The Case of the Desert Rat

Ninety years ago, on March 1, 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner published the first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws. Gardner was an attorney living in Ventura, California, and though this was his first full-length book, he had been writing stories for the pulp magazines since the early 1920s. Born in Massachusetts in 1889, his family moved West when he was ten, and California was home until his death at his Temecula ranch in 1970.

I’m a lifelong Perry Mason fan, but I’m also an Erle Stanley Gardner fan because, like me, he was a desert rat.

Gardner loved the desert and had camped in the Mojave, Death Valley, and other regions since before Perry Mason’s arrival. He took his passion for these stark landscapes and created a new character in a collection of stories published in Argosy magazine between 1931 and 1934: Bob Zane.

Erle Stanley Gardner. Courtesy William Morrow & Company.

Zane lives in modern-day California, but spends nearly all his time prospecting in the western deserts, the only place he is comfortable. He’s not a grizzled geezer with a burro, but an intelligent, mature explorer who manages to run into killers, robbers, and other miscreants, and always thwarts their plans. The stories have simple but evocative titles: “Sand Blast,” “Blood-Red Gold,” “Law of the Ghost Town,” “Pay Dirt.”

Zane had a couple of sayings about the desert, which he would tell to the novices he met, especially those whom he had to rescue from the aforementioned miscreants, or from the desert’s dangers. He said that if you listened closely, the sand blowing through sage or across smoothed rock would sound like whispers.

Both Gardner and Zane had no illusions about the desert’s beauty. Zane had another saying which showed up in every story. “The desert is cruel to those that don’t understand it; to the person who can understand her moods she’s a kind and loving mother. There’s nothing that develops character like cruelty, and the development of character is all life is for.”

Gardner spent the rest of his life exploring the desert like his alter ego Bob Zane. In 1966 he wrote an article for Popular Science magazine titled, “How I Search For Lost Gold Mines…and Why.” It describes the vehicles and equipment he used to look for abandoned mines in California and Arizona, and includes a harrowing experience in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains while looking for the Lost Dutchman Mine. He was out there alone and came across two armed men on horseback who chased him for miles, and luckily Gardner was in a specially-designed car and managed to get away. He ended the article, “But anyone who adventures off the main trails in the Superstitions had better watch his step.”

Courtesy Popular Science.

In 1981 and 1983, publishers William Morrow & Company collected all the Bob Zane tales and published them in two volumes called “The Whispering Sands” stories. They are as readable and exciting today as they were in the 1930s. I own both volumes, and I re-read them regularly. Especially when I’m planning a desert getaway.

At the end of the story “Law of the Rope,” the character Bess Drake says something to Bob Zane which reflects Gardner’s deep love of the desert West. “Do you ever feel that the desert is alive?” she asks. Zane starts to respond, but then “…the wind in the desert changed, and the sand started to stir restlessly, making little whispers. I knew that there wasn’t any use of making an answer — the desert was answering for me.”

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