The Case of the Reluctant Reader (not by Erle Stanley Gardner)
Challenged to read books published in 1956 for the 1956 Club by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, I discovered that the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner published three books in 1956:
- The Case of the Terrified Typist (#49)
- The Case of the Demure Defendant (#50)
- The Case of the Gilded Lily (#51)
As luck would have it, my husband has all three (I didn’t say it was good luck!). I’m not keen on them, so I view this as a mixed blessing, but I did want to try reading at least one. I’ve never been very demure nor do I go in much for gilding the lily, but I’m a pretty nifty typist and am old enough to have learnt on the last generation of manual typewriters. Apart from which, the Terrified Typist was the earliest, so that one it is.
However, as far as editions go, the Typist is the newest of the three, reissued in 1984 by Ballantine/Random House. It has a suitably ‘80s cover with neon pink title and a picture with rather a snazzy knife or letter opener, covered with what could be blood, but could just as easily be sealing wax, given the pile of letters lying next to it. The Demure Defendant was issued by Pan/Heinemann in 1964 (unabridged) in a cover with an orange/ochre/rust geometric design on a dull brown background with a photo of a blond who may be looking down with her heavily false eyelash-adorned eyes (they may be too heavy to lift!), but not demure enough to wear any clothes, or none that I can see. The Gilded Lily is a Pocket Book edition from 1968 with a photo of a Twiggy-style blonde with short hair, wearing square tinted glasses and enormous black and white square earrings, peering out from behind her heavily made up eyes over a martini glass with olive. By the way, we know that Perry Mason solves the case because it says so on the front cover! Nothing about the cover makes me want to read it.
Criticising The Case of the Terrified Typist, the reading experience
It was a quiet evening so I sat down to start reading, but I soon noticed that the book wasn’t as dated in language and attitudes to Della Street as I’d expected. I wondered if the book had been edited for the new edition, with attitudes and speaking style updated, perhaps to tie in with the script of the TV show. I didn’t find an answer to that and I’m not inclined to read another of the three from 1956 to compare.
However, I came across a fascinating article from an academic journal with an introduction/summary in French, describing how Erle Stanley Gardner’s French translators slightly adapted the endings and beginnings of the early novels to suit the different French book market where people were not as likely to buy every book of a series. Apparently, as Gardner was not only a lawyer, but had previously worked in marketing, he believed that you needed to hook your readers so they would be compelled to read the next instalment, rather like those irritating ‘next week’s episode’ at the end of television shows or the even more annoying excerpts from the author’s next book at the end of a novel. Erle Stanley Gardner may have a pioneer of this technique, but he did it more subtly, incorporating it into his storyline. He did this by using devices such as Della pulling out a file on the last page, handing it to Perry and telling him about what his next case will be. Then, at the start of the next book, there would be a quick recap of the previous one, reminding the reader where they had left off.
This technique isn’t used in The Case of the Terrified Typist, but the book does begin with a foreword. In this, Gardner goes into a little history that feels irrelevant, then praises a particular legal colleague, in this case “my friend the Honorable (sic.) John Ben Shepperd [who] became the attorney general of the State of Texas.” Whether this was to curry favour with powerful men in real life, I don’t know, or perhaps he was paid to include the endorsement. It certainly has nothing to do with the book itself.
He also waxes lyrical about the generosity and enjoyment of drama (or showing off) common in Texas. It reminds me rather of James Michener’s autobiography, with name-dropping galore, which may be inevitable when you’re talking about popular and influential male authors of the 1950s and ‘60s (and undoubtedly earlier and later). It often feels like women authors haven’t had the same access to the ‘old boy network’, but maybe wome are just more subtle about it. I’m reminded of a story the blogger Judy Dykstra Brown shared fairly recently about being given a badge allowing her and her friend to enter an all-male Legion Club (a club for ex-members of the forces, like the British Legion) in Australia. To be allowed to attend was a special privilege for women that broke club rules. I suppose that was the reason for the country clubs in America. But I digress.
Looking at the next book in the series, it occurred to me that Gardner used the Forewords as extended dedications. So often, a book is dedicated to a random friend or relation without giving any more details. Gardner’s forewords tell you something about the person he wishes to dedicate it to. It often expands on a particular legal peculiarity, a branch of investigation (forensics, toxicology; presumably still in their infancy in 1956). And he takes the opportunity to tell some little edifying anecdote about his friend, such as you might use when introducing someone at a party.
Cast of characters
Another feature of this book is the Cast of Characters list (note the word ‘cast’, as Gardner also envisages it as a television script), giving a little potted biography of each, which does seem to give away plot points. For instance:
ANN RIDDLE—her frosty blue eyes observed many goings-on from her vantage point behind a cigar counter, and she seemed eager to report on all she saw—at first….
