Thursday, August 18, 2016

Perry Mason isn't the ONLY Lawyer in the World!

Read/Watch 'em In Order #69

Between the popularity of the Perry Mason novels and the success (both in terms of ratings and quality) of the classic TV series, other characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner are often forgotten. And that's too bad. Gardner created dozens of characters and I have yet to run across one of them I didn't enjoy hanging out with.

Ken Corning, for instance, is yet another lawyer--though his first adventure appeared a year before the first Mason adventure. Corning had a short but honorable career in Black Mask magazine in 1932 and 1933.

The stories have a different feel to them than the Mason tales. Corning is based in New York City, which Gardner portrays as corrupt--both politicians and cops are on the take. Corning has just set up shop as a lawyer, determined to accept only honest money.

This, in fact, is the title of his first adventure. "Honest Money" appeared in the November 1932 issue of Black Mask.

His client is a woman who was arrested for running a speakeasy. And she is clearly guilty of this. But if that were the only charge against her, Corning could probably get her off with a fine. But she's also charged with attempted bribery. This is particularly odd. The cops generally accept bribe offers. And why were they bothering to shut down a small, second-rate speakeasy anyways? And why did they do so in a hurry with incomplete information--it's the woman's husband who hires Corning and the husband is himself free because the cops didn't know about him.

And why is a political boss offering Corning a nice bribe to just plead guilty?

It's an odd case--made odder when the woman's husband is gunned down outside Corning's office. But a smashed fender on the dead man's car gives Corning a clue to what's going on. He sets up a trap, depending on one of the few honest policemen in New York to help him out.

If Corning can himself avoid being taken for a ride, he might be able to get his client freed.

Gardner shows a lot of skill as a storyteller when he wraps up the story. One bad guy is caught and a scheme is foiled, but most of the true villains are still free. That Gardner is setting up a story arc that will continue through more stories. Since the first three Ken Corning tales would appear in three successive issues of Black Mask, its likely that Gardner sold them as a package deal to the magazine.

Despite this, the ending is satisfying even when taken on its own. Corning has done right by his client, he's earned some honest money and he is here to stay, ready to buck the dishonest officials again and again when he needs to do so. The story works because Corning is victorious as an honest and honorable man, not because he saves the city in one fell swoop. Gardner constructs the plot and develops the protagonist in just the right way to make this work.

We also meet Helen Vail, Ken's beautiful and devoted secretary who can be depended on to go the extra mile to help him out. The dynamic is identical to what Gardner would also use with Perry Mason & Della Street, though Helen is a little more extroverted than Della. It's obviously a character dynamic that Gardner liked and found useful as a storyteller. We'll see Helen being even more proactive next time we check in on Ken Corning.

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