“A murder case is simply a jigsaw puzzle, a lot of things to be put together. If you have the right solution, all of the parts fit into the picture. If some of the parts don’t seem to fit, it’s a pretty good indication you haven’t the right solution.” Perry Mason
It’s that time of year again: the ROY Awards! This is when Kate Jackson of Cross-Examining Crime invites ten or so reputable bloggers – and accepts a sizable bribe from JJ to include him (don’t blame her, the money goes toward feeding the goats) – to post reviews of some of their favorite classic mysteries that were republished, usually by fantastic small presses, for the enjoyment of all of us GAD fans. This Saturday and next, we will each post two options, and then on Boxing Day you get to vote for your favorite over at Kate’s place.
Don’t be fooled by how rarely I’ve spoken here about Erle Stanley Gardner: defense attorney Perry Mason, arguably the author’s greatest creation, has been a big part of my life. Oh, sure, I’ve read a number of the eighty-two mystery novels featuring Mason, but the truth is that the character looms largest for me through the TV series that ran from 1957 to 1966 on CBS and then forever after in reruns.
For the longest time, I believed that Raymond Burr perfectly embodied the lawyer/sleuth, and while this isn’t necessarily true, Burr mesmerized me every week with his courtroom shenanigans. After laying waste to D.A. Hamilton Burger’s seemingly airtight case against his client, Mason/Burr would lay his final trap by calling a final witness and browbeating him or her with questions: “Isn’t it true that you arrived at Fabian Mandrake’s home not at 9:30 but at 7? Isn’t it true that you’re allergic to cinnamon?? Isn’t it true . . .???”
Then it would go down one of two ways: either the witness on the stand would deny these allegations three of four times and then let rip with an “All RIGHT!!!!” (Music underscores) “Yes, I was there, YES, I killed him, and I’d do it again, do you hear me? I WOULD DO IT AGAIN!!!” OR . . . The witness would deny and then finally say, “Yes, I’ll admit I bought the concrete, but I swear to you, Mr. Mason, I DIDN’T KILL HIM.” And Mason would smile and say, “ No, Mrs. Miniver, you didn’ t kill him. The person who killed him had to know that the concrete would set by nightfall. He had to know that Banning Sheldrake’s pet turtle had stopped eating. He had to be present in the house before the kumquat pie had cooled. That’s when he murdered Sheldrake and took the lacquered chest to frame my client. Isn’t that right – (and here Mason would turn dramatically to face the court . . . ) – Mr. Jefferson Feldspar?!?!?!?”
If you want to read about my favorite episode, here it is. If you want to know more about the novels I read . . . well, I have to admit that the only one I can remember is the most recent one, 1935’s The Case of the Counterfeit Eye. Like the first few seasons of the TV show, the early incarnation of Perry Mason landed very much in the territory of noir. Perry acted more the tough guy P.I. than the ace attorney. As Burr got older and larger, (well, Burr’s mass certainly increased over nine years at CBS!), the character became more sedentary, less tough, but still enjoyable. Network television tried to revisit Mason, first with a short-lived reboot starring Monte Markham, which was no good, and then with a series of two-hour movies on a rival network that reunited Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, who had originally played Della Street, Mason’s adoring secretary. These had some nostalgic value, but at two-hours they felt padded, and the plots tended to explore Mason’s personal life – something that neither Gardner nor the original TV show had bothered with.
Most recently, HBO rebooted the character, returning to Mason’s noir roots in a prequel to his life as an ace attorney. Very little of this had anything to do with the character as conceived by Gardner and yet, although I didn’t write about the series, I watched and enjoyed it very much. Perhaps the plot had too many shades of the film Chinatown, but that’s not to say it didn’t fascinate. Reimagining a young Perry as an alcoholic loser P.I. may have been a bit of a stretch, but it’s not much of a spoiler to say that, by the series’ end, he had managed to slough off most of his faults (or turn them into strengths) and score a win for his hapless client and against corrupt L.A. politics. Along the way, he met Della Street (here a lesbian), Hamilton Burger (a gay man) and Paul Drake (a black cop). You know how these modern adaptations like to play around with the original (see the most recent adaptation of The Body in the Library); I didn’t let it bother me because I was having too much fun. The series was beautifully acted and – despite the wholesale changes made to the mythology – incredibly nostalgic for me. I hope there will be another series.
I mentioned above that I have little to no memory of the Mason novels I had read. This happened mostly during my twenties, inspired by my friend Viv’s mom, Fortunee, who loved the novels and the show. It was so nice to have someone to talk with about mysteries. I think I enjoyed the books I read, but I couldn’t tell you what any of the titles were or what they were about.
