The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

LuckyThe 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.

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirlI enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClawsPrior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)