My rating: 6/10
Checking out several of the websites dedicated to Erle Stanley Gardner and his lifework, I made a quick count of the Perry Mason titles listed and came up with an incredible 85+, dating from 1933 to 1969, with several published posthumously – ESG died in 1970 – all with names prefixed The Case of – the Fan Dancer’s Horse, the Black Eyed Blonde, the Drowsy Mosquito, the Crying Swallow, the Vagabond Virgin… you get the drift.
Add to these the numerous other short stories published in the pulp fiction periodicals of the first half of the 20th Century, and the books written under various pseudonyms – A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray, Robert Parr – plus various novelettes, compilations and non-fiction articles, guides and memoirs, and suddenly the designation “prolific” seems to not be quite accurate enough. This guy was hyper-prolific.
And with that comes the all-too-understandable label of the “formula” writer, which there is no doubt applies accurately here.
I had once or twice dipped into ESG’s mysteries – or perhaps more accurately, “procedurals” – but they never really took. However, using the excuse of the Century of Books project and the serendipitous acquisition of this wartime issue Pocket Book – “Share this book with someone in uniform” requests a blurb on the back cover; “Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas” on a front endpaper – I decided to give Gardner one more chance, to see if I dismissed him too readily before.
Nope. Still not a fan. Though I can see the appeal, and it wasn’t a chore to read, exactly. Just a bit boring, and not very “deep”, even for something of this “light entertainment” genre.
Here’s the plot description of this particular episode in the ongoing adventures of Perry Mason, lawyer and self-styled investigator and champion of the wrongly-accused:
Perry Mason’s chance encounter with the benign looking, white-haired shoplifter, Sarah Breel, involved him in one of the strangest murder cases of his career. The mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Breel’s brother, of five valuable diamonds, and then of Sarah Breel herself, set Mason to some investigating that didn’t please the police. Then Mrs. Breel reappeared, victim of an automobile accident, with an unaccounted-for blood stain on her shoe, and a gun in her bag. When Austin Cullens, who knew about the diamonds, was found murdered by a bullet from this gun, the police discovered that in addition to a broken leg, Mrs. Breel was suffering from amnesia, and Perry Mason became attorney for the defense with a client who could not – or would not – give him any clues at all.
Luckily Mr. Mason has a wide circle of dedicated helpers who are willing to go to any lengths to assist our fearless investigator, such as his luscious secretary Della Street, pet detective Paul Drake, and tame doctor Charles Gifford, all of whom go above and beyond at the mere crook of Perry Mason’s finger.
Several bodies pop up, a hysterical woman or two, a cool sophisticate with a secret, stray gamblers and jewel thieves, to supply the story with a lavish amount of pinkish herrings and some sketchy side plots which are never really developed. It all ends in a big courtroom scene, where Perry Mason hypnotizes his opposition with his keen wit and suddenly revealed secrets.
I’m sticking with Rex Stout and his creations Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin for my fallback formula mystery/investigator stories. (And even those are rather uneven, I’ll readily admit.)
The Perry Mason saga has its merits, not least of all the snippets of period detail, the slang and the clothes and the food and the drink and the MANY references to tobacco products throughout – these people went through a lot of the Demon Leaf – no wonder the men all have hoarsely sinister voices and the women husky whispers.
I had a giggle at the descriptions of the meals, too, and a bit of a blush for Della Street’s forthright concern for her lovely figure. Here are Della and Perry bantering as they sit down for an unplanned lunch at a department store tea room, where they’ve gone to shelter from a sudden rain storm.
“Well, Mr. Mason, since you’re buying the lunch, I’m going to make it my heavy meal.”
“I thought you were going on a diet,” he said, with mock concern.
“I am,” she admitted, “I’m a hundred and twelve. I want to get back to a hundred and nine.”
“Dry whole wheat toast,” he suggested, “and tea without sugar, would…”
“That’ll be fine for tonight,” she retorted, “but as a working girl, I know when I’m getting the breaks. I’ll have cream of tomato soup, avocado and grapefruit salad, a filet mignon, artichokes, shoestring potatoes, and plum pudding with brandy sauce.”
And she does.
Aha! – that’s it! Nero and Archie have rather better sounding food!
Now I’m just being silly…
Well, that’s that for Erle Stanley Gardner. I doubt I’ll be seeking any more of these out, though I’ll happily read them in anthologies and if stuck somewhere with no other reading matter handy.
One last thing. Here is the page scan from my old Pocket Book with the publishers being all clever and smugly humorous about their best-selling author: