Speed Dash

A young trial lawyer eager to escape from his rut in California, Erle Stanley Gardner in 1923 got the idea for his first successful series of short stories when he watched a human fly crawl up the face of his office building. That cliff-hanger was to turn, him into a writing man with results that are amusing to read about.

by ERLE STANLEY GARDNER

ON A windy day in the early spring of 1923, the Ventura newspapers announced that on the following day a “human fly” would appear at two o’clock in the afternoon at the city’s principal corner and “climb the First National Bank Building.” I was then practicing law and had my office on the top floor of the building. Naturally, I was interested. At the appointed hour the next afternoon quite a crowd gathered around the building. The Human Fly made his appearance, bowed to us, took off his coat, his shoes and socks, and nimbly jumped to the granite windowsill of the lower window. Up he went, from handhold to foothold, climbing, reaching, lifting — a superb exhibition of physical strength and coordination. The man was good; in fact, he was too good. It seemed to me, watching with the skepticism of a trial lawyer, that he was using showmanship to enhance the apparent difficulties of the climb.

Now, I had tentatively tried my hand at writing and had just decided I was going to become a professional writer, no matter how long it took. I had no particular desire to write. I wanted to adventure. I wanted to sail into strange ports. I wanted to encounter the inscrutable Oriental in his native habitat, and I had sense enough to realize that the more successful I became as an attorney, the more I would be chained to one office, one desk, one chair, and one county seat. A successful writer, however, could travel wherever he wished, taking with him his portable typewriter to pound out stories with an exotic background.

At that time my life was considerably influenced by Orvar S. T. Meyerhoffer (the Big Swede), one of the first of the barnstorming pilots, whose creed was summed up in a very simple formula. “Every goddamn day of my life,” the Swede would say, “something unexpected happens. If it doesn’t show up of its own accord by five thirty, then I go out to look for it.” I had been with the Big Swede on many occasions when he went out to look for the unexpected, and he never missed.

So when the Human Fly climbed the First National Bank Building at Ventura and passed the hat to an applauding audience on his descent, I promptly conceived the idea of having a human fly as the hero of a mystery story. Little did I realize the complications which were to follow.

We were then still suffering from the puritanical aftermath ol a straitlaced civilization. As a child I had been told that the dime novel was “trash.” The fact that it was also exciting and that its format was such that it could fit snugly into the pages of an open Frye’s Geography made it only the more wicked. The wood-pulp magazine was a natural development of the dime novel. But the wood pulps were trying desperately to be respectable so that they could ease out from under the parental ban imposed on dime novels, and their purity defied description. This was particularly true in the Western magazines, where every young heroine was a symbol of purity, a glacial statue of virgin ice.

In 1923, Street & Smith had a whole string of wood-pulp magazines. Their Popular magazine was the wood-pulp aristocrat of the field, and my target, Top-Notch magazine, was somewhere down the line, generally considered to have more of an appeal in the juvenile field.

I wanted a name for this human fly character of mine, and I wanted something which would be indicative of his character, so I christened him Speed Dash. That first story, featuring Speed Dash, the Human Fly as a detective, was a bungling, amateurish piece of work and should have won one of Street & Smith’s annoying rejection slips.

Arthur Scott was the editor of Top-Notch. As he subsequently told me, he read my story and shook his head, walked over to his office window on the seventh floor of the building, looked down at the sidewalk to see for himself how impossible the story was — and made a startling discovery. The Street & Smith office building, built of stone, had curved recesses cut along the border of each block, and as these stones were fitted together, they made indentations. Scott reached his hand out the window, and nesting his fingertips in the indentations, felt the sudden surge of enthusiasm which comes with an editorial discovery.

“By George, a man could climb the building, if, of course, he was young, strong, and cool-headed.”

