ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse.

Detective Book Club; hardcover 3-in-1 reprint, July 1947. Hardcover first edition: William Morrow & Co., 1947. Paperback reprints: Pocket 886, 1952 (with many additional printings); Ballantine, October 1992.

GARDNER - TCOT Fan-Dancer's Horse

   Start out with a serious automobile incident that leaves one car on its side in a ditch. When Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street observe the accident, they (a) get the occupant of the car to safety and (b) check out the trunk to find two very fine ostrich-plume feathers and a pair of white dancing slippers. Ever think of writing a mystery yourself? What sort of story could you come up with from here?

   Probably not one as complicated and far-fetched as this one. Don’t even think of trying to compete with a master in his prime. More than one fan-dancer is involved. There are two, and one is using the name of the other. One has a horse — hence the title — and it seems to have disappeared. It may have been wounded, or it may have a bullet in its saddle, and in any case it’s missing.

   When the husband of the one with the horse, the real Lois Felton, is murdered, a timetable of the people visiting his room that night takes up nearly half a page. Plus of course the fact that one fan-dancer looks a lot like the other, and which one is telling the truth about her story? It also makes for some great courtroom theatrics, and of course isn’t that what you read a Perry Mason novel for? (If you were to tell me that you read a Perry Mason novel for the characters, I would be more than amazed. I would be dumbfounded.)

   It think it all fits together. I was puzzled, though, as to how Perry knew on page 27 that the fan-dancer he saw in the previous chapter was a ringer, and I still am. An explanation never turned up, and I kept waiting for one. And that’s what kept me entirely off-balance the rest of the story, and that’s why I never would have figured out who did it on my own. That’s my excuse, anyhow, and I’m sticking to it!

— August 2000

[UPDATE] 03-08-08. If you’ve been paying attention, you should have been expecting this review, right? Well, here it is. But to maintain a semblance of the unexpected, what you won’t see here is the cover of that Detective Book Club volume for the third time, and you’re welcome.

GARDNER - TCOT Fan-Dancer's Horse

   If I may, however, let me introduce a plug for those old 3-in-1 one books. If you like to read vintage detective fiction but you’re on a limited budget, then you can still pick them up cheaply on eBay, especially in bulk. They do seem to be disappearing from bookshops. Once up a time you could find at least a shelf full of them in every used book store you went into. No more. Maybe the store owners have gotten tired of clearing the dust off of them, or they’ve gotten confused with multi-book Readers Digest editions, and into the landfill they went.

   As for Erle Stanley Gardner, I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the Perry Mason novels were the first mysteries I cam across, once I was allowed into the grown-up section behind the librarians’ desk, along with a Tommy Hambledon tale or two. Once found, I was hooked. I think I read three Mason’s in the first day, but I’m probably exaggerating there.

   Some 50 years later, I’m afraid I’m seeing the flaws in the Gardner oeuvre. Not in the lack of personal lives for the primary players, but in the logic behind their thinking. I didn’t notice the gaps in the plots then, but I’m beginning to now, more and more, as I attempt to revisit my past.