Thursday, October 24, 2013

Pulp Icons: Erle Stanley Gardner and His Pulp Magazine Characters - Jeffrey Marks

I don't remember the first book I read by Erle Stanley Gardner, which is sort of surprising considering all the other first books by various authors I recall. It may well have been SHILLS CAN'T CASH CHIPS, one of his Donald Lam and Bertha Cool mysteries written under the name A.A. Fair. I know I remember checking that one out from the bookmobile, so that was almost 50 years ago. I checked out other A.A. Fair books, as well as a number of Perry Mason novels, from the bookmobile, and then when my hometown got its own public library I read all the Gardner novels on those shelves, too, many of them early Perry Masons in those cheap Triangle/Blakiston hardcover reprints (more like cardboard cover reprints) with the pages that were already brown and brittle some twenty years after they were published.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that I've been reading Erle Stanley Gardner novels for a long, long time, but I didn't encounter any of his pulp work until a few years later when Ron Goulart included one of the Lester Leith stories in his iconic anthology THE HARDBOILED DICKS.

Even after that it was a while before I read many more of Gardner's pulp stories, but when collections of them began to come out in the Eighties and Nineties, I was right there. I read both volumes of the Whispering Sands stories from ARGOSY. I read both Ed Jenkins collections, and the Ken Corning collection, and the science fiction collection THE HUMAN ZERO. In recent years I've picked up more Gardner pulp collections, and I'll get to them, I swear I will.

That brings us to a recent non-fiction study of Gardner's pulp work, PULP ICONS: ERLE STANLEY GARDNER AND HIS PULP MAGAZINE CHARACTERS by award-winning scholar of mystery fiction Jeffrey Marks. Appropriately enough considering its subject matter, it's a fast, breezy, slightly hardboiled volume that focuses for the most part on the many different series characters Gardner created for the pulps. The longest chapter is the one on Ed Jenkins and Lester Leith, Gardner's best-known characters other than Perry Mason, Donald Lam, and Bertha Cool. However, Marks doesn't neglect the lesser-known characters such as Sidney Zoom, Speed Dash, The Patent Leather Kid, Black Barr, and The Man in the Silver Mask, among many others.

One of the things I really enjoyed in this book is the inclusion of correspondence between Gardner and the pulp editors for whom he was writing as they fine-tuned the stories and the characters. It's an interesting look into Gardner's creative process.

Overall, this is a very entertaining book, packed with information about Gardner and his characters, and whether you're a recent fan of his work or an old-timer like me, you definitely should check it out.


Anonymous said...

According to Amazon:

Out of Print--Limited Availability.

Jeff M.

James Reasoner said...

You're right. The author must have pulled it down for some reason since I wrote and scheduled this post. I read the Kindle edition of the book a couple of weeks ago.

Scott D. Parker said...

I have the Penzler-edited Big Book of Pulps which has, I think, three ESG stories in there. And I've got THE DANGER ZONE from The Lost Classics series which has a story or two about other characters. I'm going to have to look for this book. Thanks for the tip.

Oh, and I also liked how ESG's name on something could be considered a selling point. I've got a western, Death on Treasure Trail by Don Davis, that has an intro by ESG and his stamp of approval on the cover.

There's another fascinating book out there: Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate. It was published in 1980 and is out of print now. Houston's public library has a copy. The authors researched all of ESG's papers--housed at UT Austin--and how he taught himself how to write. Frankly, it's a great story of one writer's education and is like a textbook in itself.

James Reasoner said...

Scott, I've read that book by the Fugates as well as the Gardner bio by Dorothy B. Hughes, and they're both excellent books.

James Reasoner said...

Don Davis was really Davis Dresser, by the way. He wrote four books under that name about a character known as the Rio Kid (not the Rio Kid from the pulps). Pretty good books, as I recall.

Scott D. Parker said...

Death on Treasure Trail is indeed a Rio Kid book. And it opens in the Big Bend area.

So, any word on a Kindle version of this current book being made available?

James Reasoner said...

Unfortunately, no clue on when the book will be available again. I bought my copy from Amazon a couple of weeks ago.