Erle Stanley Gardner | Black Mask, Ed Jenkins, and the pulp style of plotting | Intervention | Explosions | Lester Leith and puzzle plots | Paul Pry | Ken Corning and other pulp detectives | Impossible Crimes | The first Perry Mason novel | Perry Mason and puzzle plots | Doug Selby | Perry Mason books sharing imagery with The D.A. Draws a Circle | Gramp Wiggins | The Case of the Hesitant Hostess

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Erle Stanley Gardner

Dead Men's Letters

Uncollected Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook stories

The Adventures of Paul Pry

The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith

Honest Money

The Patent Leather Kid stories

Pete Wennick stories

Jerry Bane stories

Uncollected Gardner stories

The Case of the Crimson Kiss

The Case of the Irate Witness

The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938)

The Bigger They Come (1939)

The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) (Chapters 1-8, 15)

The Case of the Baited Hook (1940) (Chapters 1-6, 10)

The Case of the Empty Tin (1941)

The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1941 - 1942)

Owls Don't Blink (1942) (Chapters 1-6)

Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)

The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942)

The Case of the Borrowed Brunette (1946)

Crows Can't Count (1946)

The Case of the Hesitant Hostess (1953)

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955)

The above list contains my favorite Erle Stanley Gardner stories, the ones I personally enjoyed, and recommend reading. Please click here for a complete bibliography of his work, external to this web site.


Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner's main story series have a consistent point of view. His pulp series, such as Ed Jenkins, Lester Leith, or the Patent Leather Kid, tend to be about sympathetic crooks. These crooks are powerful figures who stand up for the little guy. They defy the police, the first "seriously", the last two humorously tweaking their noses. His main novel series, the Perry Mason books, are not about a crook, but their principal character also defies the police and authority. Mason helps people in trouble. Leith and the Kid were both gentlemen of (ill-gotten) wealth, and were powerful sources of support for the little guy in the Depression. Mason is also a figure of great success and substance. All represent very powerful men who intervene between the authorities and people in trouble. Although the Leith tales recall Arsène Lupin, and the Jenkins other rogue stories, Gardner goes beyond these traditions. Most of the rogues were out for themselves. All of Gardner's characters make a good living out of what they do, but they all seem to help ordinary people along the way. Their anti-authoritarian actions seem to have a democratic or rebellious side to them, not just to be a perverse gesture flung in the face of authority like the rogues.

One might note that the "little guys" helped by Jenkins and Leith tend to be women; so are many of Mason's clients. Since pulp readers were stereotypically male, this can hardly be to promote reader identification. It is part of a general "female orientation" in Gardner's work, a consistent sympathy and respect for women. Most of the women in the Leith tales are working women of one sort or another, and anticipate Della Street and her classically sympathetic working woman. Women in the Jenkins tales are often either flappers or their mothers, in keeping with the F. Scott Fitzgerald atmosphere of these stories. In The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938), the heroine Sylvia Martin is a reporter with a brilliant mind and a devotion to success in her job, facts mentioned twice as Gardner's main characterization of her (Chapters 3 and 7). Her rival for the D.A.'s affection, rich Inez Stapleton, leaves at the end of the book to go to law school and make something of herself.

Gardner's fiction is a vast ocean, most of it completely unexplored. Only a relatively few of his pulp tales have been reprinted (eight volumes to date, plus some tales in anthologies), although many of those that have been are of high quality. He also wrote a vast number of novels, which are much more obtainable. Many, perhaps most, of these novels are very mediocre. They are morally wholesome and unobjectionable, but lack all plotting inspiration. Unlike Carr, Christie or Queen, he was not a consistent producer of high quality fiction. Gardner at his best, however, was a much more interesting author. Here we survey some of the major trends of his career.

Black Mask and the pulp style of plotting

Gardner's first important mystery work appeared in the pulp Black Mask. He was preceded by Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly, who are widely considered to be the originators of the "hard-boiled" style of detective fiction. This claim is plausible but very hard to evaluate, because most of Black Mask fiction from that era (the 1920's) is not widely available. Hammett's work, which was at its artistic peak with the Continental Op stories of 1923 - 1928, certainly is a remarkable body of work, and is surely a major ancestor of the ultra tough school of fiction of the 1930's.

However, not all pulp fiction is tough or hard-boiled, at least not to the extent found in Hammett, Nebel's Dick Donovan tales, Paul Cain, Todhunter Ballard, Forrest Rosaire, Lester Dent's Oscar Sail stories, or Raymond Chandler. These writers represent an extremely hard-boiled tradition, but a great deal of pulp fiction is not especially like this. Much instead involves mystery stories in what might be called the "pulp adventure" tradition. This tradition found its greatest outlet in Dime Detective magazine from 1931 to 1945, but it appeared in many other pulps of the 1930's and 1940's as well. While this tradition peaked in the pulps, it also influenced some mystery books of the era, such as Bengal Fire (1937) by Lawrence G. Blochman.

The stories of this tradition were what many people think of when they think of a typical pulp detective story. They involve a complex, imaginative, well constructed plot, lots of action, breezy dialogue and story telling, and courageous, adventurous lead characters. There is often a great deal of humor, and an atmosphere of pleasant escapism. There is a lot of action, but not the emphasis on shocking, raw brutality often found in the hard-boiled tales. Nor is there so much emphasis on stylistically creative description, as there is in Hammett and Chandler and Dent. The prose is much simpler.

There is often a common style of plotting, where many different groups of crooks and good guys interact, often in surprising ways, around some goal. I have labeled this technique "the pulp style of plotting"; although it is hardly found in all pulp tales, of course, it is in fact very widespread in pulp writing. This tradition's origins are equally obscure as that of hard-boiled fiction proper, but some early exemplars are now available. A pioneer of this tradition was Carroll John Daly. His "Three Gun Terry" (1923) was reprinted in William F. Nolan's Black Mask Boys, where it was cited as the pioneering work of private eye fiction. It is an engaging tale, and a fascinating one as a landmark in detective fiction history. "Terry" shows some important features of pulp writing. It shows the pulp style of plotting, and is the earliest work known to me that does. There are several disparate groups of characters, here, the girl, her uncle, her fiancé, and the various hoods, each one of which is independently trying to achieve some goal, in this case to find a chemical formula. When something happens, the reader is unsure which character group is precipitating the action. Some of the characters tell ingenious lies. What is actually going on can be puzzling, and this puzzling element functions, sort of, as the equivalent of a Golden Age story's puzzle plot.

