Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22

POSTED BY MARTIN KICH

Gardner, Erle Stanley.  The Case of the Crooked Candle.  New York: Morrow, 1944.

Erle Stanley Gardner was not the first mystery-suspense novelist to create a protagonist who was a lawyer.  But his most famous creation, Perry Mason, has become the prototype for other criminal attorneys in the genre—so much so that earlier fictional attorneys are often now referred to as forerunners of Mason.  In addition, Mason has inspired the subsequent sub-genre of the legal thriller, most recently brought to prominence by such novelists as John Grisham and John T. Lescroart.  Still, Mason has remained the standard for the hard-nosed, quick-witted defense attorney who commits himself completely to his clients once he believes in their innocence.

Certainly, the long-running and then resurrected television series based on Gardner’s novels and starring Raymond Burr greatly enhanced and extended Mason’s influence.  But Gardner had a great deal of input on the original series and many of the episodes are based very closely on his novels.  Indeed, the television series shows Mason as he “matured” as a character in Gardner’s novels.  Initially, Mason had a tremendous impact on readers because, unlike most previous lawyers who were cerebral and fit into the “scientific” or “cozy” schools, Mason came out of the hardboiled school.  In the early stories and novels, he is willing to use physical force against uncooperative witnesses in situations in which he will later rely on his reputation to intimidate them.  Likewise, in the early stories and novels, he is willing to bend the letter of the law well past the limits of the spirit of the law, whereas in the later fictions he increasingly relies on exploiting legal technicalities to make his cases.

Given that Gardner wrote more than eighty novels featuring Mason, it is very difficult to select a novel that is truly representative of the whole series, never mind the best of the series.  Jacques Barzun has asserted that The Case of the Crooked Candle is the Mason novel that relies most of pure detection.  A corpse is found in the cabin of a boat that has apparently gone aground at low tide.

 

Grafton, Sue.  O Is for Outlaw.  New York: Holt, 1999.

For novels in her series featuring private detective Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton has received three Anthony Awards from the Mystery Readers of America, three Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, and six Doubleday Mystery Guild Awards, as well as an American Mystery Award and a Falcon Award from the Maltese Falcon Society of Japan.

Many mystery-suspense series have featured gimmicks in their titles.  The titles of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels featuring Perry Mason consistently begin The Case of the . . .  Those of John D. MacDonald’s novels featuring Travis McGee include a reference to a color.  Those of Robert Campbell’s series featuring Chicago sewer inspector and precinct captain Jimmy Flannery include a reference to an animal-—typically a play on a common figurative expression that is given some literal meaning in the narrative.  In her novels featuring Kinsey Millhone, Grafton has followed the simple but winning device of working her was through the alphabet, starting with A Is for Alibi and B Is for Burglar.

Of course, the tremendous commercial and critical success of this series derives from much more than just the gimmick involving the titles.  Like Sara Paretsky, Grafton has placed a female detective into the pointedly masculine milieu of the hardboiled sub-genre stretching from Hammett and Chandler to Connelly and Ellroy.  In Grafton’s series, there is, then, a continuing tension between what we might conventionally expect from the female detective and what is demanded by the milieu in which she operates.  And this tension is at the center of the dramatic and thematic energy that continues to sustain Grafton’s series.  In O Is for Outlaw, an unsent letter discovered in an old storage locker seems to clear Millhone’s first husband of the beating death of a vice suspect, a crime that had ended both his career with the police force and his brief marriage to Millhone.  When he is shot with Millhone’s gun, she enters into a complex investigation that is as much about recovering and re-examining the past as it is about understanding the present.

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Previous Posts in This Series:

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 11-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/15/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-13-14/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 15-16: https://academeblog.org/2016/01/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-15-16/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 17-18: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-17-18/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 19-20: https://academeblog.org/2016/05/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-19-20/.

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Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

 

 

7 thoughts on “Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22

  1. Pingback: Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24 | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 25-26 | ACADEME BLOG

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