written 1939/40, first published 2016
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Ruth Marr answered my gentle knock on the door of her apartment. “Well for the love of Mike, look at you,” I [said] taking in the silk dressing gown with the rose-coloured mules peeping out from underneath the trousers of pajamas which seemed to be composed of black silk netting… She pulled the robe open so that I could see the full expanse of the black openwork pajamas with the white outlines of her form showing as a pearly-tinted background.
I heard her in the bathroom splashing around, and then, after a while, she came out wearing the same robe without the pajamas. Where it flared out in front, I caught a glimpse of peach-coloured underwear.
commentary: Unlike many of my fellow crime fiction fans (Prashant, Sergio, Noah, Tracy) I am not an aficionado of Erle Stanley Gardner. It was Noah Stewart who introduced me to this one, and that irresistible cover (featuring Dita von Teese) grabbed me. We had some discussion as to whether it was relevant to the book (no: such a scene appears nowhere in the book) and whether it was a great cover and picture (yes: without a doubt), and Noah said there were some good clothes moments in the book, so here it is.
This is a lost work by ESG: he wrote it as the second in the Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series but it was rejected for reasons that are not entirely clear, and has just been published for the first time. (See Noah’s illuminating blogpost for more of this story, and helpful links.)
I enjoyed it hugely: it is a tough, noir-ish PI story: Bertha, large and fearsome, owns the agency and Donald, a ‘runt-like’ former lawyer is her operative. The new clients are two married ladies with different last names, so Bertha knows at once it is a divorce case - they will be, she correctly predicts, a sad wife and her vengeful mother. Donald is sent off after the cheating husband, who has been seen out in a nightclub ‘entertaining this blonde, and wearing evening clothes’ – but his tux is at home in the closet so:
That must mean that he has an apartment where he’s keeping another set of clothes.(Evening clothes feature a lot in this book – Bertha summons someone to fit Donald out in the middle of the night, impressively, and also explains that white tie is much better than black tie if you want to avoid the attentions of the police.)
So Donald starts following the man, and gets involved with the telephone operator at his apartment block – yes, his wife and mother-in-law are right, and in fact the man has TWO extra apartments. Soon there is a dead body, and Ruth, the telephone girl, is under suspicion. Donald tries to keep everyone happy, to keep Ruth out of trouble, and to find out what is really happening.
Bertha is a splendid character – hard as nails, enormous, and prone to referring to herself in the 3rd person: the title comes from her repeated mantra that ‘Bertha wants to cut herself a slice of the cake’ – the knife is going to slip as she does so. Clothes in Books also refers to itself in the 3rd person sometimes, so we are happy with that. Bertha also uses the endearment ‘lover’ to Donald all the time (he is clearly not in this role with her) sounding like nothing so much as Northern cake shop ladies of my youth. There is this exchange with a reluctant interviewee:
‘My husband will be here soon. He’ll put you in your place’
‘No husband ever has so far,’ Bertha remarked affably- and you have no trouble believing her.
She is a tremendous character, and I like the way she never softens at all.
The plot is elaborate and very well-worked out. I’m longing to tell you the purpose of the black silk panels with small holes cut in them (you would decline to believe it), but feel it would be a spoiler. It is a most unlikely scam, and one that I found it very hard to take seriously in any way, but I suppose there was a point to be made about small-town corruption.
At one point Bertha sits down and nearly breaks the furniture:
The creaky davenport groaned in protest. I thought the legs were going to give way.And this reminded me of a little-known literary byway. In 1960, the English novelist Evelyn Waugh (much featured on the blog) wrote the following letter to ESG:
Dear Mr Gardner,
May I, as one of the keenest admirers of your work, correct what I at first took for a slip, but now realise must be a genuine misconception?
You seem to think that a ‘davenport’ is some kind of sofa. It is, and can only be, a small writing desk.
Are you, perhaps, confusing it with a ‘chesterfield’?