Another important example of the early "pulp style of plotting" is Dead Men's Letters, a collection of stories published in Black Mask in 1926 - 1927 by Erle Stanley Gardner. These stories all feature Ed Jenkins, a.k.a. The Phantom Crook. They represent the pulp style of plotting to a T, and are the second earliest examples of this fiction known to me. Daly's tale, and presumably some of his other uncollected early work, clearly served as a model for Erle Stanley Gardner. His Ed Jenkins tales bear a family resemblance to Daly's work, features in common including: the pulp style of plotting, lots of gunplay, the invasion of houses full of crooks, a hero half way between the police and the underworld, and an innocent but glamorous young heroine in danger.

Gardner was an immensely prolific, popular, and widely published writer in the early pulps, and if he didn't invent this style, he certainly had the opportunity, along with Daly, to help spread it far and wide in the pulp world. Gardner was a smoother writer than Daly, with a more assured plotting technique. Reading his work, other writers would see that the "pulp adventure" style was something that could be mass produced and extended indefinitely. I'm looking forward to reading much more of his early work. The first three tales in Letters are especially good. Oddly, there is a distinct sign of influence by F. Scott Fitzgerald at work in the first two of these tales. These are set in a world of debutante flappers and their romances, exactly the characters and setting of Fitzgerald's immensely popular Saturday Evening Post tales of the period.

Intervention

In many of Erle Stanley Gardner's pulp tales, such as the Ed Jenkins and Patent Leather Kid stories, the protagonist is a sympathetic crook who preys on really bad crooks. He learns about some scheme of theirs, then puts in plan his own counter operation, one that will delicately interfere with their work, prevent harm to the innocent, expose them to the police, and grab their loot. Both scheme and counterscheme are complex and detailed, with several ingenious features. Oftentimes, in actual execution, things go somewhat wrong, and require still further adjustments.

A somewhat similar game plan will be found later in many Perry Mason tales. Here Perry interferes with the police, and with evidence left behind by his clients. He lays elaborate schemes to interfere with this reality, and make it look completely different. While the motives are different, the same plotting imagination is behind both the "good crooks" of the pulps and Perry Mason.

Explosions

Some of Gardner's short stories deal with worlds that move to explosive, fiery violence, reminiscent of the films of Fritz Lang. These works include "Hell's Kettle" and "The House of Three Candles". Even the titles include heat in them. The images are not apocalyptic, in the sense of indicating the end of the world, but instead often portray violent battles between good and evil - which of course is also an image out of apocalyptic literature. Gardner's stories tend to show bad guys' violence being turned on them by more innocent people - in both of these cases, by wronged women. This is related to the common Gardner plot of the hero interfering in the schemes of the villains. There is also a sense in both works of bad guys' violence getting completely out of control, and destroying their own world.

In both cases the violence is associated in the stories with, but not caused by, China and the Chinese. Gardner was at one time lawyer for most of a Chinese community in California, and was very sympathetic to their problems and concerns.

Gardner's women are often at the center of both the mystery and the violence of his plots. Many of these women are willful and sexual, including both gangster's molls, and the adulterous women who show up so regularly in the Perry Mason tales. Gardner's portrait of women seems to draw on commonly held beliefs that women are a source of repressed energy in society, one that can come to the fore in many explosive ways.

Lester Leith and puzzle plots

The Lester Leith tales Gardner wrote in the 1930's and 40's seem completely different. Gardner's Lester Leith stories contain puzzle plots. At least 4 of the 5 that have been reprinted out of the circa 75 Gardner wrote for Detective Fiction Weekly, in The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith, a 1980 collection edited by Ellery Queen. The puzzle plots are usually fairly well done; in and of themselves, they could support a 15 page story of the kind Agatha Christie was so good at. On top of this, Gardner consistently adds another feature: the development of an elaborate con by Lester Leith, designed to both solve the crime, and steal the ill gotten gains of the criminal. This con job is full of surreal and baroque elements; it tends to be wild, comic and bizarre. This con job is very different from the-interfere-in-the-criminals'-scheme approach that Gardner used in his Ed Jenkins tales, or in the Patent Leather Kid story, "The Kid Clips a Coupon" (1934). Rather, it is a full fledge con. The reader is privy to elements Leith will use in the scheme, but not the scheme itself, and now has a second puzzle to unravel: what is Leith up to? These two puzzles interact in interesting ways, as they are both gradually unraveled by the story. Leith often explains the deductive logic he used to deduce the criminal and understand his crime. This deduction seems almost as relentlessly logical as Sherlock Holmes or Ellery Queen, and shows a surprising commitment by Gardner to the full paradigm of the puzzle plot, not just a mystery, but also its fair play solution through deduction from clues. While there is a detective (Leith) solving the first crime; there is no detective figure solving the mystery of Leith's activities. These activities simply unroll in front of the reader's eyes. They are different from anything I know of, inside or outside of pulp fiction. They have broad similarities to the kinds of cons in 1970's and later films, such as The Sting or the TV series Switch. They have some similarities to the schemes used by Arsène Lupin in his later, detectival appearances, such as Jim Barnett Intervenes (1928). And more remotely to the schemes of The Adjusters. The Jimmie Dale stories by Frank L. Packard seem to be Gardner's most likely "jumping-off point". This crook-detective was very popular in America in the decade leading up to Ed Jenkins and Lester Leith. Leith also has the sartorial elegance and police tweaking style of the Rogue tradition. But Gardner's surreally elaborate cons seem to be a personal achievement all his own.

