“I didn’t realize it would be so much fun fooling around with crime.”
“You’re not fooling around with it,” she said, “you’re getting into a game where you’re playing for big stakes and you don’t know what trumps are yet.”
Advertising pays the bills for Sam Moraine, but he can’t help finding it just a trifle dull. So when his poker buddy, district attorney Phil Duncan, is called away to deal with a kidnapping, Moraine is eager to tag along. Little does he realize that he’s about to be drawn into kidnapping, murder, and political corruption—and that his beautiful secretary may be involved. Moraine wanted excitement, all right, but this might be more than he can handle.
This Is Murder is a standalone novel that Erle Stanley Gardner published under the pseudonym Charles J. Kenny, an entertaining but superficial bit of pulp. The fact that it’s not part of a series lends a welcome ambiguity to the story; we know that Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street will never turn out to be the murderer, but that’s not the case for Moraine’s secretary Natalie Rice. For that matter, Moraine may be exactly as he represents himself, a bored businessman looking for “kicks.” Then again, he may not. Unfortunately, the plot does not hang together well enough to sustain that tension.
His friend the D.A. allows Moraine to ride along on a kidnapping case only because he doesn’t believe there’s really been a kidnapping. Doris Becker insists that her sister Ann Hartwell has been snatched, but the two sisters are not the most respectable ladies. (Every time Doris appears in the book, she is wearing a negligee. Every time.) A ransom note has been sent to Doris, but not to Ann’s husband Richard. In a strange twist, the kidnappers request that Moraine, who has never even met Ann, serve as the go-between. He agrees to meet them on a boat with the ransom money.
The kidnapping plot unfolds against a backdrop of political power struggles, after recent scandals sent a prominent city official to prison. Prosecutor Phil Duncan is upfront about his cynical reasons for sticking with the job under such difficult circumstances.
No, Sam, I got into this job because I figured there was a future in it—not in the job itself, but in what the job might lead to. You know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t want to send an innocent man to the gallows. I wouldn’t try to. On the other hand, one of these days there’s going to be a big prosecution. It may be a murder charge against some prominent person. It may be a big graft prosecution. No one knows just yet what it’ll be, but sooner or later it’s bound to show up. Then, if I can make a good showing, I could move on up the political ladder. Many times the breaks have sent a clever prosecutor to the Governorship.
It’s slightly odd that the character facing a big moral dilemma is not Moraine, the hero, but his sidekick Duncan. In order to keep his position, Duncan must fend off two rivals, Carl Thorne and Pete Dixon. Thorne has long been close to Doris Becker, and her sister Ann was working for him. This adds a political element to the crime, which not only puts Duncan’s career in danger, but raises the question of whether he is willing to jeopardize his ambitions to protect his friend Sam. As Sam Moraine himself points out, “Has there ever been a case on record when a person with social position kept up a friendship with someone where the friendship meant forfeiting that position?”
Moraine, by contrast, never experiences a moment of conflict, even as he gets arrested, beaten up, and stalked by criminals and cops alike. When he learns that his secretary Natalie has secrets in her past that may tie her to the crime, that does give him pause—for about five minutes. Moraine doesn’t care that his business is going down the drain, nor does he question for a moment whether he’s actually qualified to question a grand jury. Whatever the case throws at him, Moraine bounces right back like a golden retriever puppy, totally unaffected.
This Is Murder is packed with incident, but short on actual plot complications. Since there’s ultimately not much to the mystery (aside from a neat piece of alibi-busting), Gardner just keeps on making things happen to pad out the story, without having any real effect on the characters or plot. The result is a purely disposable popcorn novel that provides a little diversion and not much else.
Mostly, This is Murder suffers from over plotting. It is said that Gardner created a plot wheel, a paper device he could turn and come up with a variety of situations, to help him create all those stories. This time he gave the wheel too many spins.
This Is Murder is out of print, with plenty of used copies available.
One thought on “This Is Murder (1936) by Erle Stanley Gardner”
This is one I’ve not read, but your observation that “Gardner just keeps on making things happen to pad out the story” is pretty accurate where a lot of his standalone stuff was concerned. Interesting to see him coming up so short of ideas so early on — he’s only published a handful of Mason by this point in his career, and no Doug Selby or Bertha & Donald yet. Would be fascinated to see how this shapes up, since it’s doubtless an embryonic work when placed against what would flood out in the years ahead — reckon he learned a lot from this experience, even if it doesn’t quite stand up as a novel in its own right.
Great review, thanks — got me very intrigued.