Honest Money and Other Short Novels
In the beginning, there was attorney Ken Corning and his faithful secretary, Helen Vail.
Shortly before he created Perry Mason and Della Street, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a series of six novellas that were published in Black Mask magazine in 1932 and 1933. Corning was a young attorney who was just setting up his practice in the fictional York City. The town is totally corrupt and is run by a group of insiders for their own benefit. The cops and most of the other attorneys in town are content to work with the city's bosses and close their eyes to all the terrible things going on around them.
Not Ken Corning, of course. He's young and idealistic. He's just hung out his shingle and is struggling to get by. His sole employee is his secretary, Helen Vail. Corning can barely afford to pay her and yet when she looks at him, her eyes glisten "with a softness that held a touch of the maternal." It's quickly apparent that her feelings for her boss are anything but maternal, but although the two are attracted to each other, they will be content to work side by side, never acting on their feelings.
Through the series of the six stories that constitute the Ken Corning collection, the odds will always be heavily against the young attorney. The cops will frame his clients; the Powers That Be will make his witnesses disappear; clients and others will constantly lie to him and betray him. But Corning will persevere, fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and will somehow always come out on top, frustrating the corrupt cops and all the other crooked people who run York City. Like Mason, Corning will spend most of his time out of the office, doing his own investigations and taking the fight to his enemies. Helen Vail will constantly be taking chances and exposing herself to danger to assist him.
The last of these stories appeared in August of 1933. In the meantime, in March of that year, Gardner published The Case of the Velvet Claws, which was the first of eighty-five novels that would feature Perry Mason and Della Street. It seems clear that the Corning stories set the pattern for the Mason books, but by the time he decided to write a novel of this type, Gardner decided not to use the Ken Corning character. Rather, he would create a new protagonist and set him in a real city, Los Angeles.
In the early days, Mason would occasionally have to deal with cops who were at least on the edge of being bent, but he did not have to fight an entire corrupt city establishment. Of course clients and others would lie to him repeatedly and sometimes betray him, but that was all part of the game, and Mason could devote his time and attention to dealing with one murder case after another. In the process, Gardner would sell millions of books and Perry Mason would become one of the most popular fictional characters of the Twentieth Century.
Honest Money is a book that will appeal primarily to fans of the Mason series, because it's clear that these stories were the template for the characters of Perry Mason and Della Street. The stories themselves don't really rise above the average stories that appeared in crime fiction magazines of this era, but for those who still enjoy the Perry Mason novels, they will be a lot of fun.