Of the stories in the EQ collection, the weakest is the first, "In Round Figures" (1930). It does have a colorful con, and serves to familiarize readers with the Leith formula. The figure of the fat woman in this tale anticipates Bertha Cool, Gardner's gargantuan female private eye. "The Bird in the Hand" (1932) is a nicely done piece of storytelling. It is closest to the "hard-boiled" world of any of the 5 tales. This era of the early 1930's was the depth of the Depression, and the hard-boiled world seemed to "fit" many readers experience. Also, the hard-boiled style was "spreading" in this period, to a new generation of writers in Black Mask, and to magazines such as Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly here, through the defection of Black Mask writers such as Gardner. "A Thousand to One" (1939) has the best puzzle plot of the five stories. The locked room puzzle of "The Exact Opposite" (1941) is also good. We are getting close in time to The Case of the Careless Kitten (1942), Gardner's masterpiece in the puzzle plot novel. "Lester Leith, Magician" (1939) has very lively storytelling centering around magic; the puzzle plot elements are close to zero here, however. The tale is the closest among the five stories to the "pulp style of plotting", in which different groups of characters are all competing at cross purposes, here to obtain a necklace of pearls. Gardner was an early exponent of the "pulp style", in the 1920's, and used it extensively in his Ed Jenkins stories. This story also shows Gardner's sympathies with the Chinese. A sociological note: a dropped and shattered plate in Leith's magic act is said by Gardner to be noteworthy to women in the audience because they regard such an event as a "domestic tragedy". That was true for the poor people who were Gardner's main readers in the pulps, but not at all for the rich socialites on the cruise ship in the story who were Leith's fictional audience. Here the mask of luxury that permeates the Leith stories slips, revealing the reality of hard times beneath.

The other Leith story available today is "The Candy Kid" (1931), reprinted in The Case of the Crying Swallow, a Gardner collection. Neither its puzzle plot, nor Leith's scheme to recover some stolen rubies, is as clever as the best tales in the EQ collection. But it is full of colorful events, and makes pleasant reading.

Paul Pry

Gardner also wrote a similar series of tales about Paul Pry. The Adventures of Paul Pry (1989) collects 9 of the 27 Paul Pry stories that appeared in pulp magazines in the 1930's. Paul Pry is sort of a poor man's Lester Leith. The Paul Pry stories of Gardner are simpler than other Gardner crook preying on crook tales. In such works as "The Racket Buster" (1930) and "The Daisy-Pusher" (1930), the initial scheme of the crook, and Paul Pry's countering scheme, have little to do with each other. Each scheme shows entertaining plot ingenuity, however, and the stories have pep and bounce.

"Hell's Danger Signal" (1932) shows Gardner moving away from the Lester Leith like plot and counterplot format, and towards a close approximation to the "pulp style of plotting". Lola Beeker in this story is one of Gardner's strong independent women. It is a kind of personality towards which he had much affection, but also one which he exploited for comedy. Such characters are always doing things that no "conventional" woman of the day would do, and the narration is always pointing this fact up. Lola Beeker is remarkably beautiful, but a later incarnation of the type will be the decidedly unglamorous private eye Bertha Cool. Her introduction in her first novel The Bigger They Come (1939), is one of Gardner's best character sketches.

"Dressed to Kill" (1933) introduces a puzzle plot into the Paul Pry stories. Simpler than those in the Lester Leith tales, the puzzle is still nicely done. The whole story is one of the pleasantest pieces of escapism in the series. Pry shows gallantry towards an older woman in the tale; Gardner clearly admired and liked women. This tale and the other Paul Pry stories show a lot of metaphors based on fishing; Gardner loved this in real life.

The scheme/counterscheme approach of the Paul Pry tales began before the series began, and survived its demise. For example, the Ed Jenkins tale "Come and Get It" (1927) shows the kind of scheming that will later be found in the Pry tales. Similarly, in The Case of the Baited Hook (1940), Perry Mason gets involved in schemes that resemble those of Mr. Pry: see the second half of Chapter 6, when he finds out the identity of a recalcitrant witness, and Chapter 8, where he sets up a faked killing.

After World War II, Gardner revived the idea of the Paul Pry series, but with a new hero, Jerry Bane. "The Affair of the Reluctant Witness" (1949) has no puzzle plot; it has a simple criminal scheme versus a counter scheme pulled off by Bane. The tale even brings back Paul Pry's sidekick Mugs Magoo to serve in a similar role as Bane's assistant. While the plot of the tale is fairly simple, the story has undeniable charm. Bane himself is subtly different from Gardner's pre-war characters like Leith and Pry. He is younger, or at least more naive acting, more middle class, more ordinarily respectable, and with less elegance or panache. A returning war veteran, Bane is a handsome young man who disdains work and wants to have fun. He resembles in a comic way many similar good looking young men who don't want to work in Gardner's novels. These novel characters tend to have moralistic fingers wagged at them by older authority figures, who urge them to repent and get jobs. They often tend to get into deep trouble in the books, especially through gambling or embezzlement, although they are rarely the murderer or chief villains of the stories. In "The Affair of the Reluctant Witness" all this is burlesqued; the older authority figure chews Bane out in the same way, but he is presented as a joyless fogey who gets his comic comeuppance at the end, while Bane is seen sympathetically. Gardner clearly was of two minds about these young men characters.

Ken Corning and other pulp detectives

Gardner also wrote some pulp story series about straightforward detectives, non-crooks who solve crimes. Haughty, Philo Vance like loner Sidney Zoom and his trained police dog Rip, appeared in DFW in the 1930's. The two tales reprinted today, "The Vanishing Corpse" and "The First Stone" (both from mid 1931), are just plain lousy. Considering all the antagonism Gardner's other characters feel for the police, it is odd to see Zoom's good relations with the cops, a relationship clearly modeled after those of the Philo Vance stories. Reed Sampsel solved mysteries (in Dime Detective) that came to him in his business as a palmist. Sampsel has an office and a loyal secretary; as a character he reminds one of Perry Mason. He is a high powered business man, and something of a know it all, always pontificating about what makes for success in life, just like Mason. Such high toned sermonizing was very big in 1930's mainstream fiction, reaching a peak of sorts in the novels of James Hilton. "The Hand of Horror" (1933), the only tale available today, is full of gruesome horror effects. The tale might be "sick", but it is not boring.

