#84 – The Case Of The Howling Dog, Erle Stanley Gardner BOOK REVIEW

October 6, 2018

Howlling Dog

Fans of Sherlock Holmes [1] are well aware of the dog that didn’t bark. It comes in The Adventure Of The Silver Blaze, in which a rapscallion stable-lad tries to nobble a race horse before a big event only for the horse to kick him in the face, killing him deader than Hillary [2]. Nobody knows this at first, thinking the lad was attacked by a man, so there’s a manhunt on and Sherlock Holmes is called in. There’s a key exchange treasured by all us fans in which Holmes explains to us the fact the stable-dog didn’t bark during the night of the attack was the key fact. It meant the murderer was known to the dog, and thus likely part of the household.

Erle Stanley Gardner has written this entire book, The Case Of The Howling Dog, in homage to that exercise in deductive logic. It starts simply enough. An agitated millionaire, Arthur Cartwright, comes into Perry Mason’s office wishing to make a will giving away everything to the wife of the millionaire living next door to him, Clinton Foley, even though he hates him. He swears that Foley has taught his police dog pet to howl in order to drive Cartwright mad. The dog had begun howling the previous night.

I won’t spoil the story. It’s a really good mystery. It’s enough to say that whether the dog howled (or not) is the crux of the matter.

Case Of The Howling Dog

There’s both a 1934 movie, and a more recent TV adaptation

The reason Perry Mason is such a good character is how he breaks the usual hard-boiled mode. Make no bones about it, he is of that genre. He isn’t solving locked-room puzzles like Hercule Poirot nor is he a cop chasing down serial killers like Alex Cross. Mason’s role in these stories is equivalent to a private eye at odds with the cops, only he’s a defence attorney in fact (if not in style). Whereas a Continental Op or a Philip Marlowe will play fast and loose with the law, Mason does not. It adds a crispness to his manoeuvres.

For example, Mason has his private eye helper Paul Drake put two men on stakeout at Clinton Foley’s house as he expects something fishy to happen. Turns out there’s a murder and Mason discovers the body when showing up for an pre-arranged appointment. So, there’s the question of what Mason should do.

  • Call the police immediately?
  • Have a look around the murder scene first?
  • Slip away and pretend he was never there?
  • Confer with the two stakeout men on his man’s team?
  • Blur the victim’s face and claim it as a Same Day Lay on YouTube?

I’m not sure what Philip Marlowe would do [3] but I’m guessing it would involve breaking the law to cut a break for his client. Mason think a minute then calls Paul Drake to have his two men return to the office and go into hiding. He checks the scene but doesn’t tamper with it at all, then after summoning the police he confers with Drake and the men.

Does he discuss it with them? You’d expect so but no he does not. He pumps them for factual information (who came to the house, when, in what taxi etc) and very pointedly does not share any of his thoughts with them and shuts them down when they attempt to pontificate. You see, Mason is thinking like a trial lawyer not a private detective. He knows he’s under no legal obligation to let the cops (and eventually prosecution) know his men were witnesses, and because he doesn’t tell either men any of what he found inside the house, the men don’t even know there was a crime committed to which they could be witnesses (he doesn’t mention the dead body). Additionally, in the unlikely event the men are found and testify under oath they can tell the absolute truth without incriminating themselves, Mason, or his client.

It’s rather clever how he operates, and a delight to read.

Regular readers are aware I’m trying to become a good writer [4] and what fascinates me most about Erle Stanley Gardner is the quality of his plotting. It’s oh-so-tight, fantastically complicated, and yet Gardner never gets his threads tangled. His prose is whip-sharp and there’s no messing around. Every chapter advances the story and he never needs a sleight of hand to get out of trouble. I read it and think, “I could never invent a plot that good”.

Fortunately, I don’t need to. The thing about memoirs is that life provides the plot. For now I can polish my skills in prose, dialogue, characterisation, action, scene-setting, pacing and all those other elements of writing. If I ever get good at that stuff, I’ll look towards plotting and fiction.

Murder She Wrote

Do not – under ANY circumstances – cultivate an acquaintance with this woman.

One other observation concerns the hard-boiled genre in general. You know those Murder, She Wrote TV shows featuring Angela Lansbury? No matter where she goes – a cruise, a ski slope, a village fete – you can guarantee someone is getting murdered. She’s a murder magnet and frankly if I ever crossed paths with her I’d run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Well, I’ve noticed that in hard-boiled fiction that if you walk into a private eye’s office and start telling lies, you’re fucked. Someone is gonna bump you off. It’s an even more certain route to death than having sex in a horror movie or being close to retirement in a cop movie.

I absolutely recommend this book. Erle Stanley Gardner is always good and this is one of his best.

If you live in the USA and would like a cheap, no-fuss way of buying my books in full colour you should have a look at my new sales site here. Sadly, the company cannot yet fulfil orders sent outside the USA. For that, consult my usual products page.

[1] The original stories, and perhaps the 1980s TV adaptation starring Jeremy Brett. Not fans of the gay soyboy global-homo version starring Benedict Clusterfluck and the hobbit.
[2] I expect people to read this post two years from now, so I’m future-proofing it.
[3] I bet you know which Deepak would do from that list.
[4] You could claim I’m more writer than player nowadays.

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