Thursday, May 09, 2013

A Month of Perry Mason

I've been very busy with three jobs (plus running an eighteen-month long role playing game and the occasional freelance writing gig) that my blog posts have been few and far between. I've still been reading, of course, but I'm not having much luck with the part where I sit down to write a review. Currently, I'm in the middle of Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, Elizabeth LaBan's The Tragedy Paper, and Joni Cham's In My Mother's House, but since I read on the go (i.e. on the bus or while waiting for a meeting), I usually take a shorter pocketbook with me.

That means I've been reading a lot of Perry Mason books the entire month of April, in no particular order. I just grab whatever's on top of the pile and move the one I've just read to the bottom. Here's a rundown of some I've finished lately:

The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink - one of my favorite Perry Mason mysteries so far. It starts out innocently enough, with a botched hit-and-run. But soon Mason finds himself in the middle of a cop killing. It transported me to the era when these books were actually written. There was a certain gravity to this book that stood out from the others. Not only that, the case felt bigger than Mason and for once made me think he might not have all the faculties to solve it.

The Case of the Curious Bride - A newlywed gets herself in a sticky situation when her first husband shows up and subsequently gets killed. Add to the mess a spineless husband and a controlling father-in-law and Mason has a mystery that got complicated too fast too soon. An enjoyable mystery that ended with an exciting courtroom scene.

The Case of the Borrowed Brunette - I would have liked this a lot better if I hadn't disliked one of the characters Perry was helping. I'm used to characters lying, cheating, stealing, betraying. But in this book, I felt that her dishonesty was so unnecessary that it made me frustrated. Still, I thought the book's premise (an actress is selected to live in an apartment and give the impression that she's someone else) was a pretty good hook.

The Case of the Stuttering Bishop - I didn't care for this one a lot. Maybe the whole stuttering assumption/logic was just lost on me so I wasn't too invested in the idea from the very beginning. I wasn't attached to any of the characters and I was in a hurry to finish the book.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye - another favorite. It's classic Perry Mason, with all its red herring evidence and interesting characters. The mystery is peppered with fake eyes, planted evidence, old flames, murders, secrets and lies -- basically the things that complicate a Mason mystery and deliver a thrilling read.

The Case of the Gilded Lily - Mason's client hopes to protect his wife and beat a blackmailer but things go from bad to worse for him when the blackmailer ends up dead. Mason steps in to help and uncovers the real culprit but it felt that it came from left-field. Della Street does a good job of voicing out my concerns this time: it really felt that Mason's methods bordered on illegal. But (again) I'm no lawyer, so I wouldn't know what was legal and what wasn't.

I have about eighteen books left and I'm not even remotely tired from all the Erle Stanley Gardner I've been reading. But ask me again a month from now. I wonder what I'll have to say then!

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Erle Stanley Gardner)

I got hooked on Perry Mason mysteries because my dad was a fan of the TV series starring Raymond Burr. When I was younger, Papa always talked about how this lawyer could solve even the most complicated of problems. I was in high school when I read my first Erle Stanley Gardner mystery, but only started collecting them in college. Unfortunately, there are so many mysteries to read and they're not as readily available as Agatha Christie's or Raymond Chandler's work. What few books in my library were bought at Goodwill Bookstore or Booksale. Recently though, a friend of mine generously lent me her collection, enabling me to read the very first Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws.

It's a case filled with blackmail, adultery, double-cross, and murder. Harrison Burke is at a hotel during a robbery, but he's not alone. He's with the already-married Eva Griffin, who asks Perry Mason to handle a tabloid that's threatening to run this story. Mason digs a little deeper and discovers that not everything is what it seems.

It's hard to write a review of such a classic work. You can't fault Mr Gardner's characters for being stereotypes when these were some of the tropes that helped define the genre. Instead I'll just note what differences I found between this first case and his later works.

I found him more hot-headed and impulsive here. When I usually read about Perry Mason, I get the sense that he knows how his clients will react or how the prosecution and the police will attack. Since he's often able to anticipate these movements, he manages to pull some tricks out. I'm no legal mind nor am I a chess player, but Mason's strategies are always entertaining and exciting to a layman like me. While Velvet Claws still had its twists and turns, I felt that Mason wasn't on top of the situation this. There was an unusual amount of blind faith -- and dare I say it, naivete? -- in his client that complicated things for him as well. It humanized Perry Mason a bit: from a man who could manipulate seemingly impossible cases to someone who made mistakes every now and then.

I also got a bit of insight into Della Street's past. Usually Della is just described as Mason's efficient secretary (and to shippers like me, a little bit more). But in the first few pages, Mason recounts things we don't know about Della: "You're different. Your family was rich. Then they lost their money. You went to work. Lots of women wouldn't have done that (p15)." Della doesn't appreciate the stroll down memory lane so the subject is dropped. I would love to read more about Della's personal life and while I haven't finished all the Perry Mason books, I still harbor hope that I'd come across more information in the later books.

Also missing for me this time was the presence of the ubiquitous court scenes. Most Perry Mason books work by-the-numbers for me: 1) Client approaches Mason for help; 2) Mason asks detective Paul Drake to investigate; 3) Client is implicated in a murder; 4) Police investigates and a case is filed; 5) Case is tried. Most of the Mason magic is revealed during the court trial, but it is largely absent in Velvet Claws. Even without this, the mystery is revolved to much satisfaction. By-the-numbers, I tell you: 6) Mason solves the mystery and lives to fight another day.