Much better are the tales Gardner wrote about Ken Corning, a young lawyer. The six stories appeared in Black Mask in late 1932 and 1933, and have all been collected in Honest Money (1991). Corning has a fantastically loyal, hard working, intelligent and clever secretary, Helen Vail, who reminds one a lot of Della Street, Perry Mason's secretary. A distinguishing feature of the Corning tales is that they take place in "York City", a town run by a corrupt political machine and its crooked cops and D.A's office. So Corning is constantly fighting both rich powerful people and their police stooges. His character here has as many run-ins with the police as Gardner's crook characters, such as Ed Jenkins and Lester Leith. Civic corruption was a persistent theme in Black Mask in 1932. For example, see Ed Lybeck's "Kick-Back" (January 1932) and Raoul Whitfield's "Inside Job" (February 1932). The magazine showed real guts taking on this theme, and clearly felt that it was doing a public service by discussing this issue. The Corning tales all show him investigating some mystery. The mystery usually comes to some sort of ingenious solution, although the stories are not quite fair play puzzle plots. The greatest emphasis is on Corning's detective work, vigorous, well done attempts to solve the crimes. This detective work is in the classic mystery tradition, one that ultimately goes back to Anna Katherine Green, although Gardner was probably not directly influenced by her.

Corning has been seen by some critics as a dry run for Perry Mason. There is certainly some truth to this: both are loner lawyers who take on the system; both have loyal secretaries, and employ private detectives to help research their cases; both are described as mainly being "fighters", an attribute that combines machismo with the sort of gumption that was admired during the Depression. (Despite this, Corning solves most of his cases as much through brain power and good old fashioned detective work, as he does through his feistiness). But there are differences, as well. Corning is a lot younger and inexperienced acting than Mason. The early Mason books depicted him as fairly sleazy, and as part of a sleazy milieu. By contrast, Corning is a completely upstanding and admirable character. He might have to constantly fight police corruption, but there is nothing corrupt about him. What is true is that after Gardner created Mason in 1933, he published no more tales about Corning. This is too bad, because the best Corning tales are well done mysteries.

Gardner wrote 3 Black Mask stories in the late 1930's about Pete Wennick, a legal figure who was a bit more of a shyster than Perry Mason ever was. "Leg Man" (1938), the only one available today, is a mild tale with some not bad plot twists. It is notable for its extreme cynicism of tone, especially about marriage and divorce. It contrasts with the pious tone of moral uplift which dominates the Perry Mason tales (after the first few hard-boiled ones), many of which contain little mini-sermonettes on the proper attitudes needed for making it as a businessman and being a success in life.

Impossible Crimes

Elderly Sheriff Bill Eldon appeared in two novellas in the 1940's; they were collected in the book Two Clues (1947). "The Clue of the Runaway Blonde" (1945) shows the realistic side of tampering with evidence. Perry Mason and other Gardner characters always enjoyed tampering with evidence, altering it with abandon and never suffering any consequences for it. Here a more sober realism prevails, and we see the frightening, life ruining consequences of such a felony. These aspects of the story made me nervous, and the novella is fairly stressful reading. Much better is the mystery plot itself, which contains a pretty well done impossible crime. Gardner's impossible crime technique is eclectic here; it involves both mechanical ingenuity and psychological trickery. Gardner utterly eschews any supernatural atmosphere here. Instead his interest seems piqued by a complexly laid out crime scene, something that comes across with great visual intensity. Today we would say that the crime scene has "mandala" like elements to it, as a complex geometrical pattern that is meditated on throughout the story; but probably such a concept was not explicitly in Gardner's mind in the 1940's. Gardner's story reminds one a bit of other impossible crime tales of the era that were also set in the outdoors: Ellery Queen's "The Lamp of God" (1935), John Dickson Carr's She Died a Lady (1943), and Fredric Brown's "Whistler's Murder" (1946).

Gardner's "A Year in a Day" (1930) is a science fiction novella, inspired by such tales as Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905) and A.E.W. Mason's "The Clock". Although it starts out looking like an impossible crime, the impossibility is soon explained by science fictional ideas. The best part of the story is Chapter 1; it has good storytelling, and a tabloid reporter who talks entirely in headlines; this is quite funny and clever. The scenes in a sinister doctor's office anticipate those in "The Hand of Horror" (1933). There is perhaps something autobiographical in this tale of speeded up time. It occurs in the story by speeding up an individual's metabolism. Gardner himself seemed to live at a much faster pace and get far more done per hour than the average person. The story perhaps shows in an exaggerated way his own perceptions of rapid living. It also reflects the perennial anxiety of his characters to make the most of their time, to be efficient.

The first Perry Mason novel

If Gardner's Ed Jenkins tales were inspired by Carroll John Daly, the first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), shows the influence of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1929). Like Sam Spade, the Perry Mason of this book is a tough, semi-sleazy operative, with a personal code of honor, but existing in a halfway world between crooks and honest people. Like Spade, he is a loner, supported only by his secretary; and like Spade, he is out for money. The book also has a Brigid O'Shaughnessy character, in Eva Griffin, who lies, bats her blue eyes at men to manipulate them, and has aliases. Like Spade, Perry puts her off, and is on to her scheming. Perry's secretary Della even chews him out for his lack of loyalty to Eva, just as Spade's secretary does her boss at the end of Falcon. After the serious appearance of Brigid throughout Falcon, Gardner plainly felt readers were familiar with such a character, because Eva and her escapades are played at least a little bit for laughs throughout Claws. Later filmmakers have also felt Brigid was humorous: such diverse actresses as Bette Davis (Satan Met A Lady - William Dieterle, 1936), Barbara Bain (Goodnight, My Love - Peter Hyams, 1972), and Stephane Audran (The Black Bird - David Giler, 1975) have had a field day spoofing her. In fact, there is a surprising amount of humor in this first Perry Mason novel, unlike the largely serious later books of the series. Some of the satire about politics seems more timely than ever.

The best parts of this book are the pre-murder portions (the first six chapters), which form a pretty good hard-boiled story, gripping and fast moving. They are also the parts that most resemble The Maltese Falcon. The rest of the book is one of Gardner's flatly plotted murder mysteries. Already, here in 1933, Gardner has "perfected" his laborious Mason novel plotting technique. All too many of the Mason books will be written in this style. Mason becomes much less hard-boiled in these chapters, and more just a routine sleuth. One might point out that when Hammett and Gardner were both writing for Black Mask in the 1920's, their stories did not seem especially similar, aside from their hard-boiled milieu; but when Gardner started writing books in the 1930's, he seemed sometimes to be influenced by such later Hammett novels as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

This treatment of the events leading up to a murder as a separate story is not unique to this novel. The opening of Owls Don't Blink (1942) is a well done missing persons case, with some good sleuthing by Donald Lam tracking down a missing woman. There are also some ingenious plot complications. After the first murder, the book becomes much more routine.