Hence we already know that she is going to be more than a one-off witness and it also sounds as if she will be pressured to keep quiet.
Words used to describe Della Street
If you aren’t reading the series in any sort of order, I suppose this does help to remind you who’s who of the regular cast. I particularly like the rather tongue-in-cheek description of Della:
Ooh la la! In The Case of the Demure Defendant, Della is described as Perry’s ‘amiable amanuensis’. I had just decided it might be interesting to find out how she is described in the Cast of Characters in each of the books we have when I discovered The Case of the Gilded Lily has no cast list. How disappointing!
Della Street has a dry sense of humour, for instance when she suggests Mason’s reputation may have intimidated the typist, “After all, […] you’re not entirely unknown, you know.” (p.4) We’re shown that she’s resourceful and observant and makes a good detective. Della admits she might have felt self-conscious if anyone had come across her searching the bin and the idea of concealing evidence makes her feel apprehensive; she is not as self-assured as she at first appears. She is also overly cautious about maintaining her good reputation and not allowing Gertie the secretary to jump to the wrong conclusion and gossip if she and Mason are locked in the law library together. She is also described as ‘demure’ when making the observation that Mason may be bending the law somewhat. Mind you, the word ‘demure’ seems to be Gardner’s shorthand for any well-behaved woman.
Sexism and demure dames
In a book written by a man in 1956, a certain degree of sexism is to be expected, of course. On the whole, it’s not to awful, but the young detective Paul Drake does describe trying to find a taxi driver who remembers a particular fare to the airport as being “like going to some babe wearing a skirt reaching to her knees, a tight sweater, and asking her if she remembered anybody whistling at her yesterday as she walked down the street.” (p.91)
One of the witnesses, Yvonne Manco, is described as ‘demure’, but when she crosses her legs, two of the male jurors “hitch forward in their chairs for a better look, while the chins of two of the less attractive women on the jury were conspicuously elevated.” (p.96) The objectivication of women is very much in evidence, though it’s not necessarily seen as an edifying characteristic. Victim blaming is lurking just around the corner.
The next female witness, Mae Wallis Jordan, is also described as “quiet, demure”; as I said, we’re amassing quite a collection of demure ladies!
The strange case of Della, Della Street
Incidentally, I’ve noticed a peculiarity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing style in that he never says simply Della, he always says Della Street. Why is this? It’s almost like a cutesie Southern affectation, like calling her ‘Miss Della Street’ (you’ll have to imagine the Gone With the Wind twang). Why the emphasis on her surname? Then, in an act of curiosity that could only be reasonably indulged in the age of the internet and an excess of time, it occurred to me that there might be an actual road called Della Street, so I searched Google Maps and, yes, there’s one in Houston, Texas that may have served as inspiration. Incidentally, there are several around the USA, including one in Hernando, Missouri which I strongly suspect was named in homage to the character because it’s right around the corner from Mason Drive.
Certainly on television, there is definitely chemistry between Della and Perry. However, so far in this book, apart from the innuendo in the cast list, Della seems to be described as a professional and competent woman who contributes a great deal to the work, with no hint of the sexism that had so annoyed me when I read The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse. The titular typist is also incredibly competent, so Perry’s ‘flighty’ receptionist Gertie bears the brunt of the misogyny. On the other hand, one of Della’s roles is definitely to present female insight into how a woman might behave in a particular situation, which can grate on modern sensibilities.
Is it a crime to be too British?
As Duane Jefferson, the American defendant in the related murder trial, is working for a British company, there is an amusing exchange between him and Mason in which the latter accused him of becoming too British for his own good:
“There are certain mannerisms, Mr Mason, which the trade comes to expect of the representatives of a company such as ours.” [A diamond trading firm.]
“And there are certain mannerisms which an American jury expects to find in an American citizen,” Mason told him.
“If a jury should feel you’d cultivated a British manner, you might have reason to regret your accent and impersonal detachment.” (pp.47-48)
Lobotomies and other period props
One of the as yet unmet characters in The Case of the Terrified Typist has a brother who has been in a mental institution, but is now described as a “sort of a zombie” because he has had a prefrontal lobotomy , which Mason points out have been more or less discontinued by this time. I was very aware of this as I recently watched a couple of episodes of Ratched, which is a TV series written as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prefrontal lobotomies are heavily featured.
Behind the eight ball is a phrase I had never knowingly heard before. Mason uses it when he has no clear evidence. “If we don’t get some line on Mae Jordan and Marline Chaumont, we’re behind the eight ball”, he says. (p.86) It means to be in a difficult position, which is clear from the context, but the phrase surprised me.
Two of the characters first come into contact with each other after an advert to exchange stereo photos in a photographic magazine. Perhaps Stereolist photos.
