Thursday, November 17, 2016

Every Good Secretary Will Risk Getting Shot For Her Boss

Read/Watch 'em in Order #74

In each of the last five looks at Erle Stanley Gardner's stories about two-fisted lawyer Ken Corning, I identified the setting as New York City. Now I consider myself a good reader--I don't skim and I have good comprehension skills.

But despite this, I mentally replaced "York City" in every story with "New York City." Perhaps its because Gardner dropped Perry Mason into a real-life city. But Ken Corning was set in a faux NYC with the "New" dropped from it. Gee whiz.

I finally caught my error when I read the last story: "Blackmail with Lead" (Black Mask, August 1933). I now know that Corning works out of York City, not New York City. Just in time for this excellent series to come to an end.

Corning, as usual,takes on a case that pits him directly against the corrupt city administration. But why do the politicians care about this case? The victim was a hobo. The man accused of the murder is a hobo. Why does anybody care?

Corning at first hasn't the slightest idea. He searches for the truth--a task made harder because his client isn't telling the whole truth when he gives Corning an alibi.

The lawyer soon finds a witness who has some important information. But the witness is arrested by the cops for bootlegging and, when the charges are suddenly dropped, she suddenly changes her story.

This leaves Corning with the task of running down whatever tiny clues he can dig up and trying to make something out of them. This actually pays off, but to get to the whole truth, he has to ask Helen Vail, his loyal secretary, to act as bait to catch a killer. Helen, as usual, treats this sort of thing as a normal part of her job.

1933 was the same year Gardner published the first Perry Mason novel. In this story, Perry was a two-fisted tough guy who acted more like a hard-boiled P.I. than a lawyer--just like Ken Corning. Perry had a loyal secretary who would go above-and-beyond to help her boss--just like Ken Corning.

The Perry Mason novels were incredibly successful, so (even though Perry evolved into a less hard-boiled character) Gardner continued this particular template with those novels. Corning's career came to an abrupt end.

Well, we can't complain about Perry Mason--his existence in the pop culture universe is something we wouldn't want to live without. But Corning had his own personality and his stories--centering much more on political corruption and dirty cops--had a vibe different from the Mason novels. It would have been nice to visit with Ken a few more times.

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