Nevertheless, he decided to send the story back. It was too amateurish. He put it into the outgoing basket, yet couldn’t get the thing out of his mind. He walked over to the window a second time, bent his fingers and again inserted them in the grooves; then he went back to his desk, picked up the story, and started making suggestions for revision.

Arthur Scott worked long and hard with that story. He edited the thing carefully and asked me to make many changes. For me it was an invaluable training. His letter was the first kindly editorial comment I had ever received, and I went to work on the story. Eventually, it squeezed under the wicket, was paid for and published by Top-Notch.

By chance, Speed Dash caught the eye of one of the owners of the company, who was. at the moment, wrestling with the problems of public relations. He took the elevator down to Arthur Scott’s office. “That story you published about the Human Fly. . .” he said.

Arthur Scott, who had the title of editor and the salary of an office boy, cowered down into his coat but managed to say, “Look out the window; it could have been clone.”

The owner brushed all that aside. “Listen,” he said, “we’re trying to inspire youth. We’re trying to get the confidence of parents. Take this guy Speed Dash and make him into a series character. Tell the author you can use more stories, provided lie makes it apparent that Speed Dash gets his almost superhuman powers because he lives a pure life. Get it? We inspire the youth of the country! Speed Dash neither smokes, drinks, nor chases. He lives a life of exemplary purity, and because he leads this pure life, he is able to bring his splendid body to such a high pitch of physical fitness that he can climb these buildings. Get it?”

Arthur Scott got it.

He wrote me a letter guardedly suggesting that he would like to see another Speed Dash story, but the emphasis must be on Speed’s purity.

I was, at the time, collecting rejection slips right and left and marveling at the efficiency of our mail. It took three and a half days by fast train from Ventura to New York. Story after story came back in seven days. Mr. Scott’s letter was exciting news. So they wanted Speed Dash pure, did they? I made him pure. And because of the purity of his life, he developed astonishing powers.

Speed Dash trained himself. Every morning he picked up a raw potato with each hand, and then, bracing himself, tightened his grip on the rawpotatoes until they turned to mush and the contents oozed through his fingers.

Then Speed Dash would wash his hands and be ready for his mental gymnasium. This consisted of a whole series of diversified objects tied on strings, attached to an eccentric shaft with wheels of different diameters. Behind these objects was a blackboard ruled into numbered squares. Speed would close his eyes and give the shaft two or three revolutions. The dangling objects would come to rest against the various numbered squares of the blackboard. Speed would wait until all motion had ceased, then open his eyes for three seconds, close them, walk into another room, and draw a diagram of each object in relation to each numbered square.

In this way Speed developed his memory until it was fantastic. He had total recall. His powers of observation were such that when he took a trip across the continent he had to keep the shades drawn on the Pullman car. Otherwise he would have had each telephone pole, each building, each tree indelibly etched in his memory. And, of course, he wanted to save his memory for the more useful things.

Apparently the readers enjoyed Speed Dash, but what was more to the point, a few parents began to write encouraging letters. Street & Smith gave me a pat on the back. The market was wide open. All I had to do was have Speed perform more and more feats of strength and mental agility because of his purity.

Speed led a pure life. The things he did could only have been done by one who had never inhaled the faintest wisp of tobacco smoke, never touched his lips to a beer glass or iookecl at a woman’s neatly turned ankle.

Street & Smith forgot entirely about the corrugations in the buildings. They let me have Speed Dash do anything. He scampered up and down the sides of skyscrapers during rainstorms, when the fingerholds were so slippery that only the consummate purity of his life prevented him from being dashed to destruction. Letters began to pour in. Parental approval was assured, The management urged me to make Speed’s life even more pure.

I did the best I could. On one occasion, Speed Dash was spilled out of an airplane high above the Grand Canyon while the villain was descending in a parachute. Speed swooped down on the parachute in a free fall, latched onto the villain, survived the fall, and found himself at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon at a place where the perpendicular cliffs were towering thousands of feet above him.

