The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally published in 1934
Perry Mason #5
Preceded by The Case of the Howling Dog
Followed by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
After con man Greg Moxley married Rhoda Lorton, he took her money and flew—only to have his plane crash. Years later, Rhoda weds millionaire scion Carl Montaine. But now Moxley has turned up alive and well….with plans to pocket the Montaine fortune—or else make Rhoda’s bigamy public. Desperate to protect the good name of Montaine, Rhoda seeks out Perry Mason. But before Mason can reel in Moxley, somebody murders the scheming blackmailer. In a case that abounds in lethal twists, Perry Mason suddenly finds himself on a collision course with a cold-blooded killer.
I have been trying to read the Perry Mason series in order so I was pretty annoyed with myself when I realized that I had skipped over this book when I published my Counterfeit Eye review earlier this year. Rather than pressing forwards I decided I would double back and take a look at this one. I am pretty glad I did because I really enjoyed this story.
A young woman calls on Perry Mason to consult him about a situation on behalf of a friend. After asking some very specific questions about the amount of time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be produced, Mason loses his patience with her games and demands honesty. This backfires when, rather than confessing the truth, the young woman flees his office leaving him feeling guilty for not helping her.
After tracking her down, Mason learns her background and gets a better sense of what the problem is. Rhoda was a victim of a conman who had stolen her savings and left her in the lurch, apparently dying in a plane crash. She is just married to a young man with prospects when the conman turns up looking for a payoff. Mason agrees to help Rhoda with her legal problems but before he can get to work she finds herself in a deeper type of trouble when the conman is found dead with some evidence nearby that seems to place her at the scene.
The first few chapters in The Case of the Curious Bride were, for me, its weakest. Other early Mason novels also feature evasive, dishonest clients but typically there is a greater degree of mystery to what they are trying to conceal. Here it is not too difficult to infer much of the setup from Rhoda’s general attitude and the questions she is asking and Perry’s frequent interruptions seem to be designed to break up explanation and remind the reader he is there rather than bringing other aspects of the case out into the open. Still, though these chapters are a little padded the situation Gardner outlines is intriguing and sets up a scenario in which it is clear that all the odds will be against him.
Things pick up enormously from the moment Mason reads about the murder in a newspaper, setting the book on a much more dramatic and interesting path. This transition is handled pretty well, even if the newspaper report feels a little too detailed for an initial report into a murder. Given that some of the details described would have had to come from the police department, it does seem odd that they would provide quite so much information to the public given it can only prepare any potential witnesses. I suggest not to think about it too much, take those details on board and enjoy the rather wild ride that follows.
This book, like those around it, shows the strong pulpy influences in Gardner’s work. Mason pulls several tricks in this book, some of them quite clever and most rather unethical (if not actually criminal) in the aim of getting his client off. In a couple of cases it is clear what he is driving at, in others I think it can take a little longer to see what he is trying to accomplish. This is the Mason who understands human nature and predicts his opponent’s moves and honestly it makes for some pretty compelling reading.
One of the aspects of Mason’s character that I like most is the way he fiercely advocates for his clients’ interests. This is perhaps the strongest example to date in my reading of the series as we see him going toe-to-toe with some pretty formidable opponents in the search for justice for his client. Of course he never lets anyone know exactly what he has planned, making it understandable when his clients act contrary to instructions, but it is clear in the end that he has had his client’s best interests at heart throughout.
Though these series titles are generally fairly similar in terms of the basic character and structure, there are a few aspects of Mason’s character that I think this book sets out quite well. The first is that we see him use some deductive reasoning at a couple of points in this story with regards the actual physical evidence of the scene. Some of these are quite good and enable him to make some solid deductions from a fairly small collection of evidence.
The other thing that struck me is that I think this book does a fine job of explaining exactly why he places his priorities as he does in terms of both the way he runs his office and also how he conducts his case. His thoughts about how his job isn’t the sort to lead to repeat business, along with some observations offered by someone he interviews in his office midway through the book do a great deal to establish some background to his attitudes and help us know him better. In short, I think that this book does a great job of letting the reader understand what drives Perry Mason as a lawyer and how he operates.
Turning to the specific details of the case, I think Gardner fashions a pretty entertaining crime although the scope of the investigation is not quite as wide as a few of the other Mason stories from this time. Certainly we are not dealing with dozens of suspects and while we know whodunit at the end, I would suggest that question is not really the focus of the story. We, like Mason, will be most absorbed in the question of how he will prove her innocent with an increasing weight of evidence against her.
As simple as the setup is, the details of how it had been executed are significantly more complicated. While I had a fairly strong sense of what had happened early in the novel, I was much less sure about how the different aspects of the plot would play into each other. I needn’t have worried however as the explanation is full and convincing and I enjoyed learning several pieces of background information that I hadn’t predicted (or fully realized). In short, I was very pleased with the mystery plotting on show here.
The only other crticism I would offer up on this book is that I feel it tries a little too hard to justify Rhoda’s actions. Given she began as her new husband’s nurse, the way she ends up in a relationship with her patient may feel a little inappropraite. We are given several reasons why this relationship should be regarded as a good thing for her and particularly for hin but I cannot claim to be wholly convinced and I did worry early in the book that she may have coerced her husband into marriage.
Overall I really quite enjoyed The Case of the Curious Bride. The story begins with several interested legal questions and, by the end of it, I had very strong feelings about who I wanted to see happy and who not. In that respect I can only regard this as a pretty engaging effort and I look forward to reading more from him over the next year.
The Verdict: Pulpy but very engaging story about a woman. One of the most readable Mason stories I have read so far.