Monday, May 25, 2015

"We're Going to Murder Him Again"

By Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970).
Edited and introduction by Bill Pronzini.
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2010. 268 pages: 13 stories.
For sale HERE.
When most people hear the name Erle Stanley Gardner, they immediately think of his most famous character creation, Perry Mason, but he was also an incredibly prolific pulp fiction writer.

Kevin Burton Smith tells us:
The fact is, before he'd even written a single novel, Gardner was one of America's most successful writers. He was truly the king of the pulps, writing millions and millions of words, cranking out a steady barrage of characters in everything from Black Mask to Argosy. Most of his stories dealt with one side or the other of the law (and often, both). A contemporary of Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett, Gardner had the longest run of any author in Black Mask, and wrote more stories for the magazine (more than a few under pseudonyms) than any other author. In fact, he probably created more characters, particularly continuing characters, for the magazine than any one else. Asked once why he wrote, Gardner confessed that "I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun." He succeeded on both counts. He favoured action and dialogue over characterization or overly-complicated plots, and tended to stress "speed, situation and suspense." It was just what the pulps wanted. . . . [Consequently h]e created at least three dozen characters for the pulps alone.
 . . . The last year that he wrote exclusively for the pulps, 1932, saw Gardner earning around 20,000 bucks, and that's at a few cents a word! Maybe not a fortune these days, but this was the Depression. To put it in perspective, those are Stephen King-like numbers.
In his pulp days, Gardner was notorious for killing off the final heavies with the last bullet in the hero's gun, which led to some editors teasing him about how all his good guys seemed to be such bad shots. Gardner's alleged explanation? "At three cents a word, every time I say 'Bang' in the story I get three cents. If you think I'm going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents' worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you're nuts."
One of the characters Gardner created for the pulps was The Patent Leather Kid, an unoriginal amalgamation of Zorro, Raffles the Gentleman Thief, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Gardner's principal contribution to this style of hero—the effete, indolent society fop he pretends to be while his alter ego tirelessly fights criminals and the official authorities when necessary—was to infuse his stories with the hardboiled sensibilities of Depression Era America. Even so, Gardner never let his Patent Leather Kid's exploits veer into sadism: The Kid was always on the side of right, and the reader knew it.

Thanks to Doug Greene at Crippen & Landru for bringing back The Patent Leather Kid and other pulp heroes from their undeserved oblivion.

Parental caution: Mild profanity and violence.

(1) "The Kid Stacks a Deck" (1932):
The touring car vomited a belching hail of death. Little tongues of stabbing flame darted from the cracks in the side curtains of the car.
Then a police bullet found the left rear tire as the car was midway in the turn.
It faltered, swung.
The driver flung his weight against the wheel. A shotgun bellowed, and the driver went limp. The car swung, toppled at the curb, skidded up and over, went sideways across the strip of sidewalk.
Plate glass crashed. Woodwork splintered. Metal screamed as it was wrenched apart.
A local criminal gang really has it in for The Patent Leather Kid and sets up an ambush. The Kid, meanwhile, sets out to prove that robbing a jewelry store equipped with the most up-to-date alarm systems isn't, as the store's owner boasts, "impossible" after all.

(2) "The Kid Passes the Sugar" (1932):
There was the roar of a gun. The Patent Leather Kid pressed the two wire ends together. The naked wires, making a contact, gave forth a blue spark of flame, and then, as the fuse burned out, every light in the place was extinguished.
The sub-machine gun rattled into action. Bullets sang through the store, crashing glass, smashing plaster, ripping long wood splinters.
Someone's gunning for The Kid but kills the wrong person. The Kid sets a trap with a shiny platinum watch as bait and an abused wife as a means of bringing the killer to justice.

(3) "The Kid Wins a Wager" (1932):
"It's the danger of a loss of police prestige that bothers me. This man keeps the underworld on the front page of the newspapers. He's always into something, and he always contrives to create an impression of having laughed at the police just the same as he laughs at the gang leaders.
"That's a dangerous bit of psychology. It won't be long until other people think they can run circles around the police department with that same casual ease. It makes us ridiculous. Why, dammit, here this man goes and gets the police to do his killings!"
The Patent Leather Kid sets out to help a woman in trouble with her boss, only to come up against another burglar who's quite capable of framing The Kid for his own crimes. If he's clever enough, The Kid might be able to escape the frame—and collect a large bet in the bargain.

