RARA-AVIS: 30s Month: HONEST MONEY/Erle Stanley Gardner

From: James Reasoner ( james53@flash.net)
Date: 12 Nov 2002

Before there was Perry Mason, there was Ken Corning. In 1932 and '33, Gardner published a series of six stories in BLACK MASK about lawyer Ken Corning and his battle with the corrupt political machine that runs the fictional York City. Corning has nearly all of the mannerisms exhibited by Mason in the early novels, has a wisecracking but faithful secretary/Girl Friday, Helen Vail (who is almost always referred to by both names, just as Della Street was always Della Street), always defends innocent clients, manipulates events and people in order to prove the innocence of his clients, and is usually two or three steps ahead of not only the cops and the bad guys, but the reader as well. The stories are:

"Honest Money", November '32
"The Top Comes Off", December '32
"Close Call", January '33
"Making the Breaks", June '33
"Devil's Fire", July '33
"Blackmail With Lead", August '33

All six were reprinted by Carroll & Graf in 1991 in a volume entitled HONEST MONEY. I just read it and found it very entertaining. It's hard to pin down the appeal of Gardner's work. Characterization and description are very skimpy, his style is fast-paced but flat, and while there are a few car chases and fist fights, there's not much action in these stories. Gardner also has a habit of throwing a lot of characters at the reader without much to distinguish them. I think it comes down to plotting and pace. From the first line, Gardner has things moving, and the reader had darn well better pay attention and keep up or get lost.

Which isn't to say that Gardner can't write a nice paragraph here and there. Here's the opening of "Devil's Fire":

"Ken Corning pushed his way through the gawking pedestrians who still loitered on the sidewalk. They had formed in a white-faced ring about the red pool which spread along the cold surface of the gray cement, reflecting the street lights until they seemed like glowing rubies."

One more note: I halfway expected these stories to be linked like the stories that made up RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE, but while they have the same background, they're pretty much stand-alones. Gardner would have had trouble cobbling them into anything that resembled a novel.

Carroll & Graf reprinted several volumes of Gardner's early work, and I suspect they're all worth looking for. I wouldn't want to read a steady diet of it, but I like dipping into it from time to time.


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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 12 Nov 2002 EST