The villain, who had not lived a pure life, was trapped, to his own destruction, but Speed Dash, who had crushed his raw potatoes that very morning, worked his way up out of the Grand Canyon and emerged triumphantly at the top.

It was about this time that the fan mail brought a letter from a seaman on one of our battleships who had taken up boxing and who, very frankly, was inspired by Speed Dash. Speed was his ideal. The sailor had written his parents telling them about the wonderful effects Speed Dash had had on his life: and his parents, in turn, had written the magazine, praising it for the example it was setting the young folks of the nation.

This young man wrote me enthusiastically about how the purity of his life made his reflexes so fast that his boxing was beginning to attract attention. He hadn’t, as yet, been able to crush raw potatoes, but he kept trying every morning, and as his life became more and more pure, he had hopes of turning the potatoes into soft pulp. Even now he could feel them give a little bit.

Quite naturally, I urged the young man to keep up his training and protect the purity of his life at all hazards.

He finally won the championship of his ship, and then was matched against the champion ol its great rival in the fleet. Since he knew that his opponent did not believe in the pure life, he felt that success was virtually assured.

I wrote him a letter agreeing with him that there was nothing to it. His pure life would pay off.

Alas, my boy didn’t last. What’s more, from the moment he hit the canvas, he blamed me for his failure. It seems that his opponent was a very wicked man who chased women, smoked cigarettes, and indulged in liquor. He apparently hadn’t been able to crush potatoes, but somewhere along the line he had developed a terrific punch, and my boy had got his chin in the way of that punch.

It was one ol the most reproachful, disillusioned fan letters I have ever received. Somehow I couldn’t think of any fitting answer. The boy’s parents canceled their subscription.

One of my Speed Dash stories was entitled “The Room of Falling Flies.” The plot, roughly, was that Speed Dash had taken a steamer from Los Angeles to San Francisco; his stateroom was in the very bowels of the vessel, with only a porthole for ventilation. It was a cold night, and the flies had gathered on the ceiling of the room for warmth. Speed Dash heard a hissing sound. As he looked, a fly let go its hold and spiraled down to the floor; then another fly, another, and another.

Speed Dash ran to the door of the stateroom and tried to open it. It had been bolted shut from the outside. He knew then that his enemies had inserted the nozzle of a poison-gas gun in the keyhole and were gradually filling the room with deadly fumes.

There was a storm raging at the time. The boat was rolling heavily. Speed waited until the boat was rolling in the opposite direction, then dashed to the porthole, squeezed his way out, and waited while the boat rolled far over to port; then as it started its starboard roll. Speed got his feet on the edge of the porthole, made a leap, and caught the combing of the next porthole above with the tips of his fingers.

Speed hung on while the boat rolled again far over to port, leaving him dangling over the angry waters, held only by the tips of his fingers.

As the boat rolled back, Speed Dash went up another tier of portholes. Thanks to his pure life, he made the grade, but many readers who had accepted Speed’s feat of climbing out of the Grand Canyon — probably because they had never seen the Grand Canyon — had. as it turned out, been on shipboard in storms. I am rather inclined to think that I was getting a lot of readers from the Navy. In any event, they wrote letters of protest. 1 hey said that no matter how pure Speed Dash’s life might be, he couldn’t have done it.

Arthur Scott walked over to the window again and looked down seven stories to the sidewalk. I have an idea that he may have tried to crush a raw potato that morning. Then I was tactfully given to understand that Speed Dash had served the purpose for which he was created.

Every once in a while I come across some of the old Speed Dash fans. These are readers who were inspired by Speed Dash’s performance and the fact that his pure file made it possible. They were young when they read the stories. They are many years older now. Occasionally, some of them somewhat shamefacedly confide in me that they, too, tried to lead a pure life and crush potatoes. They were never able to do cither. Then, of course, as they became older, they gave up trying. One man, who recently retired, had saved a whole pile of Speed Dash stories.

Those were the days!

The rates were three cents a word.