(4) "The Kid Throws a Stone" (1932):
Then The Kid did a strange thing. He rummaged around the store until he found an unused storage drawer in a wrapping counter. There were bits of paper and string in this drawer, but the dust, the general mustiness, proclaimed that it had been long unused.
The Kid dumped the contents of the gem trays into this drawer. They made a glittering assortment of scintillating jewels, stacked in the dingy interior of an unused, dust-covered, cobwebby drawer.
Somebody's running around pretending to be The Patent Leather Kid, pulling off robberies in fancy Chryslers and making no effort to be subtle about it. The Kid must lay a trap for his doppelganger that, if successful, will not only clear him with the police but also aid a distressed damsel he's never met.

(5) "The Kid Makes a Bid" (1933):
There was the burly detective sitting in a swivel chair, his arms thrust under the arms of the chair, the wrists handcuffed behind him. The position was uncomfortable in the extreme, but effective insofar as it kept the man from moving. On the floor, lying on his back with his wrists lashed to the legs of a desk, his ankles tied to the wheels which were on the corner of a big, old-fashioned safe, lay Fancher Middleton, a man of sixty-three years of age, hard and solid, his glittering, greedy eyes staring malevolent hatred.
After several attempts at robbing a jewelry store, a thief apparently succeeds, taking some stones and cash with him and leaving two of the store's assistants hog-tied with ropes and handcuffs. The Kid's suspicions are aroused by the way the crime was committed, and he performs a rough "experiment" on an unscrupulous businessman, thereby thwarting two crimes simultaneously.

(6) "The Kid Muscles In" (1933):
The night was calm and peaceful.
Of a sudden, the frogs by the side of the road ceased their interrupted chirping. The distance snarled with the sound of tires and the roar of an open exhaust.
"The police," said The Patent Leather Kid, and lit another cigarette.
Two police cars flashed past the intersection, traveling at high speed. The Patent Leather Kid pressed his foot on the starter.
"Well," he said, "we might as well start for home."
The car purred into motion, slid smoothly to the intersection, turned back on the boulevard. The Kid pushed the throttle well down to the floorboards.
From behind them came the sound of gunfire. First an isolated shot or two—then the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun, interspersed with the boom of riot guns.
"Sounds like a Fourth of July celebration," said The Kid.
A doctor is murdered, and the prime suspect—a young man in love with the victim's niece—can't explain away his presence at the crime scene or his fingerprints on the murder weapon. It falls to The Patent Leather Kid to exonerate the falsely-accused in the way he knows best, breaking and entering with intent to catch the real bad guys.

(7) "The Kid Takes a Cut" (1933):
Possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the underworld, he was reputed to know more of the inside than any living man. Not that other men hadn't amassed an equal amount of knowledge. They simply hadn't continued to live. Elsewhere, knowledge may be power. But in the underworld, knowledge is a dangerous thing.
An ex-con gets the blame for a jewel robbery he didn't commit. His alibi—that a woman gave him the stones as a reward for a good deed—is, let's be frank, flimsy at best. Only the ex-con's wife can corroborate his story, but the police won't believe a word of it. The Kid must contrive an elaborate scheme involving matching train schedules to prove the man innocent, for otherwise the real thieves will soon be on their merry way.

(8) "The Kid Beats the Gun" (1933):
"You perhaps have forgotten," said J. Barclay McGann, in a tone of voice which would have graced a stage detective exposing the culprit just before the final curtain, "that a sailor ties knots in a distinctive manner. Some of the ropes which tied Mrs. Stanberry were cut free when she was liberated, so that the knots remained in their original condition. You were at one time, Pelton, a sailor. That, in itself, is sufficient to direct suspicion to you, after studying the knots, and the manner in which they were tied. Moreover, in the gag which was used, you doubtless thought you were leaving no clew, but it happens there was a laundry mark upon that gag. I have traced the laundry mark, and find that it was a laundry mark which was placed upon one of your handkerchiefs when you stayed in a hotel in San Francisco eight months ago. I think, therefore, you had better make a clean breast of the whole affair."
A famous—and vastly overrated—criminologist fingers the butler of a rich couple as the one who stole valuable jewels from them. The butler finally confesses, not to the theft, but simply to following orders. The Patent Leather Kid must intervene to prevent a miscarriage of justice and experiences the triple satisfaction of exposing a fraud, deflating an egomaniac's pomposity, and seeing an innocent man cleared.

