Pros: A fast-paced whodunit depicting a bygone era.
Cons: A few instances of padding, but they're colorful and entertaining.
The third book about "the Black Mask Boys" (Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner), in what was originally planned as a series but wound up as a trilogy, Sharks Never Sleep is narrated by Gardner. The year is 1937, by which time he has stopped practicing law, still writes for the pulps, especially Black Mask, and has become hugely successful because his Perry Mason novels have taken off with both readers and Warner Brothers.
Gardner and his wife Natalie have been separated for some time. They still care for one another, but realize that their marriage will never work. Before giving up his law practice, Gardner had gotten deeply involved with Amy Latimer, who worked as his partner's secretary. After Amy met film and radio star Lloyd Hadley "Tink" Thompson and Thompson made a big play for her, eventually asking her to marry him, Gardner, knowing he couldn't give her the lavish lifestyle Thompson could and feeling too guilty to ask Natalie for a divorce, nobly let her go.
He's shocked when he reads a newspaper article that says the Thompsons' three-year-old son died after falling down a flight of stairs, and sends a condolence card to them. A week later he receives a call from Amy, who asks if they can meet at Gardner's home that night. He readily agrees, and when she arrives, Amy tells him about her married life. She maintains that Tink Thompson is a philanderer and monster and not at all the virtuous family man he likes to portray himself as. She insists that Thompson married her and fathered a child simply to project an image, and further that he was directly responsible for their son's death. She wants a divorce, and wants Gardner's help in obtaining it. He doesn't hesitate to agree.
A day or so later, he reads that Amy Thompson is dead, that Tink came home and found her lifeless body on the sofa in the living room. Although there is no evidence of foul play, Gardner is certain Tink murdered her and is determined to prove it. An autopsy subsequently reveals that Amy had been poisoned with an oleander extract. Gardner becomes the chief suspect, as a result of which he enlists the aid of friends Hammett and Chandler to nail the real killer. When yet another murder occurs, the frame gets tighter and Gardner becomes a man on the run. Readers familiar with his fiction shouldn't find it a surprise or a spoiler to learn that the novel culminates in a courtroom sequence worthy of a Perry Mason mystery.
Sharks Never Sleep, like its predecessors, combines action and cerebration and appearances by famous personalities of the period. As I mentioned in my review of The Marble Orchard, some of these "guest star" moments serve only to add color to the narrative and to fix the story in time, but are not directly relevant to the mystery plot. Thus, in Sharks, we have "cameos" featuring Mae West, Gloria Swanson, Walter Winchell and John Barrymore. On the other hand, legendary auto racer Barney Oldfield has an important role as the driver who, to assist their murder investigation, takes Gardner and Hammett on a wild event-filled trip to Mexico.
There are also a number of passages that should interest anyone fascinated by the pulp magazine era in general and Black Mask in particular, as author Nolan provides historical information and scenes about people who actually edited the magazine and their different takes on writing for it.
Like The Black Mask Murders and The Marble Orchard, Sharks Never Sleep is a briskly-paced whodunit featuring a cast of colorful characters from a colorful era, brought to life by a pro who knows his material and, most importantly, knows how to tell a story. It's an easy one to recommend.