Perry Mason and puzzle plots

In Novel Verdicts, Jon L. Breen lists The Case of The Careless Kitten (1942) as a Gardner novel with a genuine, Golden Age quality mystery plot. He's right. This is a very good mystery, pleasantly written, and with a well constructed mystery plot with an ingenious solution. If Gardner wrote more books like this, and they become better known, his reputation will rise quite a bit.

Kitten is helped by several factors. The plot is much more unified than in many Gardner novels. All the action relates to a single underlying plot, instead of the endless disconnected subplots of so many Perry Mason novels. So the reader is following a unified story, and an interesting one at that. The characters are all members of a single household, which aids the effect of unity. There are also many likable characters, and a pleasant romantic thread in the story, which gives the book a warm feel. In some of Gardner's poorer books, all the characters are no good criminal scum. Here, even the police have their warm side, even the usually ferocious Lt. Tragg.

Gardner's "The Case of the Irate Witness" (1953) is apparently the only Perry Mason short story, strictly speaking (as opposed to novellas). As a puzzle plot tale, this story is just about perfect. As in The Case of the Careless Kitten, Gardner shows he knows full well what a good puzzle plot story is, and how to deliver it. I hope there are more works of this quality in Gardner's immense oeuvre.

The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938) is another one of Gardner's strange, experimental mystery stories. It is far from perfect, and not quite fair play in its plotting, but it is full of some imaginative plot twists.

In 1940, Gardner wrote two novels that were influenced by Freeman Wills Crofts. The second, The Case of the Silent Partner (1940), is a straightforward imitation of Crofts' The Cask (1920). It is smoothly written, but a very minor book in Gardner's canon. Much more creative is the first, The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). Gardner solves most of the case half way through (Chapter 6). There are a few more interesting revelations in Chapter 10, but the end of the novel where the identity of the killer is revealed has little ingenuity. Gardner shows originality in the strange construction of the story, and in the puzzle plot itself. This Gardner book, and several other novels, deals with unexpected, hidden connections between disparate "zones" of storytelling.

Also inventive as a puzzle plot mystery is The Case of the Borrowed Brunette (1946). This involves two mysteries. The earlier chapters leading up to the murder are themselves an excellent puzzle plot tale. They are in the tradition of such Conan Doyle works as "The Red-Headed League" and "The Copper Beeches", stories in which ordinary people are offered strange and mysterious jobs. The later parts of this book are a murder mystery, somewhat in the same tradition as The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). These sections are too drawn out for the puzzle contained in them. But they do offer an ingenious puzzle plot with a solution that surprised me.

The early sections (Chapters 1 - 7) of The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1948) contain a similar Doyle like mystery. Once again, people are being recruited by advertisement, and once again the mystery is two fold: who is doing the recruiting, and what is the purpose of such odd requests. Here, however, the tone is one of raucous comedy, complete with some good natured spiciness about dating. This is typical of Gardner, to look for the humorous sides of things.

Doug Selby

Gardner wrote nine novels about Doug Selby, the D.A. of fictitious Madison County, near Los Angeles. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) has an interestingly plotted first half (Chapters 1 - 8). Gardner keeps putting his plot pieces together in the most unexpected ways. The various fragments keep joining up out of left field. After this opening, the book becomes less and less interesting, and gradually turns into a scheme to get a suspect to confess. Its opening is most unusual, however. The D.A. Draws a Circle is one of the most creative of the D.A. books. In addition to its many other virtues, it is the debut novel of Doug Selby's perennial antagonist, the wily criminal attorney A.B. Carr. Carr is intellectually brilliant, slick, crooked as a snake, and a richly comic figure. He is related to the Rogue figures such as Lester Leith who showed up in Gardner's pulp fiction. However, he is older, more socially sophisticated, and a clever attorney to boot, like Perry Mason.

Gardner often connected up the most disparate characters possible to make a story. In Circle, he keeps coming up with strange links between the people in the novel. The book opens one of the characters moving in next to another. This encounter sets up the start of his design pattern in Circle, and is the central link around which all others grow. The later developments in the story keep coming back to this first link in unexpected ways. It is a recurring base throughout the whole story. We are not used to this sort of thematic circularity in a novel. It is like a composer introducing his main melody at the start of a symphony, and then having it regularly repeat with variations throughout. Or Homer declaring at the start of the Iliad, "The wrath of Achilles is my theme". Gardner's design winds up becoming impressively imaginative. It is not quite a pure puzzle plot - it is hard to see how a reader could predict all these links based on clues Gardner provides - but it does develop into an interesting pattern of relations.

Gardner used the common mystery approach of the crime in the past and the crime in the present. Both here and in Seal, the past crime gets a puzzle plot treatment, whereas the present crime is used to make a complex design of relationships. This is similar to his two part construction in the Lester Leith tales, where there is both a crime and a later intervention by other characters. Here in Circle, the second crime consists of interventions in response to the first. These interventions are done by criminals in Circle, not by the protagonist as in the Lester Leith stories. As in the Leith tales, only the first of the crimes has a puzzle plot.

The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937) is the first book about Doug Selby. It is at its best in its opening section (Chapters 1 - 6), which set up the murder mystery, and which contain some nicely surrealistic plot twists. However, after this the book is a complete botch, with endless subplots coincidentally piled up, and implausible behavior for most of the suspects. The opening chapters also describe the immediate aftermath of the election that swept Doug Selby and his friend Sheriff Rex Brandon to power, so they do have an introductory role to play for the entire series of books. They also mark the first appearance of Selby's reporter friend Sylvia Martin. I saw the dull and none too faithful film version of The D.A. Draws a Circle, the made for TV movie They Call It Murder (1971), which uses the title of this original novel. The film maintains the names of the books' characters, but does little to convey their personality.

The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938) is a slow moving work, focusing on minor gambling scams. It is not very interesting. Its best aspects: building up the character of Sylvia Martin, and introducing her rival, Inez Stapleton.

The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940) is also something of a non-starter as a puzzle plot. Its best passages deal with fingerprints, and it reuses in a modified way the gimmick of The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe (1938). The book lacks fair play, with most of the solution dragged in suddenly in the final chapters.

