Category Archives: Erle Stanley Gardner

He Started Something With His First “Hello, Hello”*

TelephoneAs I post this, today would have been Alexander Graham Bell’s 169th birthday. It’s not really an overstatement to say that the telephone, the invention with which he’s most closely associated, created a communications revolution. Today, we take for granted the ability to reach into a pocket or handbag, get our telephones, and call anyone we want. Modern telephones do even more. You can make hotel reservations, buy airline tickets, check into your flight, rent a car, and get a cab to the airport within a few moments, all with a telephone.

Telephones are crucial for police investigations, too, and they have been since long before you could take ‘photos with them. There was a time when houses had one telephone, with possibly an extension in another room. That meant few conversations were as private as one might have hoped.

That lack of privacy figures into Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When family patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the rest of his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone discounts the idea, and she herself tells the group not to pay any attention to her. But secretly, everyone begins to wonder. Any doubts are put to rest when Cora herself is killed the next day. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. At one point, one character remembers something that turns out to be an important clue. That character makes a telephone call to report that memory, but unfortunately, the wrong person overhears…

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claw, Perry Mason gets a new client who calls herself Eva Griffin. She tells him she’s being blackmailed by tabloid reporter Frank Locke, who threatens to publish her relationship with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke in Spicy Bits unless she pays him well. Being married to someone else, she knows this might ruin her lover’s career, and will certainly ruin her own reputation.  Mason agrees to take the case, and begins to communicate with Locke. He soon concludes that there’s more to this story than it seems. So he follows Locke to a nearby hotel, where he arranges with the hotel’s switchboard operator to trace a call that Locke makes. That information gives Mason the lead he needs to find out who’s set his client up for blackmail and why. At first it seems that this might be the end of the case. But that turns out not to be so, when Eva’s husband is shot and she becomes the prime suspect. Now Mason has to defend his client, even though he’s discovered that not much of what she says is the truth.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, where many people use public telephones. When the body of national model worker Guang Hongying is discovered in a nearby canal, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Sergeant Yu Guangming are assigned to investigate. It’s a very delicate matter, because the victim was a sort of national role model – a celebrity in her own way. It takes time and patience, but the two detectives do rack down the killer. And part of the way they do that is by tracing a call that links the victim to the murderer.

Today, of course, many, many people have their own telephones. Those can be treasure troves of information, since lots of people store contact numbers, addresses, photographs, and lots more in their telephones. So those who don’t want to have their calls traced often use pay-as-you-go telephones. That’s what happens in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. In one plot thread of that novel, DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Chyney investigate the execution-style murder of dubious Dublin banker Emmet Sweetman. His killers are not exactly legitimate business contacts, so they did business with Sweetman through a pay-as-you-go ‘phone. Tidey and Cheney are lucky enough to find that telephone, and are able to link the killers to their victim. Incidentally, in another plot thread of the same novel, Vincent Naylor, his brother Noel, and some friends plot the robbery of a van belonging to Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks and firms. They pull off the heist by holding the driver’s wife hostage and sending pictures that prove she’s in danger.

They aren’t the only criminals who use telephones in that way, either. In Max Kinnings’ Baptism, three hostage-takers break into the home of London Underground train driver George Wakeham. They take his wife and children hostage, and order him to do as they tell him. He’s to go to his job as usual, and follow every instruction he is given by the hostage-takers. They then give him a special mobile ‘phone that he’s to keep with him at all times. With no other option, Wakeham does as he’s told, goes to his job, and takes his seat in the driver’s cab of his train. The hostage-takers board it shortly afterwards. And it’s not long before Wakeham understands that these people want to capture the entire train, with all 400-plus passengers. Hostage negotiator DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to find out what the hostage-takers want, so he has to establish communication with them, too. By telephone.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way police use telephones to get information about victims, suspects and more. And it’s not hard to see why. People do leave a lot of information on their telephones, sometimes more than is judicious. Just ask Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett. In The Serpent Pool, she and her Cold Case Review Team re-open the six-year-old murder of Bethany Friend. It turns out that that killing is tied to two more recent deaths. Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on some research about Thomas de Quincey, and it turns out that his work is very useful to the cases Scarlett is investigating. One day, she goes out, forgetting her mobile ‘phone at home. When her partner, book dealer Marc Amos finds the telephone, he can’t resist the urge to check her messages. He’s been feeling unsettled about their relationship, and his worst fears seem to be coming true when he sees a text from Kind. That incident doesn’t solve the case, but it plays its role. And it shows just how much information a person can get from a telephone.

