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The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Howling Dog Erle Stanley Gardner – a Penguin Perry Mason. Cover by Romek Marber – 1963

The Perry Mason series ranks as the third best selling book series of all time, with total sales of around 300 million. That’s more than Terry Pratchett, Ian Fleming and George R Martin put together. Only Harry Potter and Goosebumps have sold more copies.

The case of the howling dogThis makes the author of the series – the criminal lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner –  the best-selling American author of the 20th century. Eat your heart out Ernest Hemingway. Unlike Hemingway, Gardner also published under numerous pseudonyms, including Kyle Corning, Carleton Kendrake and Les Tillray. He shouldn’t have bothered. Perry Mason had Gardner, and his estate, laughing all the way to the bank.

Perry Mason – also a criminal lawyer –  features in more than 80 novels and short stories. Most of them involve a client’s murder trial. Mason’s main M.O. is to establish his client’s innocence by implicating another character, who then confesses. The Case of the Howling Dog was the fourth in the series.

When a potential client goes to see Mason about a howling dog and a will, the attorney isn’t interested. He doesn’t enjoy drafting wills, and wonders if the man should see a vet. However, the man’s next question – whether a will is legal if the person who made it had been executed for murder – piques Mason’s interest. In addition to the will and the dog, he encounters a man who has run away someone else’s wife – and a sexy housekeeper. The latter explains the slightly risqué detail on Romek Marber’s 1963 cover illustration.

In this week’s TLS William Boyd announced that he’d worked out James Bond’s precise address in Chelsea from the details in Fleming’s novels. There’s not much chance of doing the same thing with Perry Mason.

Characterisation wasn’t Gardner’s strong suit. His novels provide very few details about Mason’s family, personal life, background, and education. We know that he lives in an apartment because he’s occasionally roused from sleep to go to the office, but he doesn’t entertain anyone at home. We know his tastes in food because many scenes take place in restaurants. And we know that he is an excellent driver as – unusually for a lawyer – he has a penchant for car chases. Despite the sexy housekeeper, his secretary is Mason’s only real romantic interest.

Other than those sketchy facts, there is so little physical description of Perry Mason that the reader is not even sure what he looks like. Perfect material for film and TV adaptation then.

01_12_PerryMason_S01_396104791_708649212-scaledAs if selling 300 million books wasn’t enough, Warner Bros released a series of six Perry Mason films in the 1930’s, starting with The Case of the Howling Dog. But for Baby Boomers, probably the best-known incarnation of the enigmatic lawyer was Raymond Burr in the  CBS TV series which ran from 1957 to 1966. Since Burr, three other actors have played Mason on screen. The latest is Mathew Rhys in the HBO series which premiered in June 2020.


Plats du Jour

Plats Du Jour, or Foreign Food – Patience Gray & Primrose Boyd. Illustrated by David Gentleman – 1957

Plats du Jour was published half-way between Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking in 1955 and French Provincial Cooking in 1960. Although not as well-known as David’s books, initially at least, it outsold both of them. And by “foreign food” Patience and Primrose meant mainly French and Italian. This was 1957 after all.Plats du Jour

By all accounts Plats du Jour is a very practical book. It describes a range of cooking methods from braising to roasting by way of larding and poaching. And there are chapters on Pots and Pans, Stoves and The Store Cupboard.

When it comes to the recipes, the authors laid out their stall in the opening lines, “In this book we have tried to set down the recipes for a number of dishes of foreign origin, in the belief that English people may be stimulated to interpret them, and in doing so find fresh interest in the kitchen.” This is not a million miles away from a sex-therapist recommending that a long-married couple should look for ways of finding fresh interest in the bedroom.

It’s a book I wish I’d owned when I learned to cook at university in the late-70s. My flat mate had a much weightier cookbook, the Good House Keeping Cookery Book; literally weightier, it was a whopping doorstep of a book.0852231377 Mark and I vowed to work through as many of the 2000 recipes as we could. I suspect we managed about 20 between us, including an ill-advised attempt to recreate the glossy chicken and ham pie on the cover. As this was the 70’s, the book contained several references to foreign food. My signature dish was Liver Mexican. There wasn’t much that was Mexican about it and the liver was the cheapest we could buy from the indoor market in Cardiff. I shudder to think what animal it came from.

How we’ve moved on. These days I’m a confirmed Master Chef fan. You wouldn’t get me to enter it, but I watch all three versions; amateur, professional and celebrity. In every show we’re treated to a display of cookery styles from around the world, reflecting the true multicultural nature of the UK in 2020, more than 60 years on from the publication of Plats du Jour. I wonder what Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd would have made of Neil “Razor” Ruddock working alongside Zandra Rhodes on the lunch service at one of London’s top Korean restaurants.


