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February 2, 2006

The Case of the Sulky Girl

(As if you care).

One of the attractions of any novel by Erle Stanley Gardner is the cleverness of the title. Although not exhibited particularly well in this second Perry Mason novel, the first The Case of the Velvet Claws and the third The Case of the Lucky Legs, along with the A. A. Fair titles (Fish or Cut Bait, Fools Die on Friday, You Can Die Laughing) are all nice uses of cliché phrases to new effect. Enough about titles, were his ability to stop there, there would be no point in encouraging people to pick up these classics.

Gardner's ability extends to plotting and construction of the essential mystery. I would not class him with the other classic Golden Age Mystery writers for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, in the Perry Mason series, he does not have a detective as such. Perry Mason, much like Nero Wolfe, is essential a fixture. The investigation is done by others and we see Perry thinking and interviewing and doing lawyerly stuff, but rarely actively investigating. (I'm reporting on this novel, I'm sure others may show different behaviors.) But more importantly, Gardner took steps, either consciously or unconsciously to divorce himself from the whole Golden Age school. For one thing, his setting is relentlessly realistic. So much so that I would put him in a class by himself as a California Mystery Novelist. There are no others in this unique set. Although others write mysteries set in California, the sensibility of these novels is unique. Chandler wrote about Los Angeles and other California settings, but his novel aren't anchored to the state, they are anchored to the state of hard-boiled noir. Gardner walks a thin line between the classical school and the hard-boiled, but the atmosphere is rarely noir, and it certainly wasn't for Perry Mason in this novel.

This is the second in the series. I'll have to go back and catch the first. Thanks to the provisions of our marvelous copyright laws, the books, which under any reasonable circumstances would have entered public domain some time ago, are locked away most likely permanently. And publishers, in their great push to have more knitting, candle-making, bed-and-breakfast, tea, and scrapbooking mysteries have set aside some of the great works of the past. Should the trend continue, these works could be lost to future generations--I think particularly of Gardner, Carr, Queen, and a few others--very fine mystery writers whose recent publication records are dismal. I'd venture to guess that among the three perhaps twenty percent of the collected opus is available for purchase to readers today. Back to my point--thanks to copyright provisions, The Case of the Velvet Claws and approximately 60 other Perry Mason novels do not appear to be in print at present. Or perhaps Velvet Claws was and it was just back-ordered--I forget--either way the main point stands.

In this second Perry Mason novel we experience (I am told) the first time Mason is involved in a trial. For those who recall the television show, the trial is much the same, although there's a whole lot more commentary from the peanut gallery about how Mason is really botching it up. The denouement occurs within the trial sequence and provides a satisfactory, if only faintly sketched solution to the mystery. As Gardner gets better control of his material, I expect this aspect of the novels to improve.

What is interesting here are the large number of illegal and suspect things Mason does in the course of this single case. He hides his client away from the police, he mails stole money to himself to avoid being in possession of it, he attempts to steal evidence--and so forth. He is so dicey that at one point he acknowledges that if things go poorly, he would certainly be in danger of an accessory-after-the-fact charge.

I've gone on long enough. I enjoyed the book for what it was and am sorry that I have come so late to this particular table. The field was never a specialty of mine and I was much more interested in the British School--which, curiously, includes one major American author (John Dickson Carr) and could be argued to be the predominant influence in another (Ellery Queen). In fact, of the writers of the Golden Age, it seems there is only one prolific American standout--Rex Stout. He defied the conventions and the lure of the British School and forged a unique American voice and a Detective who has no parallel in the mystery field. Perhaps I'll take up writing about him in the near future. But for the time being, to round out the review, I would say that Sulky Girl is recommended light reading, and required reading for those who wish to acquaint themselves with certain milestones in the history of the mystery field. After all, Perry Mason's first recorded trial is a landmark occasion of sorts.

Posted by Steven Riddle at February 2, 2006 8:57 AM

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