Telephones may drive us to the brink sometimes. What with robo-calls, people who have loud, public conversations, and so on, they can seem to do more harm than good. And modern telephones make it harder than ever to actually get away for a break. But where would we be without them?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sweet’s Alexander Graham Bell.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Martin Edwards, Max Kinnings, Qiu Xiaolong

She’ll Get a Hold on You, Believe It*

Femmes FatalesOne of the more memorable kinds of characters, especially (but not exclusively) in Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novels, is the femme fatale. She is alluring and seductive, and that often spells ruin for anyone who gets involved with her. She’s an interesting character, actually. On the one hand, she is often depicted as wily, deceptive and sometimes a criminal. On the other, she is also depicted as independent, strong, and unwilling to accept the roles that society has laid out for her. You may not trust her, but you can’t help but admire her in a way. That kind of complexity has made the femme fatale an enduring sort of character. I’ve only space here for a few examples, but that’s all right; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could, anyway.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason gets a visit from a woman who calls herself Eva Griffin. She says that she is being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for a tabloid called Spicy Bits. The tabloid has evidence that Griffin, who is married, was at the Beechwood Inn with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke. Now, Locke is threatening to release the story unless Griffin pays him. She wants Mason to find Locke and stop him.  Mason agrees, but almost immediately runs into problems in this case. The major one is that Eva Griffin is not who she says she is. Her surname is actually Belter, and she’s been telling several other lies, too, about her situation. Still, she is Mason’s client, so he keeps working on her behalf. Then one night, she places a frantic call to him. Her husband George has been shot, and she’s terrified. Mason goes to her, and before he knows it, is drawn into a murder case in which both he and his client are suspects. He’s going to have to find Belter’s real killer if he’s going to clear his own name and defend his client.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia features noted archaeologist Eric Leidner and his wife, Louise.  Leidner and his dig team are hoping to make some important discoveries at their site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise is joining the team for the first time, and isn’t fitting in particularly well. On the one hand, she can be both polite and charming when she wishes; and she has a certain ‘polish’ and sophistication. On the other hand, she can be rude and cutting as well. But even those who dislike her admit that she has a sort of magic that can draw people to her. One afternoon, she is murdered in her bedroom. Hercule Poirot is in the area, having finished another case, and is now on his way back to London. He is persuaded to change his plans and investigate the murder. As he looks into the case, he gets to know quite a lot about the victim’s personality:

‘She disliked domination – she disliked the feeling of belonging to someone else – in fact she disliked playing second fiddle.

He also learns how Louise Leidner impacted everyone around her. That effect certainly plays its role in her death.

Fans of Raymond Chandler will know that several of his stories feature femmes fatales. In The Big Sleep, for instance, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to stop a blackmailer, book dealer Arthur Geiger, from extorting his family. Marlowe is persuaded, and goes in search of Geiger; but by the time he finds his quarry, Geiger’s dead. Sternwood’s daughter Carmen is at the murder scene, but she is either drugged or having a breakdown, so she can’t help much. Marlowe decides to get her to safety; that choice draws him into a case of multiple murder. It also means he crosses paths with both Carmen and her sister Vivian Regan. Both are seductive and, in their ways, quite toxic. As their father puts it,

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.’

And both women’s femme fatale personalities play their roles in the story’s events. I know, I know, fans of The Lady in the Lake and of Farewell, My Lovely. Both have terrific examples of femmes fatales.

James M. Cain also included several femmes fatales in his work. For instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, we meet Frank Chambers, an aimless drifter who ends up working at a roadside diner. He is attracted to the owner’s wife, Cora Papadakis, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Cora is unhappy in her marriage, and wants both her freedom and the diner. So she and Frank plot to kill her husband, Nick. Then, everything starts to spin out of control, and as with most noir stories, things don’t go at all as planned.  They don’t in Double Indemnity, either. In that story, insurance agent Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. It doesn’t take long for him to fall under her spell; and before much time has passed, she’s drawn him into a plot to kill her husband for insurance money. As you can guess, things don’t work out the way either hopes they will.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker is the story of the murder of thirty-two-year-old Kate Sumner, whose body is discovered by Chapman’s Pool, in Dorset. PC Nick Ingram is first on the scene, so he begins the investigation. He, DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter narrow down the list of suspects to three. One is the victim’s husband, William. The other two are an actor, Stephen Harding, and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. In this case, we don’t have the sort of femme fatale who induces a man to murder someone else. But we do have a seductive character who is independent and, in her own way, quite manipulative.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s historical novel Queenpin. That’s the story of the infamous Gloria Denton, hardened mob moll who’s ‘seen it all and done it all.’ We see Gloria through the eyes of her twenty-two-year-old protégée, who’s recently been hired to do the books at a seedy Las Vegas club called Tee Hee. Little by little Gloria introduces the narrator of the story to the late-night-life of casinos, betting, and a lot of money. Then, the narrator falls for a small-time gambler, Vic Riordan. Now, everything changes, and things begin to take a very noir turn…

Speaking of Abbotts…Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel features Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has a lot of the qualities of a femme fatale. She’s independent, seductive, and clever. She is also very toxic, and stops at nothing to get what she wants – including murder. Christine has been raised in this dysfunctional atmosphere, and it’s had a powerful impact on her. But then, she sees that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to get caught in the same dangerous pattern. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free both of them from Eve’s spell.

