I was wondering what to choose to illustrate the letter G in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet, but as I was writing how I began reading crime fiction I realised that it had to be Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. My introduction to Gardner’s books was the TV series with Raymond Burr as Perry Mason.
Gardner was born in 1889 and practised as a lawyer in California. He began writing detective fiction and gave up his practice in 1933, after publishing The Case of the Velvet Claws. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms, writing non-fiction as well as fiction. He died in 1970.
All his detective novels have a legal background, most reaching a climax in a court scene. In the Perry Mason novels (I haven’t read any of his other books) Mason is a lawyer-cum-detective who achieved fantastic results by using his legal knowledge together with fast talk, bluff and double bluff.
I have two Perry Mason books, The Case of the Lame Canary and The Case of the Substitute Face, published by Penguin Books in green and white paperbacks. This description of the latter, first published in 1938, is taken from the back cover:
C Walker Moar used to be a book-keeper to the Product Refining company, Los Angeles: then one day he walked out and the office missed twenty-five thousand dollars. Mrs Moar sought Perry Mason’s help on a journey from Honolulu to the United States mainland, and Perry got to know the other travellers – their pretty daughter Belle, two other girls, a man with a broken neck, and a millionaire. Then things started to happen – a storm, a murder, a man washed overboard, and an accusation that launched the lawyer-detective into battle as soon as the ship docked. Bluffing, threatening, and fighting with a typical disregard for the niceties of the law, he rushes his adversaries onward to a brilliant cross-examination and the dramatic end of the story.
As I expected this book is fast-paced with lots of action and as I was reading it I had difficulty in solving the mystery as Perry Mason switches from one tack to another as the case progressed. I loved recalling what were once familiar characters – Mason himself, powerful, confident, who works hard to get to the truth and to defend his clients. At one point in this book, it seems to Paul Drake as if he’s ‘going off half-cocked’ and Della Street explains that it’s no use arguing with him because
His mental system is deficient in mystery vitamins, and fighting calories, and he’s out to balance his diet once and all. (page 71)
Paul Drake, who runs his own Private Detective Agency is on hand to help Mason, together with Della Street, Mason’s secretary. Although the other characters are described in detail there is little physical description of the main characters, which leaves me free to visualise them as I remember them from the TV series. The relationship between Perry and Della is most interesting and he obviously wants to move on from employer/employee but at the end Della protests:
Let’s not get too sentimental. You know as well as I do that you’d hate a home if you had one. You’re a stormy petrel flying from one murder case to another. If you had a wife you’d put her in a fine home – and leave her there. You don’t want a wife. But you do need a secretary who can take chances with you – and you have another case waiting in Los Angeles. (page 222)
A most enjoyable book.