Plats du Jour didn’t rely on the gleaming, full colour plates that made the Good Housekeeping book so alluring back in 1978. It’s beautifully illustrated by David Gentleman whose work can now be seen in Tate Britain, the V&A and the Northern Line platforms at Charing Cross station. Gentleman’s cover illustration of a family of ten sitting around a huge table reminds us of the sheer joy of eating and drinking together. It’s especially poignant on a day when England’s pubs and restaurants prepare to open for the first time in three and a half months.

Penguin Modern Poets 2

Penguin Modern Poets 2: Kingsley Amis, Dom Moraes, Peter Porter, 1972.

Penguin Modern Poets 2The aim of the first series of Penguin Modern Poets was to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader. The result was a wide-ranging sampler of English-language poetry in the 60s and 70s.   At the time, most poetry was published in expensive hardbound editions and Penguin Modern Poets offered readers a taste of modern verse in an accessible format. The first volume was released in 1962; the last, No. 27, appeared in 1979. A second series was launched in 1990.

I still have a battered copy of the most successful volume in the first series, No 10, The Mersey Sound, which featured Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. It sold more than 500,000 copies making it one of the best-selling poetry anthologies ever published. 225px-Mersey-Sound

The link between the three Liverpool-based poets is obvious. But what connects Amis, Moraes and Porter? And who designed the beautifully simple cover of the 1972 edition of the second book in the series?

The answer to the first question appears to be emphatically not very much at all. The three poets were from different countries and were born some years apart; Amis in London in 1922, Moraes in Mumbai in 1938 and Porter in Brisbane in 1929.   The wranglesome Amis was notorious for  drinking, anti-Semitism and adultery. He was photographed sleeping on a beach with “1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” written on his back. His long-suffering wife Hilly seen in the bottom left hand corner of the photo  was responsible for the lipsticked slogan.

Respect to HillyMoraes was also very fond of booze and women; he had a lifelong battle with alcoholism and three failed marriages, including one to the actress Leela Naidu. Unlike Amis, he was a vehement supporter of Israel.   Porter seems to have been relatively happily married, although his first wife killed herself in 1974, and he was not known either for his views on Judaism or for his drinking. Ironically, he died of liver cancer.

However, the three men were all substantial poets. Clive James described Amis’s poetry as “accomplished, literate and entertaining… a richly various expression of a moral personality coming to terms with the world”. I suspect Hilly may have taken issue with James’s use of the word “moral”. Porter was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and Moraes remains one of the best-known names in Indian poetry.

The only connection I can see between the three men is W.H. Auden. Amis and Porter both acknowledged that they were influenced by his work. In those days it was either Auden or Yeats; a bit like “The Stones or The Beatles?” in the 60’s and “Galaxy or Cadbury’s?” in the 90’s. The precocious 15-year-old Moraes is reported to have shown Auden his poems. I wonder if Auden offered to show him his?

Regrettably, I have no idea who was responsible for the black and white feather design on the cover of the 1970 edition of Penguin Modern Poets 2.  

The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin Fiction, 1950

This Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby was published in 1950; around the time that it became accepted as a great work of literature. The book is one of the few blockbuster titles in The Perfect Library and is widely considered to be a literary classic.

The term blockbuster first appeared in the American press a few years earlier to describe large aerial bombs capable of destroying an entire city block. It soon became the label for any very commercially successful play or film and has subsequently been applied to other forms of entertainment including novels and computer games.

In the US The Great Gatsby became a part of the High School curriculum in the 1950s and it has been filmed six times: first as a silent movie; most recently in 2013 when Baz Luhrmann raised the sexual tension, added a hip-hop soundtrack and filmed Gatsby’s sumptuous parties in 3D.

It wasn’t always that way. When it was published in 1925, Gatsby received mixed reviews and initial sales were modest. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing that he was a failure and his work had been forgotten. That might well have been the case if his last minute attempt to change the title of the book to Trimalchio in West Egg had been accepted by his publisher; and if a group of publishing executives had not created the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW).

The CBW was a US organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and “others” in the spring of 1942 to channel the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas”. It aimed to influence the thinking of the American people about the war through the promotion of books; by building and maintaining the will to win, exposing the true nature of the enemy, disseminating technical information, clarifying war aims and, finally, by providing relaxation and inspiration. The Council co-operated with the  Office of War Information and other agencies but, officially, the US government did not fund it. A similar scheme, funded by a fictional department of the British Secret Service, lies at the heart of the plot of Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth.

I don’t know why the CBW chose The Great Gatsby. The only one of their criteria that it came close to meeting was to provide relaxation and inspiration. However, 155,000 copies of the book were distributed to American soldiers between 1942 and 1945. How many of these were actually read? Who knows?

Other Great American Novelists who wrote cautionary tales about living the American Dream saw action in World War II. I like to think that a CBW edition of Gatsby might have nestled in Salinger’s pack as he crawled through the Normandy hedgerows; or sustained Vonnegut as he sheltered in his abattoir outside Dresden; or flew with Heller on bombing missions over Italy. The alternative is that the paperbacks met a terrible fate in field latrines across Europe and the Pacific.


