FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins
It’s hard to imagine two writers with less in common than Graham Greene and Erle Stanley Gardner, but we know that Greene was an enthusiastic reader of the Perry Mason novels, and in one of my columns several years ago I quoted from a letter about Mason which Greene sent to fellow Gardnerian Evelyn Waugh. Recently I discovered that Mason even figures in one of Greene’s novels. The Honorary Consul (1973) is set in northern Argentina and among its principal characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician in sympathy with the revolutionary movement in that country, and León Rivas, a former priest turned guerrilla leader. On page 36 of the novel we find the following:
León was someone whose word [Dr. Plarr] believed that he could always trust, even though his word seemed later to have been broken when Plarr heard that León had become a priest instead of the fearless abogado
who would defend the poor and the innocent, like Perry Mason. In his school days León had possessed an enormous collection of Perry Masons stiffly translated into classical Spanish prose… Perry Mason’s secretary Della was the first woman to arouse Plarr’s sexual appetite….León, it seemed to him, was struggling back from a succession of failures toward the primal promise to the poor he had never intended to break. He would end as an abogado
Is that really how Mason comes across in Spanish, as lawyer to the Left and friend to those who have no friend? Quien sabe?
Maybe readers of Gardner in Spanish translation confuse Mason’s fierce loyalty to clients with something ideological. The murderee in The Case of the Screaming Woman (1957) is a doctor who ran an illegal service connecting wealthy women desperate for a child and girls about to give birth out of wedlock.
Mason discovers that the doctor kept a secret notebook that can prove large numbers of children are illegitimate and adopted. Out of Mason’s sight, the woman who stole the book from the dead man’s office gives it to Della Street, who later asks Mason whether it’s ethical for her to have it.
Mason: “Hell, no!… That notebook is stolen property, Della. If I take it into my possession, I become an accessory after the fact. [But] I haven’t the faintest intention of letting that property get to the police.”
Della: “And if I should have that book, where would it leave you professionally?
Mason: “Behind the eight ball if I knew you had it.”
Then he says: “Ethics are rules of conduct that are made to preserve the dignity and the integrity of the profession. I’m inclined to conform to the spirit of the rules of ethics rather than the letter.”
Della: “But what about the courts?”
Mason: “They’ll conform to the letter rather than the spirit. If the police ever find out that [the notebook] came under my control, [Hamilton Burger the DA will] throw the Penal Code at me.”
Della: “And then what will you do?”
Mason: “Then I’ll truthfully say that I don’t know where the book is… I’m not going to throw heaven knows how many children to the wolves….”
Della: “And you’re willing to risk your reputation and your liberty to keep that from happening?”
Mason: “You’re darned right I am. I’m a lawyer….”
Anti-establishment passages of this sort were to come to a screeching halt once Mason in the form of Raymond Burr became a star of prime time TV but they may help to explain how in Spanish he might have been mistaken for a revolutionary with a law degree.
Screaming Woman happened to be published between two of the finest Mason novels of Gardner’s middle period, The Case of the Lucky Loser and The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll, and is certainly not in the same league with those gems.
At least two key characters never come onstage even for a moment, the more important of the pair isn’t even mentioned until very late in the day, and the dying message clue is one of the feeblest I’ve ever encountered. But it moves like a bullet train and remains well worth reading almost 60 years ago.
By a coincidence worthy of Harry Stephen Keeler, Gardner’s is one of two novels I’ve read recently in which crucial characters are kept offstage. The other is Georges Simenon’s Félicie est là, which was written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France, first published in French two years later and still under the occupation, and translated into English as Maigret and the Toy Village (1979).
After a one-legged old man is shot to death in the bedroom of his house in a small residential development being built in the countryside, Maigret visits the scene and is driven to distraction by the dead man’s impossible housekeeper. Here, unlike in Screaming Woman, it’s the murderer himself whom we never get to see or hear, and in fact his name isn’t even mentioned until page 116 of the 139-page American version.
Does it matter? I’m not sure. When someone as nutty as Keeler throws in characters who are no more than names, we couldn’t care less, especially when they have names like Hoot Ivanjack, Hamerson Hogg and the three Threebrothers brothers. When someone like Gardner does it, there’s a problem. Simenon seems to me to fall somewhere between these extremes.
Having read a fair number of the novels Simenon wrote during the war, I’ve concluded that he entered into a “contract with France” to say nothing about the Nazi occupation and backdate everything to the Thirties without explicitly saying so — at least not often. We find one exception to this rule in the first paragraph of Toy Village:
Years later, Maigret could still have pointed to the exact spot where it happened, the paving stone on which he had been standing, the stone wall on which his shadow had been projected.
This tells us pretty clearly that the events he’s describing took place years earlier. Simenon’s relation to the two German occupations he experienced, the first in Belgium during his adolescence, the second in France at a time when he’d become one of the best-known European novelists, is explored in depth by biographers like Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham.