No "Official Forgotten Books" next week, November 5.
A new flash piece up at Flash Fiction Offensive.
Sarah J. Wesson is a local history librarian by day, writer of con-game fiction by night, and all-around sleep-deprived, chai latte addict. She blogs at Earful of Cider
THE CASE OF THE LUCKY LEGS, Erle Stanley Gardiner
While Earle Stanley Gardiner can hardly be called a forgotten author, nor Perry Mason a forgotten character, the books that first introduced these icons to the public appear to be fading from memory. Or at least they are in my library, where most of them have been relegated to the large print shelves so that the patrons who grew up reading about the singular cases of the granite-hard defense attorney can enjoy them without squinting.
The earliest Gardiner in our collection is The Case of the Lucky Legs. First published in 1933, it was the fifth of what would be roughly eighty-two Perry Mason adventures. Stilted by our standards, with rigid standards of grammar and punctuation, and---heaven forbid---not a few adverbs, this mystery still grabs the imagination and keeps it there until the last page.
The case starts with a provocative photograph of a pair of shapely female legs, sent to the lawyer by a prominent businessman, who wants Mason to do something about a fraud that has hurt a young lady of his acquaintance. It seems that a movie studio man has been conning innocent girls into competing in a Lucky Legs contest, the winner of which is promised a screen career that never materializes. Unfortunately, there is no legal recourse unless the con man confesses.
Unlike the televised, post World War II Perry Mason who has entered our cultural lexicon, the Perry Mason of the 1930s wasn't afraid to get his hands or his ethics dirty---he basically agrees beat a confession out of the huckster, though he does pause to square this plan with the county prosecutor before heading to the man’s hotel. In the lobby, he bumps into a frightened young lady with good-looking gams, so it comes as no surprise---to the reader or our hero---that Mason discovers the murdered body of the con man. Moments before the police arrive, alerted by a neighbor who heard a woman’s screams, Mason extracts himself by a bit of slick trickery and gets to work.
It seems odd that Perry Mason doesn’t set foot in a courtroom in Lucky Legs---he didn't settle into regular trial work until later in the series. It’s clear that Gardiner is till getting to know his character and hadn’t quite settled on his formula. But Mason does tamper with a crime scene, trap himself in a legal corner or two, smoke enough to stun a camel, and bring the murderer to justice at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour despite numerous red herrings. Furthermore, his client is as lovely and clueless as they come and the man footing the bill is an interfering, opinionated pain in the tuchus. Della Street is smart, sassy, and loyal, while Paul Drake is hangdog, hungry, and resourceful.
These are among the golden elements that have kept Perry Mason going for almost eighty years. They’re well worth a revival, not only as the prototypes to modern legal procedurals or slices of social history, but as terrific who-on-earth-dunnits.
I confess that I check out these books fairly often to keep them off the weeding reports. If that's a crime, I doubt even Hamilton Berger, Mr. Mason's D.A. foil and frenemy, could bring himself to prosecute.Ed Lynskey is an American poet, critic, and novelist, mostly of crime fiction. He was born in Washington, D.C. where he still lives and works. His first four books are mysteries featuring his Private Investigator, Frank Johnson: The Dirt-Brown Derby (2006), The Blue Cheer (2007), Pelham Fell Here (2008), and Troglodytes (2010). A P.I. Frank Johnson short collection is Out of Town a Few Days (2004). A P.I. Sharon Knowles short story collection is A Clear Path to Cross (2008).
WIVES AT WAR, Jessica Stirling (Hugh C. Rae)
As a general rule, I shy away from reading the longer novels, and this one that clocks in at 475 pages is a long novel, at least for me. But the story unfolds nicely and at a snappy enough pace to qualify it as a "fast read".
Wives at War is marketed as a historical romance, though I didn't encounter all that much "romance" in its storyline. The narrative chronicles three very different sisters--though all are headstrong and resilient--living in Glasgow, Scotland, on the brink of World War II. Hitler's war planes are bombing London, and they also destroy parts of the Scottish cities, an interesting historical fact unknown to me. The sisters do fall in and out of love, so maybe that's the romance part, though bomb-ravaged Scotland isn't a very romantic spot.
I like the author's prose: accessible, vivid, and skillful. High marks are given also for the settings and characterizations. The ending sort of leaves you hanging, and I suspect there is a sequel, though I haven't researched it.
In sum, I enjoyed my time spent in Wives at War, and that's what reading is really all about, now isn't it?
Ed Gorman is the author of Stranglehold among many other fine crime and western stories. You can find him here Forgotten Books: A Purple Place For Dying
Of all the Travis McGee novels, this strikes me as the one that would have been right at home in Black Mask magazine in its prime. This is McGee just before he goes all Iconic Hero on us. Here he's a little grittier, a little humbler and a lot angrier for a good sound reason--the buxom blonde rich woman who hires him to get some dirt on her husband (she suspects he's embezzling her money) is blown away before his eyes in a grim stretch of Southwestern desert.
I mention Black Mask because as all of those boys (and those few girls) knew you had to keep twisting and turning your tales to keep audiences interested. And this book has enough surprises, blind alleys and shocks to rival the most calculated beach book. Plus it's interesting to watch how McGee has to outwit not only the mysterious people who killed the woman but also the law. You have to go all the way back to Erle Stanley Gardner's fine Whispering Sands series to find a novel where the desert is as much a a character as most of the people in the book.
JDM also shows us a slice of desert life, how so many aspects of daily life are calibrated to compensate for the troubles and dangers of living here. As always his portraits of people are spot on. He was one of the first crime writers I read who was able to create characters who were a mixture of bad and good. And here we meet people we shouldn't like much but are forced to because of circumstances.
I've never been sure why A Purple Place For Dying is rarely mentioned in the McGee honor role. To me it's a fine, grim take on the classic desert story as seen through the eyes of a weary, nearly broke, often perplexed McGee.