There’s an appealing irony in the assertion that you know an author has hit the big time when everyone remembers the name of their characters over that of the creator themself: Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Tarzan, Jason Bourne, we erudite types remember them, of course, but the world at large – fuelled no doubt by TV and films – associates more with their representations than their origins. Erle Stanley Gardner – a King of Crime, lest we forget – is not just less well-known than his character, but also the piece of music that character is himself overshadowed by; all together now… Frankly, he must be like the biggest-selling author in the world on those terms. Well, uh, yeah, he kinda is, actually. And yet, despite my avowed love of the man and his writing, it’s taken me 70 posts to get round to reviewing him here; what gives?
Well, two things. Firstly, I’d read a lot of Gardner before starting this blog and had sort of lost track of exactly what I had and hadn’t already encountered, and secondly a lot of it was written at high speed and with, er, some quality control issues and so some of what I’ve read since hasn’t exactly covered him in glory. However, The Case of the Borrowed Brunette is about as classic a Perry Mason – oh, yeah, that’s the famous character, but the way – novel as you’ll get, and showcases a lot of what Gardner did extremely well and also a lot of the flaws in his process.
What’s great is the hook: Mason spots identically-dressed brunettes standing on street corners for several blocks and, upon investigating, finds they’re replying to an advert asking for someone of their really rather specific description. When one of these women is hired for the still somewhat-nebulous job, he is asked to look into things to check the setup is all above-board. Shenanigans ensue, someone dies, and before long Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake are trying to get their client exonerated on a murder charge. It is simple, clean, direct, and crammed full of the rattling prose and borderline-hardboiled dialogue that make Gardner such a joy:
“You’re a lawyer?”
“You have clients?”
“They pay you?”
“You represent their interests?”
“I’m not your client. Somebody else is. Therefore you’re representing somebody else. Those interests may be adverse to mine. If they are, you’re my enemy. Why the hell should I answer your questions?”