Now you’re cooking with gas! How unexpected to come across this phrase in a book published in 1956! I thought it was a British Gas advertising slogan from the 1980s, though I remembered it as ‘Now we’re cooking on gas!’. Apparently not. It was an early natural gas slogan in the USA in the late 1930s or early 1940s and used as sneaky product placement in radio scripts for Bob Hope, Jack Denny and in a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1942. All I can find for British slogans is ‘That’s the beauty of gas.’
Did I enjoy the book?
Unexpectedly, I did! There was enough excitement, red herrings, trickery, verbal dexterity and humour to keep my originally sceptical interest. I feared a deadly dull court case at the end, but that wasn’t as bad as expected, though I probably skimmed the bits where the lawyers are stopping the witnesses from actually saying anything. I was also pleasantly surprised about how modern it all felt, even if they were still using typewriters and carbon copies. In fact, I might even be tempted to read another Erle Stanley Gardner for the 1936 Club. And that was a conclusion I certainly hadn’t expected.
DIAMONDS IN 1956
It suddenly occurred to me that Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist revolves around diamond smuggling and that another high-profile book published in 1956 does exactly the same, Ian Fleming’s Bond thriller, Diamonds Are Forever. Were diamonds in the news in 1956 or, more probably, the year before? Well, yes, they were.
Marilyn Monroe memorably sang Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=knLd8bfeWtI The diamond-themed heat was building.
The first artificial diamonds were created at GE in Schenectady New York at the very end of 1954 by researcher H. Tracy Hall, running the machine in secret on December 16th and New Year’s Eve. GE was sceptical, but finally announced the invention on Valentine’s Day 1955.
On Christmas Day 1954, a plane carrying a cargo of diamonds valued at £1 billion crashed at Prestwick Airport, scattering the diamonds.
Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954, with prominent photos of her diamond engagement ring in Vogue.
In 28 September 1955, a dramatisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz was televised by Kraft Theater. The story is about a boy who visits a rich school friend whose mansion is built on top of a gigantic diamond. However, he soon realises that the father is paranoid and likely to kill anyone who visits. I will be attempting to squeeze this into my reading for Novellas in November (#novnov).
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – IAN FLEMING (1956)
I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have just missed your chance to bid for the original final typescript of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, including his signed revisions. It was on sale at Sotheby’s with a large collection of Fleming and Bond memorabilia In November 202. The typescript is expected to sell for between £80,000 and £120,000. All the lots will first be displayed at Sotheby’s prior to a range of four sales, Bond on Bond Street, celebrating all things Bond, from the first book to 60 years on screen.
Who can forget the Diamonds Are Forever theme song by John Barry, sung so wonderfully by Shirley Bassey? It’s as timeless as a diamond and perfect for the glamorous Bond film of the same name. I’ve never been a great Bond fan, but last Christmas they were all shown on television and I watched many of the older ones and reluctantly admitted they had a certain je ne sais quoi.
However, I had never actually read any of the books, so once again, the 1956 Club challenged me to read something I would probably never have got round to.
First surprise: Bond going out for ‘dressed crab and a pint of black velvet’ (Stout and sparkling white wine) with the Chief of Staff. I thought he only drank ‘martini, shaken not stirred’.
He mentions an ‘inspectoscope’ used by customs officials. That’s explained here: https://flemingsbond.com/the-inspectoscope
Bond is going undercover as a diamond smuggler and his contact is a young woman (surprise, surprise) whose profession is given as ‘single woman’. Surely nobody ever filled that in a passport application? I am dismayed.
Then we visit the London Diamond Club where we are introduced to the idea that Jewish Ripley is instantaneously recognisable as such and may well speak with a strong Jiddish accent. Not very politically correct.
Ian Fleming is very specific with his descriptions of clothes and decor and accessories such as suitcases. I’m sure he was hoping it would be filmed, though the first film wasn’t released until 1962. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to all the Bond novels the previous year. In fact the decors and costumes and styling are the main reason for me to watch early Bond films, though some of the dialogue is very funny.
Where’s the humour gone?
That’s one of the things I really miss in the novel. All that witty repartee that makes Bond so appealing, the twinkle in his eye, comes from the film script, not from the book. In fact, I haven’t managed to finish the book yet because I tend to read it when I get into bed at night and before I know it, zzzzzzz.
That isn’t altogether fair of me, but it’s a description of a man’s world of drinking and eating, smoking, horse racing and gambling. It’s dry and long-winded and nowhere near as exciting as the films. Bond and his friend go off into long discussions about gambling odds about which I care not a fig. There was that scene in the steam room for excitement and a tense interview with a crook, but it really isn’t thrilling enough to make me want to push through to the end. I will do it and I may change my mind by then, but at this stage I decided it was time to finish my blog post and move beyond the book and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, the film is better than the book. As far as I know, he doesn’t even say, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And if he doesn’t say that, what’s the point?