Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Snowy Ducks for Cover" by Erle Stanley Gardner

This is the year I pulp up, by which I mean that I plan to read a lot of classic pulp stories and NeoPulp stories (coined recently by Patti Abbott) and just absorb what makes these stories so memorable. I will improve my writing as a result. When Raymond Chandler decided to start writing stories, he studied the authors published in the Black Mask magazine. In the timeline at the front of Chandler’s Collected Stories is this entry for 1933: “Studies Erle Stanley Gardner and other representatives of pulp fiction, and spends five months writing his first story, ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,’ which is published by pulp detective magazine, Black Mask.” Well, if it’s good enough for Chandler, it’s sure certainly good enough for me.

Erle Stanley Gardner is the creator of Perry Mason. For that, he’ll live on. He’s also the creator of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, a highly entertaining series that is recommend by just about any reader who cracks open an installment. But before the novels, Gardner churned out short stories. A quick check at Thrilling Detective lists nearly forty series characters all created by Gardner’s fertile mind. There is not a series of books with all the short stories in them but there are a few. The Danger Zone and Other Stories is one such collection. Publishers Crippen and Landru bring together some never-before-reprinted stories of Gardner’s rare characters. “Snowy Ducks for Cover” (1931) is the lead story.

In the introduction, Bill Pronzini describes Snowy Shane thusly: “a tough-minded private eye with a penchant for highly unorthodox detective work.” With a sketch like that, the mind starts whipping up an image even before you read the first word. Shane gets his moniker because of “a bushy crop of gray hair which silvered his head with a grizzled mane.” In the age of the pulps, where an author only has a few lines to describe a character or situation to snare a reader, Gardner writes this about Shane on page one: “He didn’t play the game along orthodox lines, but took shortcuts whenever he felt reasonably certain of his ultimate goal.” Quite American of him, don’t you think? The ends justify the means, I guess. This one-line mission statement probably resonated with readers back in 1931, the date of this publication, where soup lines snaked around the block and men eked out an existence, looking for just a little break to get them over the hump. Shane was a good member in the long line of pulp heroes because he got results.

The case in this story is simple. Molly O’Keefe, secretary to Harley Robb, is accused of the murder of her boss. Robb, according to a handwritten “confession,” was embezzling funds from his company for speculation. O’Keefe’s defense lawyer asks Shane for any clue on which to hang a defense. Shane doesn’t’ want to do it. Then the lawyer (Sheridane) plays his trump card: “I want you to pull some of your fourth degree stuff and get our client a break.” Shane is hooked (as are we; Fourth degree stuff? Cool!) and, then, Shane is off.

Shane’s methods are not unlike the methods of countless detectives, Sherlock Holmes included. He visits the crime scene and sees something. He doesn’t tell the defense lawyer and, thus, Gardner doesn’t tell us. Shane visits each of three men, all members of the company’s advisory committee—and, thus, the benefactors of Robb’s untimely death—and asks random questions, sometimes only one before dragging the sputtering lawyer to the next suspect. In one exchange, the Shane-as-Sherlock, I’m-not-going-to-tell-you-anything comparison is quite apparent:
In the taxicab, the lawyer regarded him [Shane] speculatively.
“Really, Snowy, I don’t see what you gained.”
“Shut up,” said the detective. “I’m thinkin’.”
The way Shane identifies the true murderer is interesting and, certainly unorthodox. It might be illegal nowadays what with our penchant to sue over the most inane things, usually the result of a lack of self-responsibility. There’s a nice presentation quality to the reveal, something akin to the Thin Man movies, although the main confession takes place off-stage. The last paragraph explains the story’s title and seems to imply this isn’t the first Shane story even though I can’t find a list of Shane stories on the web.

Gardner presents this story in the traditional fashion: an interested party approaches the detective, gives the detective (and reader) all the pertinent data, the detective does his thing, and the bad guy is caught. Nothing really earth-shattering in scope but, then, Gardner was just using the template so many other pulp authors used (and still use).

The prose is quick, exciting, and full of good Pulp Words and Phrases: frail (a woman); jane (a woman); “His eyes went slithering about…”; “Sheridane’s brow was corrugated…”; and my personal favorite: “Robb didn’t cop that coin without some split.”

What I Learned As A Writer: Description. I’ve been knocked time and again for not providing a description of a character, a scene, or the surrounding environment. In this story, Gardner always introduces a character and describes him, even if it’s the bare minimum, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. I’ve taken to reading with a pencil in hand, circling and annotating things I need to learn. This story is a good lesson in description.

1 comment:

Barbara Martin said...

I'm putting this book on my TBR list because of your great review. When younger I loved the Perry Mason stories.