Friday, October 25, 2019

Forgotten Books: DEAD MEN'S LETTERS by Erle Stanley Gardner (1990)

Chances are you have a copy of the big honkin' Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. (If not, you oughta.) The book leads off with a story by Erle Stanley Gardner - an adventure of Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook called "Come and Get It."

As the blurb preceding the story explains, it's the third in a sequence of tales involving blackmail, a crime trust, an icy-eyed crime boss and a girl with a mole, hailed as "the most thrilling work the popular Mr. Gardner has yet produced." Intrigued, I wanted to read the whole sequence, and discovered it was contained in the 1990 collection Dead Men's Letters.

Ed Jenkins, I was amazed to learn, appeared in Black Mask 72 times between 1925 and 1943, and returned for a final performance in Argosy in 1961. Dead Men's Letters features six of those adventures, four of which comprise the sequence I was looking for. They are: "Laugh That Off" (Sept. 1926), "This Way Out" (Mar. 1927), "Come and Get It" (Apr. 1927) and "In Full of Account" (May 1927).

The Phantom Crook, so called because cops all over the country are incapable of catching him, is living in San Francisco with some sort of immunity deal. He's been careful not to commit any crimes that the police know about in California, so he's able to live a quasi-normal existence there. Trouble is, other crooks see him as fair game, and are always trying to inveigle him in their own schemes. And, of course, the cops are chomping at bit for him to slip up and give them an excuse to nail him.

In the first story, Jenkins meets - and is forced to become engaged to - flapper socialite Helen Chadwick, whose recently deceased father was being blackmailed, casting a shadow over the reputation of girl and her mother. Ed, whose specialties are safecracking and forgery, is lured into an elaborate scheme to deprive the girl of her inheritance and her hoity-toity friends of a fabulous jewel. Does clever Ed turn the tables on the bad guys? What do you think?

Illo from "Come and Get It." I believe that's Ed on the right.

Next up, Ed meets another flapper, this time with a mole on her hand, and a master criminal he calls Icy-Eyes, and is offered chance to obtain all the blackmail evidence against Helen Chadwick's pop. Of course, Icy-Eyes tries to trick him, and Ed endeavors to trick him right back.

Icy-Eyes and Mole Girl return in the third tale, and Ed is embroiled in preventing a massive jewel heist, while still trying to secure that blackmail evidence. But Icy-Eyes escapes again, setting up the final story. This one involves a jeweled crown, a very pissed off Phantom Crook, oodles of vengeance and salvation at last for pureheart Helen Chadwick.

In all, it's a fun, snappy, fast-moving yarn, with a lot more excitement than your average Perry Mason novel. It was an interesting contrast to the Race Williams and Continental Op adventures appearing in some of the same issues. Some of those same issues, in fact, featured portions of the first Race Williams novel, The Snarl of the Beast, and the first could-have-been Op novel, Blood Money.

Gardner was clearly a better writer than Daly, but there are similarities between Ed Jenkins and Race Williams. Both consider themselves the best in their fields. They're proud of it, and don't care who who knows it. Both are do-gooders, but operate outside - and sometimes in opposition to - the law. Both are consistently involved with slim, delicate young women, whose charms they force themselves to resist. In Ed's case, the girls are all of good families (though sometimes forced into bad behavior), while Race's girls are often born bad, but still have noble tendencies. The main difference is that Ed lives by his wits, while Race lives by his guns.

But Gardner was clearly not the writer Hammett was. His stories, while cleverly plotted and well told, are popcorn compared Hammett's steak, and Ed Jenkins, like Race Williams, is a stickman compared to the Op. The characters are so different they almost defy comparison.

The other difference is - Ed Jenkins never made into novel form. So why not? The four stories I've described form a "novel" in the loosely connected manner of Red HarvestThe Dain Curse, and the Race Williams books The Snarl of the BeastThe Hidden Hand, and so on. Given that as the norm, why didn't Gardner seek to have this quartet published as a book? Or did he? I'm hoping there are some ESG experts out there who can advise us.


Stephen Mertz said...

For me the answer to "why was there never an Ed Jenkins novel?" is explained in ESG's refusal to Joe Shaw to be included in Shaw's immortal Black Mask Omnibus in 1947. Unlike Hammett & Chandler, ESG refused to be included. He felt the crudeness of his pulp magazine stories would detract from his novels & Sat. Eve. Post appearances, which of course are of a much smoother, more tepid voice. As you point out, the Jenkins stories are very much in the rowdy style of Carroll John Daly, who was a best friend of ESG's until Daly's passing in 1958. I doubt Shaw would have selected a Jenkin story anyway as Shaw hated Daly's work & popularity. Perhaps a current pulp reprint house will make this available.

Glen Davis said...

I try to pick up collections of ESG's pulp characters. They are always entertaining.