Friday, April 14, 2017

Forgotten Small Town Sheriffs: The Clue of the Runaway Blonde/The Clue of the Hungry Horse - Erle Stanley Gardner

During the mid-to-late Forties, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote three short novels about Sheriff Bill Eldon, whose bailiwick is the small California city of Rockville. These stories originally appeared in the slick magazine THE COUNTRY GENTLEMAN. The first two, "The Clue of the Runaway Blonde" and "The Clue of the Hungry Horse", were collected in a volume entitled TWO CLUES and then later reprinted in paperback. The third and final story in the series, "The Clue of the Screaming Woman", has been reprinted only in an Ellery Queen anthology, as far as I can determine.

Sheriff Bill Eldon is getting on in age (he's 70) and has been in office for a long time. He has some political enemies in the county, including the district attorney and other prominent citizens of Rockville, who would like to ease him out of his job and make a younger man sheriff. Their candidate is Undersheriff George Quinlan, and it's pretty obvious they believe Quinlan will be more easily controlled than Eldon, who's pretty set in his ways. Eldon doesn't know much about scientific criminal investigation, but he's a keen observer of human nature and relies on that to solve crimes.

In "The Clue of the Runaway Blonde", he's confronted with what seems like an impossible murder. A young woman has been stabbed to death, and her body is discovered in the middle of a freshly plowed field with no footprints around her. Eldon has to figure out not only who killed her but how her body got there and how the murderer got away without leaving any prints. That investigation is complicated by the above-mentioned political enemies, domestic turmoil in George Quinlan's family, the arrival of an arrogant "consulting criminologist" brought in by the district attorney, and a visit from Eldon's meddling, acid-tongued sister-in-law. Throw in evidence tampering, young love, and a secret that goes back into the past. Eldon shrewdly deals with all of it before coming up with a logical, fairly clued solution that proves he was one step ahead of the other characters and two steps ahead of the reader all along.

"The Clue of the Hungry Horse" finds Eldon investigating the death of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been kicked fatally by a horse. Of course we know it's not going to turn out to be an accident at all, but murder. Eldon is still under pressure from his political enemies, and this time he has a rich businessman from Los Angeles against him, too. There's a romantic triangle to sort out, too, along with planted evidence and a situation that makes it look very much like Eldon helped a suspected murderer to escape. But once again he gets to the bottom of everything against seemingly insurmountable odds. I don't think the solution to this one hangs together quite as well as in the other story, but it's still a good solid puzzle mystery.

I really enjoyed these two yarns, and one of the biggest reasons I did is Gardner's simple, straight-ahead prose. He's a little more descriptive in these than he is in most of the Perry Mason novels, but still, no one's ever going to accuse him of being a fancy writer. But man, can he tell a story. Sometimes that's just what you want. Now I have to hunt up that third Bill Eldon novella!


George said...

I agree with you on Erle Stanley Gardner's straight-ahead writing style. The guy was a master storyteller, too.

Richard Heft said...

"The Clue of The Screaming Woman" is in Ellery Queen's SECRETS OF MYSTERY, published in 1979.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Richard. I'll have to hunt up a copy.



The third one "The Clue of the Screaming Woman" is the best. I read all three recently for an article on the depiction of small-town police chiefs (including rural county sheriffs), in fiction.

"Screaming Woman" is set in the eastern edge of Eldon's county, in the Sierra Nevadas. Though, as you say, Gardner was basically a nuts-n-bolts stylist, he could shine when he was describing natural beauty, and this story has a lot of it.

I suspect that Bill Eldon had a real-life model. When Gardner was practicing law in Ventura County, CA, he became close to the local sheriff, Bob Clark, who served in the post from 1922-33, leaving to accept an appointment as the US Marshal for the Southern Federal Court District of California.

It's pretty clear to me that the unnamed county in which the Eldon series is set is based on Ventura County, which, as with the unnamed county in the stories, is a rural county adjacent to Los Angeles County, used as a rustic getaway for wealthy Angelenos, And Ventura county's eastern border is along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, as it is Eldon's county.

Gardner once wrote a short true-crime article, extolling the detective skills and willingness to go the extra mile to prove a man's innocence as to prove his guilt. You can find it here:

There's also a photo of Clark, snapped by Gardner on the night of his election. He rather looks like you might imagine Sheriff Eldon would look.

I liked the Eldon trilogy very much, and was a bit sorry there weren't more. I'd rather like it if some outfit like Crippen & Landru could release all three in a single volume, maybe all it THREE CLUES.

Bob Clark would also hire a guy named Leslie T. White as a deputy. After a few years working for Sheriff Clark, White was hired as a detective by the Ventura City Police, then as a DA's investigator in LA County. His autobiography, ME, DETECTIVE, included an account of the Doheny Case, which was fictionalized into "The Cassidy Case" in Chandler's <THE HIGH WINDOW. White would go on to become something a pioneer in developing the police procedural sub-genre, anticipating many of the tropes that J.J. Marric and Ed McBain get credit for developing.

It was Gardner who encouraged White to try his hand at turning his police experiences into fiction while he was gumshoeing for the DA's Office.