The Case of the Lame Canary was originally published in 1937. My copy is a Penguin green and white reprint of 1961. At that date Erle Stanley Gardner was in his sixties and was one of the world’s best-selling mystery writers. He had given up his career as a lawyer in California in 1935 and had taken a log cabin in the mountains to write his books full-time.
Perry Mason specialises in murder cases so when Rita Swaine arrives at his office with a tale of her sister’s matrimonial problems he isn’t interested. However, he is interested in the caged canary she has carried into his office, because it has a lame foot and he wants to know why it’s lame and why she brought it with her.
Rita tells him a complicated tale, which persuades Perry to represent her sister. Her sister Rosalind is married to Walter Prescott, but is still in love with Jimmy Driscoll, Walter had found out and threatened to kill her and so Rosalind had left and then asked her to get her things and the canary. Walter is later found murdered and the story gets even more complicated, especially as Rita just doesn’t tell Perry the truth. It appears that all three – Rita, Rosalind and Jimmy could have killed Walter.
Perry enlists Paul Drake’s help and together they ferret out yet more information – at times it felt like information overload and no clear way through to discover who killed Walter and why. And yet there is more because towards the end Perry says to his secretary, Della Street
… a solution of any crime which doesn’t account for all of the various factors involved is no solution at all. No, I’ve paid too much attention to the people the district attorney’s office suspect, and not enough to the victim. In the long run, Della, the essence of all successful detective work lies in reconstructing the life of the victim. That gives motivation, and motivation makes murders. (page 185)
There was no way I was able to work it all out, until almost the end and yet all the clues are there just so cleverly concealed within the text – and the lame canary does have a part to play!
Perry Mason acts more as a detective than a lawyer and works independently of the police to protect his clients, but he also has a very human side. Della, is anxious that he has a holiday and has planned a long trip around the world for the two of them. She’s booked their tickets and as the case gets more and more complicated she continues to urge him to start packing his things. In the end they just make it on board and they sail away. The book ends on a romantic scene as the other passengers watch:
… the tall, distinguished man, accompanied by the capable, good-looking young woman, parading around the deck, as though it were a ceremonial march, and, as they walked, whistling Hawaiian Paradise. (page 224)
A satisfying read and one I might read again, if only to see how it was all put together.