Honest Money – Erle Stanley Gardner (1932)

Ken Corning, a fighting young lawyer, tries to earn an honest living in a city of graft.

This is the first story in a series following idealistic young lawyer Perry Mason Ken Corning and his assistant Della Street Helen Vail.  They were clearly the prototype for Gardner’s later series, but with less obstruction of justice.  Seriously, I read 3 Perry Mason novels and his primary skill seems to be corrupting the evidence so no jury and few readers could follow it.

Cornings’ first client is Sam Parks.  Rather than simply see the man, the attorney first puts Helen through a ruse where she types pages of nonsense for three minutes and rushes it in to him as if it were 3 hours of billable time.

Sam Parks’ wife has been arrested for running a speakeasy.  Christ, what is this, Prohibition?  Oh.[1]  I like that as the cops busted into his establishment, Parks quickly pretended to be a customer by sitting down at an uncleared table and eating the erstwhile patron’s scraps.  Mrs. Parks, quite a good sport, played along and even collected the bill from him, although that 10% tip will not benefit him later.  She is hauled off to the can, the jug, the slam, the big house, the joint, the hoosegow, the pokey, the clink.

Immediately after Parks leaves, Corning gets a visit from Perkins, the cop who busted the restaurant.  Corning refuses to give him any info on Parks.  He then gets a visit from Carl Dwight.  Lawyers setting up a card table at a bus accident don’t get this much traffic.  Dwight is the local fixer, an operative of the political machine.  He offers Corning a $500 “retainer” to play ball, but Corning throws it back in his face.

After Corning pays a visit to Mrs. Parks at the prison, Mr. Parks calls to say he his coming back into the office.  Unfortunately, Parks is shot twice just outside Corning’s window.  Corning goes down to check things out.[2]  Actually he does show Perry Mason’s proclivity for hindering an investigation.  Among other things, he pockets a newspaper from Parks’ parked car.  There was an article cut out that covered Harry Dike’s appointment as superintendent of the Water Department — presumably no relation to the hairy dykes Mrs. Parks was meeting in prison.

The article said Dike was “firmly opposed to the granting of contracts and concessions to those with political pull, and that in the future the Water Department would be conducted upon a basis of efficiency with all work thrown open to the lowest responsible bidder.”  How was he not the one shot?  There is good reason as this seemingly virtuous Water Department jefe is just another thug.  He had been in a car accident with Mrs. Parks, while he was traveling with Carl Dwight the political fixer he was supposed to oppose.  She made trouble and had to be dealt with.  That’s Chinatown, Jake.

Mason Corning ties it all together and the story wraps up with yet more characters, a meeting in a restaurant, some counterfeiting hijinks, and even Corning getting off a few gunshots.  Despite being written 85 years ago, the writing has a contemporary feel. Gardner is able to make a raft of characters and an intertwining plot simple enough that I only had to read it twice to understand it.

Another good entry, although I miss the titular spiciness of the Spicy Adventure Megapack.


  • [1] 1920 – 1933.
  • [2] In a sign of the times, he stands out in the crowd because he is hatless.
  • First published in Black Mask in November 1932.
  • Also that month:  FDR first elected.
  • When he died in 1970, Gardner was the best-selling author in history.

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