Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #3
Preceded by The Case of the Sulky Girl
Followed by The Case of the Howling Dog
Young Marjorie Clune’s best asset is her greatest misfortune: a pair of exquisite legs. They attract the perfect heel, a self-professed movie promoter named Frank Patton, whose scam seems even more flawless than Marjorie’s lissome limbs. When the hype clears, the local chamber of commerce is many dollars poorer, Marjorie’s been hung out to dry—and Patton’s been found with the knife of Marjorie’s lover implanted in his chest… But will a single cunning lie her lawyer Perry Mason tells, catch a killer and free her from a nightmare of accusation?
The Case of the Lucky Legs is the third Perry Mason mystery and the first which I found a bit of a struggle to get through, at least at first. My first few attempts to read it ended with me falling asleep or losing concentration and while it is possible that this was not entirely the book’s fault, it certainly did not bode well. But before I delve too deeply into my feelings about the book I should outline what it is about.
The previous novel had ended with Mason receiving a letter from an “Eva Lamont” requesting his legal services but the meeting is actually attended by Bradbury, a wealthy playboy. It turns out that he is looking for help in a matter concerning a lady friend who might have married him had it not been for a roguish movie promoter, Frank Patton, who held a beauty contest for women to win a picture contract with a movie studio. His lady friend, Marjorie Clune, won the title of ‘The Girl with the Lucky Legs’ but the studio wiggled out of their contract leaving her too embarrassed to return to her hometown.
Bradbury is hoping that Mason will track down Patton and get him to confess to his deception or unethical behavior to give grounds to sue the studio. As he remarks, Patton seems to have had some ‘shrewd legal advice’ and he wants to get some of his own. One complication is that there is another man in Marjorie’s life, spendthrift dentist Dr. Doray, who is also seeking some justice for her. Bradbury wants to make sure that whatever happens, he receives the credit for helping her rather than Dr. Doray.
The early part of the novel sees Mason following up on this request and I found them to be somewhat slow and lacking in intrigue. The setup as first expressed seems pretty clear-cut and I was not particularly drawn to any of the characters. The most intriguing aspect of the case, the film studio setting, is really only background to the story and offers little in the way of color or excitement.
These chapters are not only somewhat drab in terms of the content, they move surprisingly slowly in spite of Gardner’s athletic, punchy prose style. Several conversations are quite lengthy yet they neither advance our understanding of the plot or the characters involved, particularly those with Bradbury whose demanding attitude quickly becomes tiresome.
Fortunately the pace does pick up a little as we move into the second phase of the story in which Perry discovers a body. This sequence is notable enough that it is explicitly referenced in an author’s introduction to the book in which he notes that some readers may be surprised to read about Perry Mason making use of a set of skeleton keys in this sequence and it certainly does seem like a surprisingly reckless decision from anyone practicing law. This is far from the only reckless decision he will make in the course of the story but given the others all are well within spoiler territory I had best not say more. Many of these moments are amusing but they do come at the expense of the story’s credibility.
One aspect of this novel that I cannot fault it on is its discussion of what it means to represent someone. Perry may act recklessly at points in this story but he is always clear on who his client is and how he should best serve their interests. This is a theme that dominated each of the previous stories but I think it is particularly effective here, especially bearing in mind Bradbury’s repeated attempts at interference.
The other aspect of this adventure that appealed was the divergence in the interests of Mason and Paul Drake, the head of the Drake Detective Agency who he advises Bradbury to hire. While some of the early exchanges between the two in this story are a little dry, I appreciated that this story acknowledges that Drake is not simply an extension of Mason and may disagree with his actions. This idea is not fully realized within the story but it does make Drake seem a more independent and interesting creation.
I was a little disappointed that Della Street is largely sidelined in this story and is given little opportunity to do anything beyond make shorthand notes of conversations and answer the phone lines. This is a far cry from the more vocal character we saw in The Case of the Velvet Claws and it does seem like Gardner had lost some interest in her by this point.
Turning back to the case itself, I think the solution works though it is not particularly surprising. Gardner does not give us many suspects to choose from so the solution is fairly easy to predict. The circumstances in which Mason reveals the killer’s identity are fun if a little convoluted but, once again, the scene plays out surprisingly slowly and rather than building anticipation, I was wishing he would just get on with naming them.
While I found parts of this story to be very entertaining, I do think it is a weaker work than either of the two previous Mason adventures. The opening to the case offers little in the way of intrigue and some of the plot developments feel convoluted. Mason is still a fun hero, if a little rougher and less ethical than in some of his other outings, and I do think he gets some good moments here but if you are new to this series I would certainly not start here.
5 thoughts on “The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner”
It just so happens Lucky Legs was the first Perry Mason novel I ever read, after having seen a number of the TV episodes. I remember being surprised and disappointed that there was no trial sequence. (No Tragg or Burger, either!) I did enjoy it, though, and read a lot more Masons over the next few years. I agree that the storyline is simpler than the previous two, and certainly it offers nothing like the convoluted plots that Gardner put into his books in in the next few years.
As you note, on the last page of The Case of the Sulky Girl, Mason gets that telegram signed Eva Lamont. In Francis and Roberta Fugate’s Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer, the authors quote a letter from Gardner to his editor saying that at the time he wrote the teaser, he had no idea what the “lucky legs” book was actually going to be about. This did not surprise me when I read it, as I always thought that business at the start about how Bradbury actually sent the telegram and signed it with Eva’s name seemed a little awkward.
(Mason’s client in the first book, Velvet Claws, was another Eva. Did Gardner just plain like this name?)
Francis M. Nevins writes in Cornucopia of Crime that the early Masons were about a lawyer who was willing to break the law (like with the skeleton keys) if that was what it took to fight for his client. The more respectable Mason who was to come was the price Gardner paid to get his books into the Saturday Evening Post, which paid huge sums to print them as serials but had strict editorial requirements. (By the way, Cornucopia of Crime has a partial spoiler for the very next Mason book, Howling Dog – be warned!)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I appreciated hearing about the origins of that very awkward transition into this case – that explanation makes a lot of sense and while I enjoy the idea of one case rolling into another it certainly sets the opening of this story back a little.
I appreciate the warning about Howling Dog which I hope to get to next month!
LikeLiked by 1 person