be conquered. There’s no obstacle too big for his power of positive thinking. What the two men share is the simple belief that a job worth doing is worth doing right. No matter what. They make an unlikely team, and their friendship is the heart of the book.
If you’ve ever wondered about the life of an independent farmer, this book will show it to you. The long hours, the battles against the weather and faulty equipment. It depicts the desperate struggle to hang on, to coax the bank into one more loan, one more extension. But the book isn’t relevant simply to farmers. How many independent businesses have fallen by the wayside, trounced by the encroachment of the Wal-Marts and Blockbusters of the world? This is a story about the little guy, the one who late twentieth century American life steamrolled. Sure he gets back up, wipes the blood off and prepares for the next round, but how long can he keep taking the beating? At what point does he quit? Kurtz—and Conason and Maars—might say never, and as a reader, you’ll cheer them on, but look around. The hour is getting late.
The novel moves quickly, at times with the pace of a thriller. There’s a terrific scene leading up to a shooting that will have you squeezing the pages until your knuckles pop. The descriptions of the landscape and our relationship to the land are breathtaking. Perhaps more than any book I have read, the characters in South of the Big Four have stayed with me the longest. I wish like hell I could know what they were doing now. I’d love to find that diner in Delfina where they have breakfast, just for the chance to hear their voices again. I don’t drive through Indiana as much as I used to, but when I do, and I see a lone farmer in a field, churning up the ground late in the evening as the sun sets, I like to believe it’s Gerry Maars, fighting the good fight and keeping on keeping on. If you read South of the Big Four, you’ll want to believe the same thing too.
Ed Gorman is the author of many crime and western novels and anthologies. His most recent is Sleeping Dogs. Find him at http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/
Paper Doll, Robert Parker
I haven't read Robert B. Parker regularly for years but occasionally I'll look back down the list for a book I haven't picked up. The other day I bought a copy of Paper Doll (1993) and I'm glad I did. This is Parker at his best.
Boston swell Loudon Tripp hires Spenser because the police haven't found the murderer of his wife. Tripp is obsessed with the woman, painting for Parker a portrait of a beautiful, elegant lady whose good works and kindness would have made the saints envious.
The action jumps back and forth from Boston to South Carolina as Spenser begins to paint his own portrait of the woman, one very different from Tripp's. The plot reminds me of a few of Hammett's Continental Op mysteries about wealthy families--lies upon lies, delusions upon delusions, false starts and dead ends that Spenser must somehow turn into truth. The South Carolina chapters are especially fine. Parker gives us a small Southern town that skirts the usual cliches because of a compelling relationship between an old black man and the old white man he works for. Neither is a fool and they are a long way from saints.
Susan isn't around much, Hawk even less. This is mostly Spenser working with a bulldog Boston detective named Quirk and a younger Boston cop whose lover is dying of AIDs. There is a long fight scene that is a small masterpiece. If I taught a writing class I'd use a few of the South Carolina chapters to show students what a scene should do, ebb and flow and then pay-off.
A book filled with real menace and real sadness. When Parker's on he's got few peers.
THE BEAST MUST DIE, Nicholas Blake. Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym for Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate of England toward the end of his life and Daniel's father. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he wrote a series of mysteries featuring detective Nigel Strangeways. I enjoyed all of his novels and remember THE BEAST MUST DIE most fondly. In the story, a crime writer's son is killed by a careless motorist and the man determines to have his revenge, but fate intervenes.
What makes this book especially interesting is Blake's examination of the possibility of an ethical murder. The novel was made into what is reputedly an excellent movie by Claude Chabrol in the sixties (yes available on DVD). All of Blake's books are enjoyable due to the superb writing and psychological acumen.
Nicholas Blake was chosen recently as one of the fifty best crime writers. The Times wrote, "The most intense of his thrillers, The Beast Must Die, still impresses as one of the most darkly compelling of psychological novels, in which a detective fiction writer plots a perfect murder, one he himself will commit. Blake's resourceful and well-read amateur investigator Nigel Strangeways is a distinctive sleuth, inveigling his way into the trust of his suspects via a loquacious charm."
Here are more forgotten books.
J. Kingston Pierce