And femmes fatales do have a way of casting spells over people. It’s part of what can make them so compelling. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey, Phil Collins, and Nathan East’s Easy Lover.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Minette Walters, Patricia Abbott, Raymond Chandler

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

She’s a Highly Specialized Key Component of Operational Unity*

SecretariesSecretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.

We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?

The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s  The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.

Margaret Maron’s  One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…

And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Leon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Margaret Maron, Qiu Xiaolong

Hello It’s Me*

TelephonesYou don’t see many public telephones any more, at least not in the area where I live. In part that’s because so many people have mobile ‘phones; there’s just no need for them. Telephones have become rich storehouses of people’s information, so when there is a murder, the police check the victim’s telephone to see who might have contacted that person and when the last calls were placed. All of this helps to narrow down the possibilities when it comes to suspects and motives for murder.

Actually telephone records have been around for a long time as very useful tools. And an interesting comment exchange with Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about that. Now, I’ll wait while you go visit Rebecca’s blog. It’s an excellent resource for readers and writers of crime fiction. And Rebecca hosts the online Crime Book Club, which discusses a different crime novel each month (This month: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Wednesday 16 April, 8PM GMT).

Back now? Right – telephones. Hercule Poirot uses records of telephone calls in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, we meet the various members of the Lee family, which is headed by unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch Simeon Lee. When he invites his family to gather at Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one really wants to accept. But at the same time, no-one dares to refuse. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. It’s not easy either because all of the family members have motives for murder. One of them is Lee’s son George, a Member of Parliament and very concerned about his image. He claims that he was making a telephone call at the time of the murder. It’s interesting to find out what the truth about that telephone call reveals about George Lee. What’s more, it shows that even then, detectives traced calls.

We see that in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws too. Perry Mason’s been hired by Eva Belter to stop sleazy tabloid reporter Frank Locke from blackmailing her. Locke found out that she was having an affair with an up-and-coming politician and plans to milk that for all it’s worth. Mason agrees to meet with Locke to try to get him to leave Belter alone. They do meet but Mason is sure that Locke knows more than he’s saying. So he follows Locke one day, ending up at a local hotel. There, he arranges with the hotel telephone operator to trace a call that Locke makes. The information from that call gives Mason the information he needs about why his client has been targeted for blackmail. But that’s when things get complicated. When Eva’s husband George is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect and appeals to Mason to clear her name.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, not many years before mobile telephones became easily available to almost everyone. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the murder of national model worker Guang Hongying. Her body is found one afternoon in the Baili Canal, and it’s thought at first that she was raped and killed by a taxi driver. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. This case will be delicate though, because the victim was linked to several powerful people. Still, Chen and Yu persevere. One of the leads they follow is a series of telephone calls that ties the victim to one particular person. Those calls are all made from and received at a public telephone and it’s interesting to see how those records are kept.

As I say, most people now have mobile telephones, and those records can prove extremely helpful. Of course, people who want to cover their tracks know that too, so they often use pay-as-you-go ‘phones. But the police can find those useful too at times. In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage for instance, DS Bob Tidey is working with Garda Detective Rose Cheney on the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a dubious banker who made a lot of money during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, but got into serious financial trouble when the crash came. He did business with some dangerous people and the detectives want to know who those associates are. They’re lucky enough to find Sweetman’s pay-as-you-go ‘phone, which he used for his off-the-record dealings, and that discovery proves quite informative.

Today’s telephones are also frequently used for texting, and those texts can also be very helpful to detectives. In C.J. Box’s Below Zero for instance, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is on the trail of the Mad Archer, a poacher who shoots animals and leaves them to die. Then Pickett’s daughter Sheridan begins receiving text messages from her foster sister April Keeley, whom everyone thought was tragically killed six years earlier. Pickett rushes home to find out the truth about those texts. If they were from April, then he wants to trace her. Where has she been and why hasn’t she contacted her foster family? If the texts are not from April, Pickett wants to know who would want to play the sick game of pretending they are. Those text messages turn out to be very helpful in leading Pickett to the truth about April.

Of course, it’s not always as easy as it may seem to use telephone records. In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Constable Molly Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate the Christmastime deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and his friend Ewan Williams. Part of that investigation is a set of interviews with the victims’ friends. At one point Winters asks one of them if Jason got a call on Christmas Eve:


‘‘I don’t know. We didn’t keep him under armed guard, you know. Can’t you check his phone calls or something?’
Everyone knew too much these days, or thought they did, about police methods. Ewan and Jason both had cell phones on them. Completely ruined by their immersion in the icy river. Winters had put in a request for the phone records of the dead men but had yet to hear back. It was a slow week everywhere.’


It’s sometimes a difficult process to get telephone information, although of course, you don’t see that on television or films.

Still, telephone records give extremely valuable information in solving cases. With modern messaging, Internet capability and so on, they’re increasingly individual too. Little wonder cops always look for people’s telephones.

Oh, sorry, I’ve got a call – must take this. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Todd Rundgren song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Qiu Xiaolong, Vicki Delany