Friday, April 27, 2012

Adventure classics -- Murder on board

The Case of the Crooked Candle

by Erle Stanley Gardner


Could any two cities on the same planet be more unlike than the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and the Los Angeles of Erle Stanley Gardner?

Chandler’s -- beautiful, terrifying, tragic, and often, surprisingly rainy, Gardner’s -- tidy, moral, and, despite the obligatory murder, strangely sanitized. I’ll leave you to ponder which Los Angeles of the mind you inhabit.

Gardner’s Los Angeles was a city of courtrooms and legal offices, seldom more than backdrop for Mason and his team -- secretary Della Street and private detective Paul Drake, always ready for dictation or surveillance. The plot was the thing for Gardner, with settings and characters subordinate to the plot’s intricate manipulations. After all, with nearly 150 novels to his credit -- including work under such pseudonyms as A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning and Les Tillray -- he didn’t have much time to lavish on description.

But in rare instances, he indulged his love for sailing as well as for legal battling to such delightful effect I wish he’d done it more often. At least he gave us The Case of the Crooked Candle.

Its plot is one of Gardner’s most intricate, with as usual, a lovely young woman as murder suspect.

(Among other oddities of Perry Mason’s practice, his clients were predominately nubile and female, although many statistics indicate most murderers are male. The National Center for Victims of Crime,, reports that for a recent year, when the sex of the offender was known, fewer than ten percent were women.)

In The Case of the Crooked Candle, client Carol Burbank -- “a fast-thinking little number” -- has tangled herself in a web of her own weaving. To be acquitted, she’ll need a lawyer as smart as she is with evidence that includes her bloody shoeprints on a yacht’s companionway stair tread. And a candle, a crooked but truthful candle whose angle of
incline indicates, to someone familiar with tide tables for Southern California’s Channel Islands, that half the population of Los Angeles must have tramped through the grounded yacht turned murder scene.

Some mystery writers built their plots around railroad timetables. Gardner built this one around tide tables.

To be fair, Gardner also wrote nonfiction books about sailing, such as the following description from Gypsy Days on the Delta, available, like his Perry Mason stories, at

“A couple hundred feet up, the sun will be shining with warmth, but down within the tule fog, the sunbeams cannot penetrate. The air has a milky color and the chill creeps into the very marrow. . . ” Does the ghost of Chandler linger there?

(Next week -- A scheduling change moves Adventure classics to Wednesday, as we begin a May of historical fiction with a novel that’s both historical and mysterious -- Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. As mentioned earlier this week, the Wordcraft section of this blog moves to Mondays, beginning April 30. Totally Texas moves to Fridays, beginning May 4.)

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