RARA-AVIS: Gunsel, Gardner, Hammett & Steeger

From: Keith Alan Deutsch ( keithdeutsch@earthlink.net)
Date: 15 Apr 2000

William Denton wrote:

> On 14 April 2000, Dick Lochte wrote:
> A while back Eddie Duggan gave me a copy of Erle Stanley Gardner's article
> "Getting Away with Murder," and I put up an excerpt at
> http://www.miskatonic.org/gooseberry.html
> which talks about "gunsel," "gooseberry lay" and so on.

Thanks for the Gardner excerpt, it was great fun to read it again.

Erle Stanley Gardner had the longest run of any author in Black Mask, and wrote more stories for the magazine (some under a few pseudonyms) than any other author. He probably created more characters, particularly continuing characters, for the magazine than any one else.

He and Hammett were pals in California in the early days of the magazine
(1920's), and both lived rugged, on the street lives as young men. Gardner was a small time lawyer famous among the Chinese community, from which he developed some long-standing friendship, and learned much about that subculture. Chinese characters, not just stereotypical villains of the time, but also loyal friends of the hero, continued to appear in his magazine fiction all through his career.

Gardner, according to conversations I had with Henry Steeger (Popular Publications' great publisher/editor) was a reliable source for anything he wrote about.

Steeger told me he would wait with great expectation for a Gardner tale to come in to Popular. According to Steeger, Gardner always presented his fiction on a distinctive blue paper (may be a good strategy if you are a great tale teller), and it got so that when those blue pages crossed his desk, Steeger would put aside whatever he was doing and read what he knew would be another Gardner contribution.

Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook, first appeared in Black Mask way before Steeger was in magazine publishing. The Crook's last appearance was, I believe, in the mid 1960's in Argosy Magazine--where Gardner continued to appear after 1951 when Black Mask and most of the other classic pulps were gone.

Although many critics felt that Gardner was not a very good novelist, per se,
(Rex Stout said the Perry Mason novels were not even novels!) Gardner was one of the best selling writers of all times. Steeger told me that if they put Gardner's name on the cover of any magazine, they always increased the print run.

Steeger, a mild-mannered genius with a very tough streak, spent a lot of time with Gardner on outdoor adventures. Steeger told me that Gardner knew more about more things than any one he'd ever met.

All of which leads up to my conclusion that whatever Gardner reported about Hammett and underground argot of the 1920's is probably accurate based on his own experience as a criminal attorney at the time Hammett was writing, Gardner's friendship with Hammett at that time, and Steeger's very ardent vouching for Gardner's trustworthiness as a reporter. (By the way, Hammett was "reportedly" a stern editor of reporter's during his stint in the Army in WW11).

One caveat: this is not to say that either writer may not have made up criminal slang for their fiction. As Gardner and Fred "Ellery Queen" Dannay (another Hammett pal) have written, Hammett enjoyed playing jokes with slang. Near the beginning of his career pulled a fast one on the editors of Black Mask with a pseudonym (Peter Collinson, as i recall) that was once in current thug slang as a

Dannay told me that despite Hammett's sense of word play and punning, he rarely played in his fiction writing and reporting--which he took very seriously. But I love the way he made icons of the characters in the Maltese Falcon with their names "Wonderly" and "Gutman," and "Cairo," and, of course "Spade"---who just would not stop digging into the twisted relationships until he found out, and punished, the person who killed his partner. A guy who calls a spade a spade, so to speak. Even "Archer" might be a sly play on the character's weakness for "shooting" his load in any dame he could!

Thanks again to Mr. Denton for the Gardner excerpt. And don't miss Denton's link on his miskatonic web site to Lester Dent's formula for writing any five to ten thousand word fiction story. It is a revelation.

Keith keithdeutsch@earthlink.net


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