The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1941 - 1942) is from a period when Gardner was producing well constructed puzzle plots. Here Gardner manages to turn the disparate events of the story into a unified pattern. Of the first six Selby novels, those written before 1945, this one and The D.A. Draws a Circle are the only ones worth reading. This story marks the return of A.B Carr, who becomes a series character here; Gardner originally planned him as a one shot in The D.A. Draws a Circle, but he appears in this and all subsequent Selby books. Gardner manages to turn the entrance of A.B. Carr in the story into an exciting event. His entrance, often unexpected, will have a similar excitement in later books, at once thickening the plot, and suggesting to readers that events are much more complex than they first appear: always a delightful development for mystery fans. He tends to show up initially, not as an antagonist for Doug Selby, but in connection with the mystery plot itself.

The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944) is a poor book. It is full of strange events that strain credulity; some of the ideas here about amnesia approach science fiction. The opening chapter, which equates an ultra-conventional family with all that is good, and a working woman with sophisticated corruption, is also hard to accept. One doubts if Gardner really believed this himself. He usually associated virtue with feistiness and get up and go, not with conventionality. The book does score some points for the sheer complexity of its plotting. Some of the more believable plot twists hearken back to Gardner's earlier non-series newspaper mystery, The Clue of the Forgotten Murder (1934), which did them better. Also on the plus side are the appearances of A.B. Carr here - I especially enjoyed the visit to his house in Chapter 16. Gardner shows a flair for Carr's sophisticated comic dialogue, and his high tech devices. One wonders if Carr's name is a homage to the great John Dickson Carr.

The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1945 - 1946) is absorbingly written. It awakes nostalgia in the reader by bringing back nearly the full cast of continuing characters from earlier Selby novels. Doug Selby is returning home from war, and it is a reunion for both the characters in the story, and for the reader. Gardner effortlessly evokes both laughter and sentiment. Most of Gardner's characters, even his villains, are essentially likable, comic figures. Gardner was full of the life force, and his people are mainly high energy figures like himself, optimistic, and always looking for the next opportunity. The opening of Chapter 12 contains an unusual passage in which the heroine speculates about the hero's future. It shows both political idealism, and romantic yearning. One wishes Gardner had followed up on his ideas here, in later novels about the D.A. The mystery subplot about a will is well done. But the murder itself does not achieve puzzle plot brilliance.

The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948) is best in its first two thirds (Chapters 1 - 15, plus a later explanation towards the end of Chapter 18). These sections concern attempts by bad guys to cover up a series of crimes, followed by Selby's uncovering of the same. These sections contain some good storytelling on Gardner's part. They are not brilliant, but they make pleasant escape reading. There are some good characters here, especially the humorously gossipy small town taxi driver, Gib Spencer. The gossipy resident of a small town is a common figure in comedy - one recalls the telephone operator in Mervyn Le Roy's film Elmer the Great (1933), but Gardner does this up to a T.

The novel makes use of a common Gardner approach, the "mystery plot whose events occur in two cities". Gardner makes much use of the shuttling back and forth of the characters between the two towns. This eventually builds up into elaborate, intricate patterns. There is perhaps some formal similarity between this "two city" construction, and the "two house" construction found in The D.A. Draws a Circle and other Gardner books.

Another Gardner formal device is seen in this story: the inter-blending of "detective storytelling" with "mystery storytelling". In these chapters, the detectives do much sleuthing around, visiting other cities, collecting clues, interviewing witnesses and so on. The suspects also do much interaction here, stirred up by this detective work. Without really announcing it to the reader, Gardner is soon introducing new mysteries into the plot. These mystery situations have as part of their background all the movements of the characters during the sleuthing sections. So the detective parts of the book serve as a background and formal structure for new mysteries. Gardner did something similar in his The Case of the Baited Hook (1940). This approach produces complex formal patterns of plot. It is an example of Gardner's experimental approach to mystery fiction, where he was often doing complex, innovative things with story construction. It also keeps the reader very much off base: the reader has to learn to think of the detective sections in new ways and from new perspectives, to understand the mysteries hidden within them. It is not that the reader is confused about the plot: Gardner's storytelling is always absolutely clear. It is how the reader thinks about the plot that undergoes a shift. It is "fair" in terms of detective construction, but very devious.

The final chapters of the novel contains the actual murder mystery, dealing with who killed whom and why. It seems uninventive and botched, especially compared to the leisurely storytelling of the earlier sections of the novel. There is a good deal about civic corruption in these sections, a popular theme among many Black Mask writers, but it is not developed very well.

The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949) is the last D.A. novel. It is a minor book, that interweaves through a tangle of coincidences at least three separate mystery plots. It is hard to see how any reader could deduce the solutions of these tales: it lacks "fair play". Elements of one of the three plots recall The D.A. Cooks a Goose. The book is readable, and has some pleasant enough storytelling. It is at its best in Chapter 5, which describes the latest events in the life of A. B. Carr in grand comic style. The episode about the stolen jewelry (Chapters 19 - 22) also involves Carr extensively. These sections are in many ways "comedies of manners". Carr is extremely sophisticated, Selby himself is suave, his friend Sheriff Rex Brandon is honest and outraged, and there is much comic repartee. A story like this is most interesting for what it has to say about the on-going characters, whom Gardner clearly loved writing about, than for the strictly mystery elements, although there is a nice formal reversal in the jewelry sections. Character interaction here builds on the relationships established in previous novels, such as the feuding between Brandon and Carr in The D.A. Calls a Turn.

Perry Mason books sharing imagery with The D.A. Draws a Circle

Gardner wrote a whole series of later works using plot ideas and approaches found in The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939). These books do not recycle the plot of the earlier book. Rather, they generate new, original plots, in which the ideas from Circle are transformed and developed into new patterns. The series contains some of his most innovative and unusual works. They are all stories where the puzzle plotting works, and where the storytelling is good throughout.

