Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Unsurprisingly it is a red head
This is only the second novel by Gardner I have read, which may surprise some readers. I occasionally wonder why I haven’t tried him so much. I wonder whether it is because the social milieu of the novels and the fact it is an American legal crime novel interest me less than other sectors of crime fiction. Trying to understand why I don’t enjoy Gardner as much as some other writers is one thing I hoped to figure out by giving his work another go and over the coming weeks a couple more titles by Gardner may be popping up in my reviews.
The Case of the Restless Red Head (1954) opens with Evelyn Bagby, a waitress, who is being tried for theft. It seems like an open and shut case, as the witness, Harry Bole, positively identifies her as being near Irene Keith’s car and opening Irene’s suitcase, which contained her own jewellery and that of her friend, actress Helene Chaney, who was shortly to marry her third husband, Mervyn Aldrich. This marriage of course was halted when the theft was discovered and has been indefinitely postponed due to Chaney’s second husband causing a fuss. Later on police, after Bole informs on Bagby, find some of the missing jewellery in her own luggage. Yet even to the judge trying the case something feels wrong. She is being defended by a young and inexperienced lawyer named Frank Neely and her prospects look bleak as Neely is unable to shake Bole’s testimony. But who just so happens to turn up to have some papers signed? Perry Mason of course and after a short coaching session during a break on cross examining, Neely successfully gets his client acquitted.
Mason’s involvement in Bagby’s case continues when he tries to get monetary restitution from the opposition, though even at this early stage the reader is aware that Mason is going after a lot more than that. He is after the truth and he has a sneaking suspicion that Bagby was framed for the theft. We also hear at this point of Bagby’s own past problems, particularly how a confidence man called Staunton Vester Gladden, conned her out of her inheritance money by promising to help her become a star in Hollywood. Recently prior to the theft, Bagby thought she had tracked down Gladden and demanded to have her money returned. Events become even more interesting when we find out that Gladden may well now be Chaney’s second husband.
Understandably Mason and the reader begin to wonder how all these pieces of information join together, but our attention is diverted when Bagby once again seems to have been framed, this time for murder. Again Bagby is arrested and Mason once more has to go to the rescue, a mission not aided by the fact that several characters are keen to not get involved and are not above a bit of evidence tampering and legal twisting.
The final third of the novel is set in the court room as Mason battles in Bagby’s cause, as the evidence and witness testimony causes greater and greater confusion for those in the court room. Only Mason is able to unravel all the clues and finally reveal the solution.
Mason in some ways is quite an interesting character due to his maverick nature. His success in the courtroom is likened to him ‘pulling rabbits out of the hat at the last minute.’ He also comes across as a champion of the underdog, gaining an almost heroic status in his client’s eyes. His secretary Della Street brings him down to earth though such as when she says to him: ‘And now, Santa Claus if you can tie up the reindeer long enough to just look at that pile of important mail.’
This was an okay read but something just felt missing in the reading. I haven’t quite figured out what yet, but I have discovered one thing which hinders my enjoyment of reading Gardner’s work and that is the court room scenes. Now it’s not that I don’t like court room detective novels, loving both Carter Dickson’s The Judas Window (1938) and Frances Iles Malice Aforethought (1931), which prominently features a trial. What I didn’t enjoy about Mason in the courtroom is that there are lots of pages where cross examination occurs over technical points. I’m sure this is quite realistic and the technical points Mason brings up of course enable him to win the case, but it didn’t aid my reading experience as the narrative felt slow in these parts and rather dull. The story does pick up a bit nearer the end but ultimately the last third of the book feels drawn out and meant that I became drastically less interested in the final solution, which didn’t hugely dazzle me.
Are there any Gardner fans out there? Is there a particular Gardner novel you would recommend?