Category Archives: Crime

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.


Not To Be Taken

Not to Be Taken – Anthony Berkeley

Penguin Mystery & Crime – 1946

This is the first card that I’ve written about for five years. And the first that I’ve allowed someone else to put to the top of the pack.

Not To Be Taken

I’d never heard of Anthony Berkeley, so it was the ambiguous title that attracted my attention. It reminded me of an observation by Spike Milligan, “the prison camp was full of British officers who’d sworn to die rather than be captured”. Or maybe one of Benny Hill’s dodgier songs, “He asked if she should be taken literally”. She said, “I’m not to be taken at all!” It’s not good entertainment. We all take extra responsibility sometimes.

The clue of course, is in the dark green Penguin Mystery & Crime cover. The substance not to be taken is poison, a fact reinforced by the release in the USA of the novel as A Puzzle in Poison.

Anthony Berkeley was a loosely veiled pseudonym, one of several used by Anthony Berkeley Cox who also wrote as Frances Iles and the splendidly named A Monmouth Platt. Cox’s career as a crime novelist lasted less than 15 years, but in that time he earned a reputation as part of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Like many crime writers, Berkeley wrote most of his novels as part of a series featuring a quirky detective, in his case an amateur called Roger Sheringham. But Not to Be Taken is a non-series novel and the reader follows the events leading up the death of John Waterhouse, which may or may not be from natural causes. Unusually for novels in this genre, the case is observed from outside the police investigation with none of the usual insider information. It’s also unusual in that it features a strong female character, the feminist Rona Brougham.

Cox also founded the Detection Club, an invitation-only social club for prominent crime writers. Presidents of the Detection Club have included G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. There was an initiation ritual with an oath, probably written by either Chesterton or Sayers, and the club held regular dinners in London. It’s still going to this day.

In the oath, prospective member promised that their detectives would “well and truly detect the crimes presented to them” and not rely on or make use of, “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.”

Perhaps the oath explains why there are so few female detectives in fiction. There’s not much point in being a detective if you can’t use your intuition.

Towards the end of Not to Be Taken, Berkeley issues a challenge to the reader, asking for answers to various questions, which the reader ought to be able to answer from the information they had at their disposal.

So, dear reader, are you able to work out the name of the person who inspired me to write this post from the clues at the beginning, initially at least?

Lost Moorings

Lost MooringsLost Moorings – Simenon. Cover by Romek Marber, 1962. Georges Simenon was one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day. He wrote close to 200 “serious” novels, 150 novellas and scores of pulp novels using a number of pseudonyms.

In 2005 he was nominated for the title of De Grootste Belg (The Greatest Belgian). Simenon wrote in French and, unsurprisingly, did well in the Waloon (french-speaking) version of the contest, finishing in 10th place behind Jacques Brel, Eddie Mercxx, Herge and Rene Magritte, but ahead of Adolphe Sax, Reubens and Peyo, the comic artist responsible for The Smurfs. In the Flemish version, Simenon was placed 77th, behind most of The Smurfs. Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

Simenon is best known for the 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Jules Maigret – known simply as Maigret to most people, including his wife. Maigret was a commissioner in the Parisian police and the novels were translated into all major languages and several of them were turned into films and radio plays; two television series were made in the UK.

Maigret had much in common with his more modern, Edinburgh counterpart, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. The two men shared an unconventional approach to detecting, a laconic manner, and a fondness for alcohol. Like Rebus it was a matter of personal pride to Maigret that that he could hold his liquor. If Rory Gallagher had been around in Maigret’s time I’m sure the French detective would have listened to his music as well. On vinyl, of course.

It’s easy to get these fictional detectives mixed up. Maigret was a French “dick” created by a Belgian author. Hercules Poirot was a Belgian “dick” created by an elderly Englishwoman. The protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim wasn’t a detective at all, but his creator was both an old woman and a complete dick.

Anyway, Lost Moorings isn’t one of Simenon’s Maigret novels; it contains two tenuously connected novellas; Banana Tourist (Touriste de Bananes) and Blind Path (Chemin sans Issue). The only person I can find who will admit to reading it is Mike Ward who reviews the books he reads on his daily commute from Brighton to London. He describes it as, “A sad and slightly disturbing pair of novellas”1.

The Marber Grid

The Marber Grid

So,  perhaps the most interesting thing about the book is its cover, designed by Romek Marber. He arrived in England in 1946, one of the group of European émigrés who went on to influence British graphic design in the second half of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s Germano Facetti commissioned Marber to design an entire sequence of titles for Penguin Crime. His design approach – the ‘Marber Grid’ – and his rather dark visual images  had an immediate impact. The Grid was so successful that Facetti applied it, first to the blue Pelicans and then to the orange covers of Penguin fiction. Its spirit is evident throughout The Perfect Library.

Note 1. You can read Mike’s full review at:  

Busman’s Honeymoon

Busman's HoneymoonDorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Crime, 1963. Cover by Romeck Marber.

Busman’s Honeymoon is a  novel  by Dorothy L. Sayers,  first published in 1937. It was the last of her books to feature Lord Peter Wimsey, the “Posh Sleuth”. Wimsey was the archetypal British gentleman detective; a bon viveur who solved mysteries, usually murders, for his own amusement.

Of course the novel has nothing to do with busmen. A “busman’s holiday” is a holiday spent by a bus driver travelling on a bus; by association, anyone who spends his holiday doing his normal job is taking a “busman’s holiday”.

Wimsey and Harriet Vane marry and take their honeymoon at an old farmhouse.  The honeymoon is intended as a break from his usual routine of solving crimes and hers of writing about them. It turns into a murder investigation when the seller of the house is found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps with severe head injuries.

The price on the cover is 5/-, or 5 shillings. This tells us that it was published before 1971, the introduction of decimal currency in the UK. Forty three years later I still know people who begin a sentence with “In old money that’s…”  This is often followed by a casually racist or homophobic remark. The back of the post card tells us that this Penguin Crime edition was published in 1963. In those days racism in the UK was far from casual.

The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company  to employ black or Asian bus crews. This was particularly ironic in Bristol, a city built on the profits from the African slave trade, where there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment against “coloureds”. The policy was also common in other British cities. Led by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council, Bristolians refused to use the company’s buses for four months until the company backed down and overturned its racist policy.

Reviews of Busman’s Honeymoon were not overly enthusiastic: “Not near the top of her form, but remarkable as a treatment of the newly wedded and bedded pair of eccentrics … plenty of garnishing for an indifferent murder, even if we weren’t also given an idea of Lord Peter’s sexual tastes and powers under trying circumstances.”

The figure at the bottom of the cellar steps on Romek Marber’s cover is Noakes the previous owner of the house: a miser, a blackmailer and the owner of “hideous furniture”.

In 2014 the average price of a best-selling eBook has recently risen to $7.45 (£4.35) from $6.88 (£4.02). That’s 4 pounds, 7 shillings in old money. The rise was blamed on the publication by Penguin Random House of a set of five Game of Thrones eBook titles by George R.R. Martin. There is considerably more sex and violence in one page of a Game of Thrones novel than in the whole of  Busman’s Honeymoon.