Thursday, 5 June 2014

Carved in Sand by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

Bob Zane takes a leaf out of Perry Mason’s case file and solves a desert mystery in this quasi-western. For other Forgotten Books, head over to Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Bob Zane was certain that somewhere the desert held the evidence—carved in sand—to bring a murderer to justice.

Argosy Weekly,
June 17, 1933
Carved in Sand is one of eighteen ‘Whispering Sands’ novelettes Erle Stanley Gardner wrote for Argosy, one of many pulp magazines he contributed to in the middle of the last century. Sixteen of those stories featured Bob Zane, a desert prospector, an intrepid adventurer, and an informal detective.

The novellas were never published as books. Decades later, they were compiled into two volumes—Whispering Sands: Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert, 1981, and Pay Dirt and Other Whispering Sands Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert, 1983—by writer Charles G. Waugh and anthologist Martin H. Greenberg.

Carved in Sand is the only story featuring Bob Zane I have read so far. It appeared in the June 17, 1933, issue of Argosy Weekly.

The story featuring the desert prospector, in first person, is not a conventional western. It is a semi-western that has elements of a traditional western like holstered cowboys and gunfights and cacti-studded desert and greed for gold. The other half of the story is a detective mystery with police officers and a police dog and automobiles and airplanes involved in the hunt for Sam Blake who is suspected of killing a crooked prospector named Bob Skinner in Sidewinder Canon. Sam’s pretty daughter, Margaret, is wanted as an accomplice because she helped her father escape. 

Bob Zane doesn't believe the police theory that Sam killed Bob over gold. He sets out to prove that Sam and his daughter are innocent. What really impels him to get involved is the arrest of his friend Pete Ayers, for shielding Margaret. Pete was born and bred in the desert whose shifting sands is in his blood. It is the drifting sand in the cold desert that “whispers” the truth to Sam. Armed with evidence, Sam enters the crowded courtroom where the trial is taking place and, in Perry Mason-like fashion, exposes the real killer in the nick of time.

“It was whispers,” he said. “The whispers at night.”

“You mean the sand whispers?” I asked.

He nodded. “There was something reassuring about them,” he said. “At first they frightened me. It seemed as though voices were whispering at me; and then, gradually, I began to see that this was the desert, trying to talk; that it was whispering words of reassurance.”

Erle Stanley Gardner reveals his poetic side in his description of the desert—the swirling sands and the mysterious messages they carry—the central theme of Carved in Sand. The desert is everywhere in the story. Gardner, apparently, had a passion for the American southwest where he spent many years of his writing career. This included the Perry Mason novels and articles on travel and western history. He was especially fond of the desert which seems to have given him the idea for the ‘Whispering Sands’ series.

In Bob Zane, he has created a skilled and spirited adventurer who is a combination of a small-town western hero and a city-bred lawyer, a man who likes to solve crime and bring those behind it to justice. To me, Carved in Sand is more western than Perry Mason. The comparison is mine. Either way it is a very well-written and readable story. I'm off to the desert where the whispering sands will hopefully reveal more Bob Zane stories that swirl around in the dust cloud.


Zane backs Pete's play.

22 comments:

  1. This takes me back to my teenage years! when did I even hear the name Erle Stanley Gardner??? Thanks for a nostalgic post.

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    1. Mystica, you're welcome. I have been reading Gardner's Perry Mason novels since my teens. Even now I read one or two every year. However, I wasn't familiar with his other writing until now. He was very prolific.

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  2. These sound like my cup of tea. More than his straight mysteries.

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    1. Charles, while I'll be reading more Bob Zane stories in coming days, I'll also try and see if I can track his nonfiction work, especially his travel-related articles which, I think, are set in the American West.

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  3. Never read the guy Prashant, perhaps I ought to try at least something, cheers.

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    1. Col, thank you. Gardner was immensely popular in India in the 60s, 70s & 80s. His eighty-plus Perry Mason novels continue to be read by people of my generation and earlier. He became famous as a writer rather than a lawyer. You can read his paperbacks in a day.

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  4. I've read some of Gardner's non-Perry Mason work and found it very good. Gardner practiced good quality control in most of his writing.

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    1. George, this was a tightly-woven story and, I agree, a standout in terms of quality. I'm going to look for more non-Perry Mason stuff.

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  5. I love the Perry Mason books. I never knew he wrote something like this. I'm going to see if I can get my hands on a few of these stories.

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    1. Ryan, I used to read Perry Mason novels one after another and never get bored. I'm sure I can still do that. Some of Gardner's other stories are available online.

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  6. Oh, I used to watch Perry Mason reruns when I was a kid. Carved in Sand sounds like an interesting twist...fun setting for a mystery, too.

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    1. Elizabeth, this is a sort of a murder mystery where the focus is almost entirely on Bob Zane, the desert sleuth, rather than on Bob Skinner who just happens to be the victim.

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  7. This sounds interesting, Prashant. Gardner certainly wrote a lot, didn't he? I have several of his Perry Mason series and the Bertha Cool / Donald Lam series to read. Have read a lot of them years ago, but I am sure that they will seem like new.

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    1. Tracy, for one who grew up on Perry Mason novels, this story was a pleasant discovery. I have not read the series you mentioned but I'm sufficiently interested in reading some of Gardner's non-Perry Mason work.

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  8. Wow that really is forgotten, Prashant. I only ever read a few of the Perry Mason books. You have to admire ESG's work ethic....

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    1. Moira, I was surprised to learn that Gardner was fond of the American west and spent many years of his life there, writing and churning out Perry Mason and other stories. He was very prolific. For instance, he wrote all of the Bob Zane stories in the early thirties, over a span of three to four years.

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  9. Erle Stanley Gardner is one of a handful of writers that I'm never disappointed with.

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    1. David, neither am I, except I don't see the pocket-sized Perry Mason paperbacks anywhere. The ones I came across were torn and tattered. I have managed to (re)read just once in the past five years.

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  10. This is new information for me, Prashant. I never knew that Erle Stanley Gardner had written 'westerns' much less a bunch of 'em - in novella form. Who knew? I like the name Bob Zane. Maybe because it reminds me of Zane Grey (one of the great novelist names of all time).

    I used to read westerns many years ago. But now I only have a couple of books in my collection. The Collected Western Writing of Elmore Leonard is one.

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    1. Yvette, thank you. It was new to me too. I liked the way Gardner turned a traditional western on its head and still made it read like one. Bob Zane reminds me of Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, and I wonder if Gardner was inspired by it. I haven't read a Zane Grey in many years though I still have a few unread, albeit assorted, westerns in my possession.

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  11. These stories sound really interesting, Prashant! I'm familiar with Gardner's Perry Mason and Betha Cool books, but have never heard of these stories before. They sounds like my kind of stuff. Thanks a lot for bringing them to my attention!

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    1. Jeff, thank you. You're most welcome. I think you'll enjoy the Bob Zane stories though I've read just this one so far. I'm not familiar with Gardner's Betha Cool books or anything else other than Perry Mason (and now Bob Zane) which has overshadowed everything else he may have written. Some of his semi-westerns are available online but I think buying the two anthologies would be a better idea.

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