I have mentioned this before, in a blog post on Raymond Chandler, another crime writer who likes his furniture:
In fact, both usages are fine. The US version comes from the makers of the original sofa – the term became generic, as Hoover did for carpet cleaners in the UK. Meanwhile in the UK, supposedly the first davenport desk was made for a Captain Davenport. This has all been worrying me since I first came across the references in the 1970s – James Thurber in another book seems to think it odd to use the word sofa rather than davenport - so despite not being clothes, it felt important to sort it out, and am happy to have done so.(Happy days back in 2013 when I even pretended only to be writing about clothes.)
Gardner’s publisher explained the different usage: Gardner himself sent an enthusiastic fan note to Waugh. ‘You have the greatest gift of satire I have ever encountered.’
Coincidence: Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was Evelyn Gardner, though I’m sure she was no relation to the crime writer. (Yes, confusingly the Waughs had the same first name, and were known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. Laura, his second wife, was a better choice from this and other points of view.)
So – all round a good experience with the invigorating Bertha and Donald, and well-done to Hard Case Crime for finally publishing the book. And a hat-tip to Noah and his excellent blog.
The woman in black pajamas is from earlier (you can tell from the hair and makeup) but seemed to have the right vampish look – from the Dutch National Archives. The woman in the robe is from Kristine’s photostream.
Very glad you liked this, Moira. I have to admit I'm not familiar with Gardner's non-Perry-Mason work, but this one does sound like an interesting hard-core PI sort of story. And I find it fascinating how we can enjoy one series (or novel) from an author, but not care for another series by that same author. I may have to try this one...ReplyDelete
Margot, I think you might enjoy this one: I can't compare it with his other work, but it had a tremendous energy and joie de vivre, it raced along and was a real entertainment.Delete
Oh Moira, how you have brightened my day! More posts like this, please. Yet another that I must read.ReplyDelete
I am living in the north and am often called love and darling and duck by people in shops.
Thanks Chrissie for those kind words, so nice to hear! And I am pleased that Northern shopladies are keeping up the tradition, there was something so comforting about it, me ducks.Delete
I have read some of the Lam & Cool books and I enjoy them rather more than the Perry Mason stories. L&C are a terrific pair. Gardner was superb at plotting, but some of the later Mason tales can be a little colourless in terms of character because he was so prolific. Bertha Cool leaps out from the page and grabs you as soon as she appears, but Donald Lam is equally memorable but rather more subtly done. I love the fact that in an era of hardboiled Private Eyes he is almost completely unphysical, and doesn't carry a gun.ReplyDelete
You would think that the books would be perfect for turning into a TV show, but apart from a few goes in the '50s nothing has ever come of it. However, the first adaption was on American radio and Lam was played by Frank Sinatra, which seems right somehow.
I was intrigued when I saw a reference to the Frank Sinatra programme, but actually he would be perfect. Yes, that relationship would work so well on screen. Melissa McCarthy might be looking for a role...Delete
Look at you with your Hard Case Crime, you ought to take out a subscription to their stuff! I've seen this one around a few times, but haven't been tempted - not everything they publish appeals to me. Great cover though and probably a great book.ReplyDelete
Ha! Am I more in the zone than you are today ;)? I can't remember - have you read any Gardner or do you have any tucked away in the tubs? I must say I was surprised and impressed, and would read more by him.Delete
Not read him and just checked the tubs (there's a project I need to get back to) - The Case of the Crooked Candle awaits!Delete
You should read it - I need a reco for my next ESG book!Delete
Dita Von Teese is a truly remarkable person - she has really made a living out of having such an impeccable vintage look about her, and knowing how to use it to utmost advantage. I actually do remember first becoming aware of her in about 2000/2001 when she was a sometime model for an Ebay seller (who I think was a personal friend of hers actually), she modelled 1940s suits for the seller and the other vintage sellers on the Ebay board were SUPER JEALOUS because they all really wished they had such a perfect model for their merchandise....!ReplyDelete
Yes, such an interesting person. I can't remember when I first became aware of her, but always loved that look.Delete
Very interesting. I had tagged some blog posts about this subject, including Noah's, so I was aware but must of decided not to seek out the book just yet. I will have to find / read another of the A.A. Fair books from about time. And get a copy of this one. I think I have one. Thanks for the mention. I can never find time to read all the books I want to...ReplyDelete
No I know what you mean - I'm faintly horrified at the idea that I enjoyed this one a lot, and now might have to read more by him!Delete
What a cover! Cheers from Carole's ChatterReplyDelete
Isn't it just! Thanks for dropping by Carole, and thanks for running your great monthly meme, Books You Have Loved, which everyone should go and look at.Delete
Oh, I remember reading some of Gardner's books as a teenager, but only about Perry Mason.ReplyDelete
However, looking at the top cover, I am again reminded of garters and stockings. Ugh.