The Perry Mason novel The Case of the Empty Tin (1941) shows much imagery in common with Circle (1939). There are two houses next door to each other, an old man in a wheel chair, a barranca (a kind of ravine found in California) near the properties, a mysterious and confused crime taking place in the middle of the night that is ambiguously and incompletely witnessed by a lot of people living nearby, traces of blood, and some strange disappearances. A difference: in Circle, the murder was slowly built up after many chapters, where as in Empty Tin Gardner plunges into it right away. Also, the tone of the two novels is very different. Circle is serious, whereas Empty Tin is full of comedy. The two households in Circle were resonatingly different from each other, setting up a polarity that dominated the whole novel. Here in Empty Tin the two households are in delicious comic contrast: Mrs. Gentrie's home is as middle class as possible, in fact, one of the most bourgeois settings ever to show up in a Gardner book. Its conventional nature is high lighted and exaggerated to the nth degree for comic effect. The family in Empty Tin also looks forward to the middle class family in The Case of The Careless Kitten (1942) the next year. Meanwhile, Kane's apartment next door is the center of a spy melodrama involving gun running to the Chinese in World War II. Gardner had deep sympathy for the Chinese, and this is one of many references to them in his work.

This contrast between households is the stuff of farce, and Gardner uses it to make a delicious surrealist confrontation. However bourgeois Mrs. Gentrie's establishment is, Gardner puts it right in the center of the mystery action, with Mrs. Gentrie's home canning being the locale for the Empty Tin of the title. It is outrageous melodrama centering itself on the most domestic activity possible of the 1930's, home canning. I suspect canning was a favorite activity of ordinary Americans, people slightly less prosperous than the middle class Gentries. It is important that Gardner put mystery in the heart of the Gentries. In a mystery novel, the importance of a character or locale is measured by how much mystery attaches to it. This perhaps seems like an unusual criterion, as least by the standards of realistic fiction, but the structural underpinnings of puzzle plot fiction make this evaluation inevitable. If Gardner had not associated any mysteries with the Gentries, they would have seemed "light weight". Combined with their everyday background, the novel would be a contrast of dull convention with the mystery laden melodrama of the spy apartment. Gardner did something completely different, however: he suggests the mystery is actually in the heart of the bourgeois family. This gives them tremendous weight and balance in the pattern of the story.

Empty Tin is full of small mysteries, which Gardner solves as he goes. These pleasant little puzzlers add greatly to the enjoyment of the book. Most of these are related to uncovering the truth about the crime. But occasionally Gardner introduces a mystery that involves a meta-level to the story. In Chapter 9, Paul Drake has to figure out how to deal with the police, then he has to deduce Perry's secrets. He shows insight and logic, in a charming episode. Perry Mason himself functions here more as a pure detective than he does in many Gardner books. His client is not on trial, and simply hires Mason to solve the crime. There are no courtroom scenes, and no passages where Mason obscures evidence or whisks clients away from the police. Mason even cooperates with the police, feeding information to Lt. Tragg. Mason is also set-up more as a 1930's style detective hero, complete with scenes of danger and action. This book would make a good movie.

I was first alerted to Empty Tin by reader Lisa Childress. Her comments are interesting: "First of all, it is, I am pretty sure, one of the few Mason's that does not include a trial scene. Also, the Della Street portrayed here is quite different from her usual character. (In Dorothy B. Hughes' book, The Case of the Real Perry Mason, the author reveals that Della was based on three different women, all sisters, who worked for him at various times. The one in Empty Tin is not the same one in the later books. Interesting psychologically, I think). It has as a main character, a woman who in the 90's would be an executive, but in the 40's is confined to running her home with the same kind of efficiency. (Gardner spells this out explicitly. In fact, his attitude toward the women in his novels is what has kept me reading him into adulthood.) It has a Chinese element in the plot and missing heiress elements. The tone of the novel is not as cut and dried as some of the later ones, with more description than is usual. All in all, I think it is an atypical rendering of many typical Gardner themes. On another front, the plotting of the Mason books varies more than people think. Some others besides Empty Tin concentrate more on the solving of the crime than in the courtroom scenes, although Empty Tin is one the few that omits the trial entirely."

Jon L. Breen's study of courtroom fiction Novel Verdicts contains a complete list of Perry Mason novels that do not include trial scenes.

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955) is another Perry Mason novel in the tradition of Circle. The imagery of the ghost at the beginning recalls events from the murder in the earlier book. Also, here there are two apartments next door to each other in the same building, following on the two neighboring houses in Circle. Gardner rings many strange changes on the two apartments, just as he did on the two houses in Circle. They are not the same ideas as in Circle, they are fresh and new. But they have the same sort of structural underpinning, both consisting of puzzle plot mystery ideas involving two neighboring households, and all the misdirection this can enable in the plot.

Ghost begins with a torrent of story invention. Every time the reader is convinced they know what is going on, Gardner introduces something out of left field. Eventually this inventiveness runs out of steam. Gardner replaces it by a number of things: some detective work, some mystery twists, and above all, by some well staged court room encounters. These later chapters are a bit thin, but pleasant.

"The Case of the Crimson Kiss" (1948) is a Perry Mason novella. It is an unusual combination of the whodunit mystery and the inverted detective story. Its format shows that Gardner was quite experimental with his plot approaches, often trying new and unusual mystery formats, as in his Lester Leith tales. As in the inverted tales of Freeman, science plays a role. It also has unusually good storytelling throughout, with many complex twists of the plot. Perry Mason does little to obsfucate trails of evidence or evade the police here; instead he concentrates on what I enjoy much more, detection. It shares the two apartment approach found in the Circle tradition.

We tend to think of avant-garde writers as alienated people, existing on the margins of society. Gardner does not fit such a description at all, of course. He was a warm hearted man who liked people, and who felt at home in many different branches of society, rich, poor and middle class, Chinese and white. But Gardner is in many ways best described as an experimental writer. Few of his best stories follow conventional approaches. Instead, much of his work can be seen as experimental variations on traditional detective story ideas. Gardner's work is full of formal innovation. He was aided and enabled in this by his flood of storytelling ideas. This super abundance of plot is part of a "maximalist" aesthetic, a desire to have as complex and detailed a work of art as possible. This flood of ideas allowed Gardner to construct complex plots that did not fit into conventional molds, but instead extended them in innovative ways.

Gramp Wiggins

I like Gramp Wiggins, the amateur detective who appears in only two Gardner novels. There are a lot of little old lady sleuths in detective fiction, but very few similar men. The Gramp Wiggins novels have much in common in setting and approach with Gardner's novels about Doug Selby, the D.A. Both have pleasant elements of mild comedy. Both are set in a small city surrounded by an agricultural community, not far from L.A. Both the Gramp and Selby locations are full of small town and county political machinations, treated in a noncondescending fashion. There is lots of legal and financial detail about various schemes going on in these cities. Gramp is also allied with his town's D.A., being the grandfather of the D.A.'s wife, so there is the same sort of orientation to the detectives as well: they work for the prosecution, not the defense like Perry Mason.