Raymond Williams, Pelican, 1962. Cover design by Carole Ingham, 1982.

CommunicationsCommunications is an analysis of the mass media – mainly newspapers, radio and television – that were available when the book was first published in 1962.

Williams, a Welshman and a Marxist, was a respected and influential writer on politics, culture, media and literature. Despite his reputation, Communications was not well received by the critics when it was first published in 1962,  nor when it was updated in 1976.

However, I’m interested by some of the thinking in Communications. I like Williams’ comparison of the way that the mass media were organized in the UK and the US. In the UK the media were initially  highly centralized; both radio and television began as part of an independent, but government-sponsored organization, the BBC. Commercial stations were only introduced later under pressure from businesses wanting to exploit the broadcast media. In the US all forms of the media were predominantly regional and a commercial model for radio and television dominated from the start. Public broadcasting never had the presence or the influence in the US that the BBC has had in the UK. These differences are still there more than 50 years after the publication of Communications.

Williams’ central argument in Communications is that mass media, and the way that their content is delivered, lies at the heart of democracy. He distinguishes between four types of mass media system: Authoritarian (the North Korean Central News Agency); Paternalistic (the BBC); Commercial (most TV and radio stations in the US); and, finally, Democratic. There are many other examples of the first three categories but, in 1962, Williams could find no examples of a genuinely democratic mass media system; a system that would be open to many different perspectives but not necessarily dependent on public funding or advertising. Williams imagined a system based on independent producers each judged solely by their peers.

Reviewers, including the novelist Kingsley Amis, met the idea of a democratic media system with hostility. The curmudgeonly Amis dismissed it as, “Martians bearing bursaries.” The two writers were born within a year of each other but Williams died relatively young in 1988. Amis lived until 1995, the year when the last restrictions on the use of the Internet were removed. Since then the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on mass media including the delivery of radio, TV and newspaper content and communication by e-mail, messaging, video calls and via forums, blogs and social networking sites. I would like to hear Williams and Amis debating the idea of a democratic mass media today. Williams… one-nil!

Sadly, in spite of the power of the Internet, I can find only one reference to Carole Ingham’s magnificently minimalist design for the cover of the 1982 Pelican edition of Communications. It comes from an advertisement for a second-hand copy of the paperback:

Cover design by Carole Ingham. I expect it took a lot of work!”

I wonder if whoever wrote that had read the book?

Siamese White

Siamese WhiteMaurice Collis,  Penguin Adventure & Travel, 1940.

Whenever I cut the deck of postcards and revealed Siamese White the title of this book intrigued me. Was the subject a breed of cat? A butterfly or an artists’ pigment? Maybe it was the story of  a beautiful courtesan, the product of a mixed race liaison? All were plausible, but all quite wrong. Siamese White was a man –  an Englishman from Bath. During the reign of James II he was appointed as a mandarin by the King of Siam and Maurice Collis’s book is his story.

Siam adopted its modern name, Thailand, in 1939. Many in Thailand argue that the modernizing reforms of the Thai government allowed the country to avoid the colonial wars which devastated its neighbours in the third quarter of the 20th century. However,  the diplomatic skills of Siamese monarchs in the 19th and early 20th centuries also had an important role in allowing Siam, and later Thailand,  to escape European colonisation.

Formal British relations with Thailand began in 1612, when the East India Company ship The Globe arrived in Siam carrying a present and a letter from King James I for the Siamese monarch. The present must have been a good one; in return, the fledgling English East-Indian Company was given a piece of ground upon which to construct a warehouse.

Samuel White sailed for Madras in 1675 in the services of the East India Company. By that time the Company had developed into an enormously powerful corporation which controlled the British government’s interests in Asia. White was a merchant adventurer of the most roguish kind and moved on to Mergui, an important Siamese trade centre. The principal scenes of Siamese White are set there, where Collis spent some years as a member of the Indian Civil Service. White administered the port on behalf of the Siamese state and, typical of British administrators of the time, it seems clear that he used his position to considerable personal gain

Collis based the book on two original sources. One of these was the Davenport Papers, a collection of documents written by Francis Davenport, also of the East India Company. Davenport’s criticism of White went well beyond accusations of misuse of power. He was taken prisoner by White and accused him of piracy and – perhaps even more heinous in the eyes of the East India Company – of damaging the Company’s reputation in Asia.

White continued to argue his innocence until he died in 1689. Touchingly, his case was taken up by his brother George, on behalf of White’s daughters. George was nothing if not thorough. His pamphlet refuting Davenport’s accusations was the second of Collis’s sources. It could not have had a more comprehensive title, “Reflections on a Scandalous Paper Entitled the Answer to the East India Company to the two Printed Papers of Samuel White Together with the true Character of Francis Davenport the said Company Historiographer”.

Shame on you Mr Davenport!