In honor of the HBO series, Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press has republished five titles from the middle of Gardner’s prolific career: The Case of the Lazy Lover (1947), The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1948), The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom (1949), The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister (1953), The Case of the Terrified Typist (1956), and The Case of the Gilded Lily (1956). The covers are lovely, and there is probably a reason that these titles were chosen over some of the earlier, better ones. But this is what I’ve got, and I decided to read The Case of the Lonely Heiress as representative of the bunch. Thus, when you vote for best revival, one vote for me counts five times! (You got that, Kate?)
I think this is our hero’s thirty-first adventure, and by now he’s lost a lot of the edge we saw in Counterfeit Eye and other 30’s novels. Still, even here Mason is a livelier and funnier fellow than he ever was on TV. Which is good news because the opening chapters of Lonely Heiress play like a comedy of errors. Mason is visited by Robert Caddo, the publisher of Lonely Hearts are Calling, a lurid magazine that is part True Romance and part Tinder. Each issue contains a wealth of stories (all written by Caddo himself) about ordinary women who find passion and/or true love, but the real money maker is the personal ad section, where women can plead their case and (hopefully) get some hot replies.
Caddo has been printing an ad for a while from a young woman who claims she has inherited a lot of money and is looking for true love. He tells Mason that he has been accused of making up this ad and will be shut down if he can’t locate the real woman behind “Ad 96.” Mason agrees to take the case, but it won’t be long before he comes to regret his decision, for Cupid the Matchmaker Mr. Caddo ain’t!
All of this leads to a dispute over a will involving a desperate set of relatives trying to overturn an inconvenient inheritance. This, in turn, leads to a murder that places Mason and Della on the scene of the crime and forces him to engage in a lot of cagey shenanigans to protect his reputation and save his client. Can you wonder at all whether he will succeed?
The novel is a quick read in that it is almost literally made up entirely of dialogue. The opening hook is lightweight fun, but it allows us to see Mason in a rare moment of vulnerability. And once the murder occurs, the rest of the book breaks down into one lawyerly antic after another, most of which are quite amusing. For example, early on Mason and Della come face to face with their nemesis, Lieutenant Tragg, who orders a policeman to drive them to the station for questioning and to not let them share information before they arrive.
Gardner can’t be called a vivid stylist, but he can have a way with spare descriptions of people, like the aforementioned police officer:
“The chunky, uniformed cop who occupied the front seat had enormous shoulders, a thick neck, heavy forehead, small, deep-set eyes, a huge chin and a battered nose that had apparently been flattened and left largely to its own devices, so far as healing was concerned.”
Mason’s solution to the immediate problem of passing on orders to Della is amusingly handled, and even has a nice twist at the end of the chapter. And so it goes right up to a very late, very brief court date, where all is cleared up in a not particularly satisfying way. However, the real fun of a Perry Mason novel is not so much the case at hand as watching Mason and his gang grapple with it. The real star of this show is Della Street, who makes the most important deductions in this case and supplies her boss and the reader with equal doses of loyalty, quasi-romance, and snappy humor. She’s also the source of one of my biggest irritations with Gardner’s writing:
“Della Street bent over the suitcases. Mason held his flashlight so it gave her a circle of illumination.
“Della Street’s deft fingers ran through the garments.
“’What do you make of it?’ Mason asked.
“Della Street said, ‘She was either going to get married or she was going on a trip of some importance . . . ‘“
Why does the author give us Della’s full name every time? It’s repeated ten times on this one page alone! It pretty much happens with every character except our hero, who is referred to as “Mason” throughout. If someone has an inkling as to why this might be considered a stylistic choice, I’d love to hear from you.
Meanwhile, I watched the episode of Perry Mason upon which this novel is based. (Most of the early seasons turned to the novels for inspiration or downright adaptation before coming up with their own plots.) Even granted that it’s difficult to adapt an entire novel into a 51-minute long episode, this time the script writers pretty much abandoned everything but the title: new characters, different victims, everything. In fact, the adaptation pretty much turns everything in the novel on its ear. While I can kind of appreciate why, the novel is infinitely more fun than the TV version. So much of The Lonely Heiress revolves around the relationship between Perry and Della, and the TV show chose – as procedural series of the era were won’t to do – to freeze the relationships between series regulars into one thing. It isn’t that Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale couldn’t be playful with each other – within limits – or even that Erle Stanley Gardner developed something deep and romantic on the page. It’s just that . . . oh, you have to read it to understand what I’m talking about.
My buddy JJ long ago crowned Gardner as one of his top Crime Kings and has threatened to read and review every one of these Perry Mason books. I’m sure I will return to the novels time and again, just as I love revisiting the old TV show. However, despite the quotation that begins this post (and comes at the end of this novel), the Perry Mason books are more legal thrillers with a whodunnit element than true fair play mysteries. Many of them are spiffy reads; I would love to hear from those of you who feel able to suggest some of the better ones to me. Meanwhile, please consider giving Perry Mason your vote for this year’s ROY awards (a much more pleasurable voting process than the one through which we Americans have most recently suffered!) I’ll be back next week with my second nominee, this one a locked room puzzle by a classic author whom I have never read before.