The fairly young D.A. and his wife in the Gramps books are in the tradition of Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles, a happily married couple who have fun and do snappy comic dialogue. They have one of the racier scenes in any Gardner book, in their introduction in The Case of the Smoking Chimney (Chapter 12). This was typical of Nick and Nora, a married couple who still find each other attractive. Doug Selby also has an active romantic life, unlike Perry Mason, whose involvement with Della Street is largely offstage.

The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943) is entertaining throughout, but awfully thin as a mystery. Gardner's murder plot is easily guessed. The story is best in the early chapters (1 - 11), which describe the events leading up to the murder. These deal with a real estate scam. In classical detective novel fashion, each character is given a motive for the crime. It is not the sort of complex cat's cradle of The D.A. Draws a Circle, or the mini-mystery opening of Owls Don't Blink (1942). Instead, it sets up links among a group of very disparate characters, eventually showing how information flows among them. Gardner shows storytelling inventiveness here.

This book also has some of the most detailed look at food and cooking in any Gardner novel, in keeping with its comic tone. Gardner's characters like plain food, such as pancakes and bacon for breakfast, steaks and potatoes for dinner. Despite this lack of gourmet tastes, especially compared with someone like Rex Stout, it is clear that his characters really enjoy eating. There is often a feeling of social defiance to eating in Gardner. It seems to occur when his legal characters are pulling off some scheme in defiance of authority, and they take a break from their labors to go out and eat. Food in Gardner tends to be fried. He also likes sweet toppings on desserts such as syrup on pancakes or whipped cream on strawberry shortcakes. There are many men who tend to cook for themselves in Western cabins: the cowboy Buck Hoxey in "Flight into Disaster", the ex-prospector in Chimney. Gramp Wiggins likes to cook for himself in his trailer. Gramps tends to cook in a pan over heat. He likes to fuss with the pan while its cooking. The description of the cook in Chapter 2 of The Case of the Empty Tin (1941) says that she does more baking than frying - the two types of cooking in which Gardner takes interest.

A persistent theme in Gardner's novels is the evil of gambling. Gambling is portrayed as a trap for middle class people, luring them deep into a life of crime. Much of The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938) shows how a nest of card gamblers entraps a young man. These gamblers hang out in a cheap roadhouse, but Gardner also depicted fancier looking, but no less crooked establishments. People in Gardner rarely get dressed up. They are usually working, and seem indifferent to what they are wearing. Exception: when his male characters go to gambling establishments, something of which Gardner strongly disapproves, they are often in evening clothes. Gardner suggests that this too is bad: it intimidates them, make them uncomfortable, and separates them from common sense. The fancy clothes represent a loss of good judgment.

During the 1930's gambling was considered by many mystery writers one step up from damnation: one can cite R. Austin Freeman's Death at the Inn (1937), Freeman Wills Crofts' Fatal Venture (1939), Dorothy Cameron Disney's The Golden Swan Murders (1939). Nor is the portrayal of gambling in hard-boiled novels such as Paul Cain's Fast One (1932) and Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940) designed to associate gambling with anything other than vice, organized crime and violence. This attitude persists into such 1950's books as Leslie Ford's Murder Comes to Eden (1955), in which the arrival of gambling interests in a once unspoiled rural community is regarded as the ultimate stage of corruption.

The Case of the Hesitant Hostess

The Case of the Hesitant Hostess (1953) takes place in a different world from Gardner's Perry Mason books of the early 1940's. There, most of the criminals were middle class, and much of the crime was related to fraud and other white collar crime. Hostess creates one of the most detailed pictures in Gardner of the world of semi-organized crime. This is not a national mob; it is a local stew of night clubs, gambling and police corruption. Gardner spells out how all these crooked enterprises work, in fascinating detail. The book will eventually serve as a time capsule of American life, showing how all these activities once took place. Traces of this milieu will persist in later Perry Mason novels of the 1950's, such as The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955).

Hostess resembles its contemporaries in film noir. In particular, the crooked night club that is the center of Hostess closely resembles the one in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) of the same year. Both take place in the same sociological coordinates. In both, the night club maintains an aura of respectability, and is patronized by middle and upper middle class citizens, mainly men. In both, the club is a gateway into vice, a place where ordinary people can meet the underworld. Both night clubs are full of hostesses, both clubs are owned by crooks, and both are under the protection of crooked city governments and their police forces. The corruption involved eventually becomes a spring board for murder. There is a similar look at a town full of crooked night clubs in Phil Karlson's The Phenix City Story (1955), although the night clubs in that film cater to a much lower class clientele, mainly soldiers from a nearby Army base. Gardner is not interested in the violence of much film noir, or its tough guy heroes. Instead, he is largely interested in How Things Work. The book has a similar subject matter to film noir, but a different tone, one rooted in Gardner's puzzle plot fiction. While Perry is not depicted as a two fisted private eye, he is shown as an idealistic crusader for justice in the book. Instead of being hired by a client, he is working here as a court appointed attorney to a poor man. He resists many attempts to discourage him, pays huge sums of money for his crusade out of his own pocket, and makes several speeches about the need for justice. This recalls the idealistic policemen and civic leaders in the film noirs of the era. The whole book is Gardner's version of a film noir, fascinatingly adapted to his own writing style.

Hostess is richly plotted. It involves several puzzle plots, whose solutions are sprung on the reader at various times throughout the story. These are quite clever. The finale leaves several holes in the plot - the bad guys' motive for framing the poor man seems weak, for example - but the book as a whole is a well plotted story. The book is also unusual in that the crimes are not traced to a single perpetrator, in the Golden Age tradition. Instead a whole gang of crooks turns out to be involved. This does not surprise the reader greatly, and it does not violate "fair play": Gardner has indicated all along that most of these people are both working together, and up to no good. Still, it is a shift from the typical mystery novel construction.

Della Street takes an active role in this story, as she did in The Case of the Empty Tin (1941). Perry and Della's journey to Las Vegas in this tale recalls a similar visit to another city in Empty Tin.