(9) "The Kid Covers a Kill" (1933):
The night was cold, with just a hint of frost in the air. The stars were blazing steadily downward with frosty brilliance.
Over to the left, the business district of the city was sending a glare of light which was reflected from the impurities in the atmosphere which hung over the skyscrapers. Tall buildings loomed tier on tier of brilliant light. Out in the subdivision, the silence of the autumn night descended as a blanket upon the dark blotches which marked the unsold lots of the subdivision.
The dying woman lay in The Kid's arms and gave her story in whispers which were disconnected, whispers which, at best, were barely audible and which, at times, were interrupted by the noise of the bloody bubbles which came to her lips and broke with a peculiar rattling sound.
The face of The Patent Leather Kid was distorted with sympathy. His fingers stroked the forehead of the dying woman.
Over to one side, standing with bowed, bare head, Bill Brakey, an automatic dangling from either hand, listened attentively and in an attitude of silent reverence.
The man often referred to as The King of the Underworld operates almost entirely with impunity, unhindered by the police. To him, the lives of his victims don't mean very much. But when he brutally murders the sister of one of his underlings, The Patent Leather Kid gets involved—and for The King of the Underworld, that's a very unhealthy development.

(10) "The Kid Clears a Crook" (1934):
"Sometimes," said Heimer, "ice is pretty dangerous to handle, you might get your fingers burnt—that is, if it's hot."
The Patent Leather Kid pulled a chamois-skin bag from his pocket.
"If ice," he said, "didn't get hot at times, no one could make a profit out of it."
A small businessman with a criminal record tries to go straight but runs afoul of organized crime; they get him framed for a jewelry theft—enough of an injustice to attract The Kid's indignant notice. Before it's all over, The Kid will have fenced some hot ice, dodged numerous submachine gun bullets, and tickled a butler.

(11) "The Kid Clips a Coupon" (1934):
They moved as silently as shadows down the side street to the corner, waited until they heard the sound of a car, then peered out at the headlights that showed first as two gleaming eyes of white fire, then purred past, giving them a glimpse of the big sedan as it slid smoothly to a halt . . . . A man emerged from the car as automobile headlights came in sight down the street. The man paused to adjust a mask about the upper part of his face. From the interior of the big sedan came the sound of a woman's scream, a scream that was promptly suppressed.
A wealthy elderly woman has been murdered—by a tramp, according to the police—but The Kid doesn't think so. The whole thing smacks of an inside job—a case of discovered embezzlement—and The Kid must be proactive to head off another murder, even if it means kidnapping someone himself.

(12) "The Kid Cooks a Goose" (1934):
"What's the idea, Kid?" Brakey asked.
"We're going to commit a murder," The Kid told him.
"Who are we going to murder?"
"Sam Ashcroft."
"But he's already dead."
"We're going to murder him again," The Kid said grimly.
The underworld and the police have a common nemesis—and common cause to rid themselves of him—namely The Patent Leather Kid. The cops have let it be known—through unofficial channels, sub rosa, you understand—that if the criminal class terminates The Kid, they're willing to cut the crooks some slack. When The Kid receives news of this ad hoc arrangement to bump him off, it's without joyful enthusiasm. His characteristic response is to devise an impromptu plan that will not only clear him of a murder frame, neutralize several underworld kingpins, and save a woman's life, but also give a guinea pig his big chance to be a crime buster.

(13) "The Kid Steals a Star" (1934):
They ran back through the alley. Suddenly The Kid, in the lead, paused, gave a low whistle. The three flattened themselves into a doorway.
A car slid to a stop. Grim, purposeful men debouched from the car, came down through the alley on a run. The car drove for another half block, came to a stop.
"We'd better wait here," The Kid said, "until the shooting starts, and then we can be interested spectators."
During the course of a robbery at a jewelry store, a policeman is killed and the night watchman gets the blame. It gets worse for him when he foolishly tries to skip town; actually, he's been perfectly framed by the clever boss of a criminal gang. In order to clear the watchman and catch the crime boss in the act of swindling a jeweler, The Kid, with the able assistance of his bodyguard and an admiring telephone operator, must concoct a three-act "play" starring gangsters, gemstones, guns, and—if everything goes according to plan—a happy ending.

Random notes:

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, The Kid does see it as his duty to correct the deficiencies of the official police. — All of the members of the gentlemen's club are stereotypes. — Gardner always uses the word "conservative" with negative connotations. — These stories aren't mysteries in the traditional sense: The fun is watching The Kid improvising his way out of tight situations. — There's a lot of 1930s gangster slang. — The reader shouldn't try to read more than one story at a time: Gardner was clearly writing to a formula. Read one every few days to avoid tedium.

- Kevin Burton Smith's The Thrilling Detective webpage on Erle Stanley Gardner is HERE.
- There's a (presumably complete) Gardner bibliography HERE.
- The Wikipedia Gardner article is HERE.
- And Monte Herridge's Mystery*File article about the Kid is HERE.

Category: Crime fiction

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