Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Case of the Smoking Chimney by Erle Stanley Gardner (1943)



This is Gramps Wiggins #2, not a Perry Mason title. The only other Gramps Wiggins title is The Case of the Turning Tide.

Major characters:
  • Ralph G. Pressman, oil speculator, a.k.a. Jack P. Reedley
  • Sophie Pressman, his cheating wife
  • Jane Graven, his secretary
  • Harvey L. Stanwood, his gambling bookkeeper
  • Eva Raymond, Harvey's girlfriend
  • Everett True, editor of The Petrie Herald
  • George Karper, Pressman's business partner
  • Hugh Sonders, rancher
  • Pellman Baxter, Sophie Pressman's man on the side
  • Frank Duryea, District Attorney
  • Milred Duryea, his wife
  • Gramps Wiggins, Milred's grandfather
Locale: California hill country

Synopsis: Long ago, a property owner divided up his large holdings in the hills, but inserted a clause in the deeds retaining oil rights. No one paid much attention, now the properties are all ranches. Ralph G. Pressman has bought up the oil rights and is beginning to move onto the properties, and the ranchers don't like it. They organize under Hugh Sonders, with the intent to have all the ranchers chip into a fund to buy the rights back from Pressman.

Meanwhile, Pressman's wife, Sophie Pressman, is having an affair with Pellman Baxter. Pressman suspects, and hires a detective agency to get the dirt. They get compromising photos and deliver them to Pressman's secretary, Jane Graven, but Sophie manages to steal them from Jane's desk.

Pressman wants to know what the ranchers' plans are, so he moves into a dilapidated chicken farm, posing as Jack P. Reedley, and waits for Sonders to show up with his appeal. Sonders and local editor Everett True come out to the chicken farm but Reedley won't open the door. Later, they return and find Reedley dead on the floor, a gun in his hand, an oil lamp still lit (the lamp's chimney is the chimney of the title).

D.A. Frank Duryea is notified of the death at the same time his wife's crusty hermit grandfather, Gramps Wiggins, shows up with his homemade trailer. Together they go to the scene. Gramps uses his old-time knowledge of oil lamps to help find the killer.

Review: This second Gramps Wiggins novel is vastly superior to the first. Gardner has given up on his experimental attempt at relating a strict chronological order of events and instead uses his familiar parallel-action plotting strategies of the Perry Mason novels. For example, the first six chapters are all in a parallel format, each introducing one of the six main characters, detailing what they are doing at the same exact moment the story begins. It is effective in setting the scene and introducing the characters.

Gardner uses one of his favorite plot devices: interpreting clues left by candles, lanterns, lamps, etc.

Gramps is still a hard-drinking no-nonsense hermit, but the comedic side of him is gone. He works around the edges of the investigation, in a more careful and deliberate manner than in the first novel. 

It is regrettable there were no further Gramps novels, but similar characters exist in his pulp-era short stories which are always fun to seek out if you are looking for some desert flavor.

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