Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?
Erle Stanley Garner, the creator of Perry Mason, is framed with the double murder of a Hollywood power couple, and his friends Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammet help him clear his name and find out the truth.
What's your verdict?
This mystery was the last entry in the Black Mask Boys trilogy, in which the author had three legendary mystery writers team up to solve mysteries, like the old Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators books, with Chandler's luxury car standing in for Hitchcock's Rolls Royce. The conceit is that each novel was narrated in the first person by one of the trio, solving a mystery containing elements reminiscent of each authors respective works. Neither of them were friends in real life and are not known to have even met in person or shared correspondence, but Nolan's copious biograghical research into the lives of these men indicates that they were living and working in California at the same time and had interacted with Hollywood motion picture studios: Hammet was ghost writing as a script doctor and contributing storylines for sequels to The Thin Man while indulging in the beginnings of his long, unconventional relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman; Chandler was a struggling writer cranking out short stories for pulp magazines while enjoying a stable married life with his wife Cissy; Garner was gaining popularity with the success of Perry Mason, but was displeased with quickly-produced, low-budget film adaptations of the novels.
Nolan's greatest strength is that he convinces you that these guys actually could have been friends and gotten along very well. It's the main draw of the books and a lot of fun imagining Garner visit Hammet on the set of a Tarzan movie (Tarzan and Zorro movies were the equivalent of superhero movies back then)
and the two going on a road trip with a zany racecar driver into Mexico to pursue a lead that becomes a divergent episode within the book. Or Garner granted bail by a judge who turns out to be an old crony of Chandler's. The real highlight of the book is the trial, in which the creator of the most famous lawyer in pop culture history has to defend himself in a preliminary hearing in the courthouse.
There are weird hiccups in the plot: why did Garner need to wait for Hammet to deliver key evidence at the last possible moment when he could've had Hammet present it with the aid of another attorney while Garner was sitting in a holding cell? Why was Garner prime suspect in the first murder when he clearly had a strong alibi? Why wasn't Mae West and Gloria Swanson sworn in as witnesses for the defense? Why didn't Garner forfeit his claim to the victim's estate when he knew that the last-minute changes to the will planted suspicion on him?
These plot holes didn't get in the way because this mystery wasn't too interesting - it actually does involve some dark subject matter, like the death of a toddler and the character of the murderer once he's revealed, but because this is Garner's perspective, it skates lightly over it, in the same manner that the Perry Mason novels do it. His books were chases; solving puzzles, chasing leads, chasing suspects, discovering a solution and presenting it before a judge in courtroom. They were not what we think of as legal thrillers - they were classic detective puzzles with a brilliant amateur sleuth who happened to be an attorney; the Perry Mason novels rarely featured a criminal trial by jury and often ended with the preliminary hearing, in which a judge decides if there is enough evidence in the prosecution's case against the defendant to proceed with a trial. This was Garner's original twist to what had become a staple in detective fiction: the gathering of the suspects and the unveiling of the solution.
One of the hazards of "light" detective novels, or "Cozy Mysteries", as they're called, is the nature of the crime involved. A particularly violent crime can sour the mood, which is why there is rarely any bloodshed, mostly poisonings. Stabbings, hangings and shootings often occur offstage, though weapons are present, often described at length. Poisonings, like the one featured here, involve detailed descriptions of deadly toxins; very rarely will you find a cozy that dwells on ballistic evidence.
This was a rather long way of saying that I enjoyed the book, though the parts are greater than the whole. It wasn't a bad way to end the trilogy.
What surprises did this book hold, if any?
Chandler takes a backseat somewhat, Garner only shines during the courtroom scenes in the final act, Hammet takes decisive action, but it's not his story. I did enjoy the psuedo-biographical yet in-character stuff Nolan invented, like Hammet rewriting scripts for Charlie Chan and Tarzan movies, or Garner in a sauna with Mae West & Gloria Swanson, or glimpses of Chandler's fussy particularity with houses he moved in and out of, or which gas stations he preferred driving to.
Hammet is, to this day, the only one amongst the three who has and continues to be fictionalized in stories by other writers (Hammet by Joe Gores & Hammet Unwritten by Owen Fitzgerald are good examples ), largely because he was a private investigator in real life for a time. As a young man, Garner was an attorney in real life, but writing was his true calling and he was the most prolific, if not the most acclaimed of the three. Chandler was a ne'er-do-well of sorts who married a wealthy older woman and became celebrated for his singular creation, private eye Phillip Marlowe, and his use of language and metaphor, but not his plotting.
The best moments in the book are when these three are brought together, but the real character is Barney Oldfield, retired racer and sub for Chandler when the latter declines to join the writers in their initial trip to Mexico. You could tell Nolan was wishing Oldfield was famous enough to spin-off into his own series.
Are there other works by the same author?
Nolan co-wrote the sci-fi novel Logan's Run and penned two sequel novels. He also wrote two sci-fi spoofs of Hammet's Sam Spade character with a detective named Sam Space. As for The Black Mask Boys trilogy, I have the other two volumes - The Black Mask Murders & The Marble Orchard - read the first one years ago, just recently got Orchard and will review after I get a chance to read it sometime.
Incidentally, the title of this trilogy of mysteries was inspired by the title of the pulp magazine that often featured stories written by all three authors in their salad days: Black Mask
Can you give us a good quote?
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Until next time! :)