Thursday, November 3, 2016

Rigging a Game to Catch a Killer

 Read/Watch 'em In Order #73

The next-to-last Ken Corning story ("Devil's Fire"--Black Mask, July 1933) is another fast-moving and fun adventure, though the ending is arguably a little weak.

The dirty NYC cops are once again framing an innocent man. Well, actually Corning's client this time around probably doesn't quality as innocent, but Corning doesn't think he has committed the particular crime of which he has been accused.

But there doesn't seem any possible way the client (George Pyle) could be innocent. He was in the street with the victim, clearly angry with him. There was a shot that witnesses say came from near Pyle. A woman saw him running away from the crime and toss a pistol away. The pistol is found and has Pyle's fingerprints on it.

Corning finds a friendly witness and stashes the guy away in a rooming house. But the friendly witness turns unfriendly and accuses Corning (in front of a police officer) of trying to suborn perjury. Corning quickly calls his secretary and sets up an improvised con on the cops, convincing them that certain conversations between  Corning and the witness had been recorded.

I love that part. Helen Vail, Corning's secretary, proves just as quick on her feet as her boss--adding several elements to the con on her own initiative that add verisimilitude to it. It continues to be clear that Erle Stanley Gardner is developing the character dynamic that he will use so successfully in the Perry Mason novels. Heck, the last two stories even had Corning employing the same detective agency for extra assistance.

But avoiding charges against himself doesn't get Corning any closer to clearing his client. To do this, Corning will have to set up yet another con--this one using a rigged target-shooting contest to flush out the real killer.

That's the part of the story I'm a little torn about. On the one hand, the con is a clever one and the end result is logical. But it was in no way a sure thing. Corning himself admits that his plan only had a one-in-a-thousand chance of working. So he successfully clears his client pretty much because he got really lucky.

Still, no one else would have caught the real killer at if it weren't for his plan. I felt the ending was a very small cheat, but this is very much a subjective opinion. And the rest of the story really is a lot of fun.

Just one more Ken Corning story to go, though. The first Perry Mason story would see print that same year and Gardner's other characters would begin a slow, sad slide into obscurity.

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