... but then they don't really feature in the book. I don't think I've ever read a Perry Mason book. One day...Delete
Perry Mason episodes were on TV. My family was glued to the screen. Legal dramas on TV and in books were part of my teenagehood.ReplyDelete
Good legal mysteries are quite relaxing for me in general, and I'm always on the lookout for them.
I think they were shown in the UK but not so prominently. Quite dark police thrillers were the thing here, sometimes with a spy element.Delete
Do you mean TV or book legal mysteries to relax you?
We are watching (or re-watching) the Perry Mason TV shows right now. We are still in season 1. I am surprised at how much I am enjoying them. Barbara Hale as Della is terrific, and the cars and clothes from the 1950s are cool. I am also surprised that so many of the episodes are based on the books. I thought they had created all new stories. And they are set in southern California. A lot to like about the series.Delete
You are both very much tempting me... I wonder if I can get DVDs in the UK?Delete
I think you can but whether they are affordable I don't know. We have been renting via Netflix but I am looking at buying the DVDs and they sell they in half seasons here. The first season was 40 episodes. Since there are a total of 270 episodes and only 80 novels (approx) all the episodes are clearly not based on novels, and even then they had to pare out a lot to fix it into 55 minutes. First season is almost all based on the novels, second season is about half based on novels, the rest of the seasons are mostly original stories. It is mainly the characters I like, and the cars and the setting. The stories are somewhat predictable.Delete
Blimey that's a lot of TV! I might dip a cautious toe into series 1...Delete
I loved Barbara Hale as Della Street -- so smart and sophisticated, yet low-key.ReplyDelete
I like legal mysteries on TV, will always find them.
But when I'm relaxing in the summer I look for legal mysteries in book form (although I'm always open to TV episodes). I've read many of John Grisham's and a lot of others, and Michael Connelly Mickey Haller books.
Nothing like sparring in the courtroom by opposing counsel to get my blood boiling, especially if it's witty. I love it; so does my sister.
I look for that in legal crime fiction. I wish I had a month on a lake under a tree with lots of legal and other mysteries, ice tea and frozen yogurt (and no pollen nearby).
Oh that sounds nice! May I join you ;)?Delete
I do like courtroom dramas in books, more so than films or TV I think. It's a great way to establish a tense scenario. Oh, but one of my favourite films of all time is My Cousin Vinny, it's wonderful.
I adore My Cousin Vinny! It's one of those that I can't pass by if I catch it channel-surfing. Especially the courtroom scenes. Fred Gwynne was so good as the judge. Did you know he wrote children's books?Delete
Never read any ESG. I remember the TV show from my childhood and always found Raymond Burr a little stodgy. TCM had an early 1930s Perry Mason movie with Warren Williams that was a lot of fun. More a Nick and Nora vibe than the TV show had.
Yes exactly - if you see a few minutes you are caught. I will be thinking 'must go and do something, but I'll just watch until the scene where .... happens' and that's it - no hope of moving away.Delete
I think my parents watched Perry Mason - but I was a big fan of Ironside, which was Raymond Burr's next outing wasn't it?
Yes, Ironside. Raymond Burr.ReplyDelete
Don't forget the villain in Rear Window.
Oh yes, I'd forgotten that! What a career he had...Delete