Thursday, September 8, 2016
On the Run from the Law for... Breaking a Camera?
Read/Watch 'em In Order #70
Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels started out very hard-boiled, with Mason pretty much acting as a private eye as he tough-guyed his way to solving murders and clearing the names of his falsely-accused clients. But, though he could always be tough, the Mason stories evolved into the excellent but more cozy murder mysteries usually climaxed by wonderful courtroom scenes.
But--as we saw in our look at the first of the Ken Corning stories that appeared in Black Mask, Perry wasn't the only hard-boiled lawyer who used P.I methodology that Gardner unleashed upon the world.
What sets the Corning stories apart from Mason is the theme of government corruption that drips from the pages. Corning works in New York City, which was just as corrupt in the pulp universe as it often is in real life. In his initial outing, Corning was able to foil a plot to give a civil service post to a crook and caught a murderer. But the killer was a pretty low-level thug. Political boss Carl Dwight and a corrupt cop named Perkins are still free.
The second story is "The Top Comes Off," (December 1932 issue of Black Mask), in which Corning is hired by the wife of a man accused of murder. The odd thing about this is that the murdered man was the wife's lover.
A reporter barges into Corning's office to get a picture of the wife. Corning tosses the guy out and breaks the camera. The reporter goes running to the cops. Corning, by now, realizes that an aspect of the case ties it into the city's political machine. The minor charge is trumped up and soon there's a warrant out for Corning's arrest.
So he gets faithful secretary Helen Vail to stash the wife away in a hotel room under a false name. He registers at another hotel under another false name. Then, while being careful to leave no trail, he begins looking into the murder.
This involves interviewing several witnesses and breaking into the murdered man's office to look for evidence--it really does feel very much like a private eye story.
But it works and, within the context of a hard-boiled universe, Corning's actions make sense. Soon, he has enough evidence to convince him that the corrupt cop he ran into in the previous story is the real killer. But to get legal proof, he'll need to convince one of the few honest cops in the city to help him set up a trap.
Like pretty much all of Gardner's yarns, "The Top Comes Off" is a well-paced story with a good plot and a satisfying resolution. Once again, the high muckity-mucks in the city government are still free, but Corning is chipping away at their organization.
I also enjoy the interplay between Corning and Helen. As I mentioned in my last Corning review, she's a little more extroverted than was Della Street. Also, Corning and Helen are a little more regularly overt in their attraction to each other than Perry and Della usually were. Where Della was adamant that Perry needed her more as a secretary than a wife, Helen gives the impression she would jump to the altar with Ken pretty much any time. But Gardner is too good a storyteller to waste too much time on romantic mush--he keeps the repartee between Corning and Helen fast and witty and keeps our concentration focused on the murder mystery.
This is wise. Murder is always more interesting than marriage.