Oh, to be in England!
This week marks the eve of Bodies from the Library ’22, the long-awaited return to celebrating face-to-face all things related to the Golden Age of Detection. Most of my friends will be there, but here I am, stuck in the provinces. My Facebook feed alternates between the results of friends’ daily Wordle and their COVID tests. The news, on both fronts, is not good.
So, yes, I have skipped Bodies, but that means I can get a leg up on my Book Club companions by having an early read of this month’s title. We really changed things up this month by choosing an author who 1) is American, and 2) has been read by more than thirty people. But you knew this already if you happened upon my most recent post. Once again, the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner is facing the Court of Public Opinion, and this time we’re hanging out with the Big Guy himself – defense attorney Perry Mason.
“The real handicap about knowing people too well is that it takes all the thrill out of life. People become hopelessly drab and monotonous as they become more obvious. Nothing is new. The people one meets become a procession of mediocrities hurrying down life‘s pathway on petty errands. But every so often life makes amends by tossing out an experience which can’t be classified.“
The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe (1938) is Mason’s thirteenth adventure, and it contains one of Gardner’s most delightful hooks. Seeking an escape from an L.A. downpour, Perry drags Della into a local department store for a light lunch of “cream of tomato soup, avocado and grapefruit salad, filet mignon, medium rare, hot artichoke, shoestring potatoes, and plum pudding with brandy sauce.” Yes, everyone used to eat this way, which might explain why the average life expectancy for a man in 1938 was just under 62 years. (I looked it up!)
While waiting for their lunch, Perry spots a store detective he knows checking out one of the customers, a white-haired woman with “a benign, motherly look,” whom he immediately deduces is a shoplifter. Through a series of circumstances, Mason and Della end up having lunch with this woman, Sarah Breel, and her niece, Virginia Trent. Mason shows a clear fondness for Miss Breel, who parries away the store’s accusations of theft with a great deal of charm and chutzpah. With Mason offering to guide her, Miss Breel avoids arrest for shoplifting. By the end of the next chapter, she lays in a hospital with a concussion, a fractured leg, and a bloody stain on one of her shoes. She is also the prime suspect in a murder.
Perry appears on every page of this book, and he makes for delightful company, whether he’s acting bemused, joking around, or standing up for his client. It helps get us through some slow sections because Shoplifter’s Shoe doesn’t amount to much of a case. Most of the characters, with the exception of Sarah and her niece come off as nicely etched cameos. Still, Miss Breel endears herself both to her lawyer and to the reader: her sense of equanimity from her first accusation in the department store through the sensational, albeit brief, murder trial that follows is inspiring.
I actually want to quote Miss Breel here, from a moment when she lies in a hospital and talks to Mason about her feelings over the murder of her brother and the ordeal that lies ahead of her. Not only is she inspiring to a guy who’s missing out on a great mystery conference, but – and I will state this for the record – I hope to go through life in my twilight years with this credo after seeing the havoc played on older people by the pandemic:
“I try to look at life and death from a broad-minded viewpoint. If you’re going to have births, you must have deaths. Life is a stream; death is a part of the scheme of things and it’s a necessary part. If babies kept being born, and no one died, the world would become completely overcrowded. If babies weren’t born and no one died, it would be a pretty sorry, disillusioned world with no youth and gaiety, no romance, no honeymoons, and no children’s laughter. I’m sorry George had to die, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s dead. As far as I’m concerned, I miss him; but when I grieve about missing him, it isn’t being sorry for him, it’s being sorry for me. It’s hard to explain, Mr. Mason. It may seem cold-blooded to you. It really isn’t. I have a great deal of love and a great deal of affection for George. He’s dead. We all have to go sometime.”
The trial presents some interesting points of law, and Mason manages to cram in some amusing shenanigans in the short time he has in court. I will also say that, given the formulaic nature of Gardner’s plotting (he used a plot wheel, folks!) this case’s solution is a quite unusual. In fact, given how much more formulaic the TV series is, I doubted the producers would stay true to the original story, and so I re-watched Season Six, Episode 13. For much of the hour, I have to commend how loyally the script followed the book, but then a complete reversal is made to Mason’s tactics and a different killer is unmasked.
Actress Lurene Tuttle plays Sarah Breel in one of six appearances she made in the series (portraying the defendant in five of them and the murderer in one), while child star Margaret O’Brien, all grown up, plays niece Virginia. And in a small but key role we find a very young Leonard Nimoy, whose highly emotional performance would surprise anyone who knew him only as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
Much as I loved the series, a comparison here shows how – well, how wrong the TV show got Gardner’s characters. Admittedly, this is a late episode for the series, when everyone felt a little tired. (Poor Ray Collins, as Lieutenant Tragg, was very ill by this point, and it shows.) Raymond Burr operates as a big scold here, rather than the rogue with a twinkle in his eye from the book. There’s no sense of friction between Mason, the cops and the D.A., a major factor in the book; instead, Hamilton Burger (William Tallman) basically assists Mason in explaining the true solution.
Worst of all, the snappy repartee and deep feelings between the central trio of Perry, Della, and Paul is missing. Della herself is curiously absent here: she doesn’t appear in the opening sequence at the department store, and her work for Perry is reduced to announcing arrivals to the office. Compare that with the sizzling ending from the book:
“(Della Street) interrupted him with a laugh, and said, ‘You’d be surprised about Virginia.’
“’ You mean she was mushy over the telephone?’ Mason asked incredulously.
“’Well, she was pretty sugar-coated, and just before she hung up, she . . .’
“’She what?’ Mason asked.
“Della Street laughed. ‘I couldn’t tell you,’ she said. ‘It would be betraying a sacred confidence.’
“’Could you,’ Mason inquired, ‘show me?’
“She paused long enough to make certain there was no one else on the driveway. ‘Well’, she conceded, with a throaty laugh, ‘I might. Bend over so I can reach . . .’”
Despite a saggy middle, I enjoyed this adventure of the world’s best defense lawyer pretty much. Sources on the internet have suggested some stronger cases to explore in the future – and you can bet there will be more Doug Selby in the future, as well as a first plunge into the world of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. I may not have a green thumb, but in a little while you may find me becoming something of an expert Gardner. (Ouch!)
* * * * *
At our last meeting of Book Club, we decided to select our reads for the next five months. With the Gardner out of the way, I thought I would list the upcoming titles, just in case anyone wants to read along and offer a comment. I enjoy writing about books, but I thrive when there’s a back and forth going on. Here are our upcoming reads:
July: Reputation for a Song by Edward Grierson
August: The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
September: Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo
October: Death of Jezebel by Christianna Brand
I found a lot of cheap copies of Grierson’s book on eBay, and the Sayers/Eustace collaboration is easily picked up. The Yokomizo is about to be released by Pushkin Press, and the much-heralded and, until now, impossible-to-find, Death of Jezebel is coming soon from the British Library. (SPOILER: it’s the title we will all be fighting over when Kate hosts her Reprint of the Year fiesta in December.)
I hope you and I will be talking about these books and more all year! And if you happen to be attending Bodies this year, have a blast, and please raise a cuppa to absent friends . . .