The Case of the Restless Red Head (1954) by Erle Stanley Gardner

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 Redhead

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.

Overall Thoughts

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?

Rating: 3.75/5


  1. I grew up with and loved the TV series, and especially in the earlier seasons, the episodes managed to distill the novels into a 47 minute long combination of whodunit and film noir. The main cast was brilliant, and if the premise of the series was essentially formulaic, I never stopped getting a thrill as each beat of this formula – person gets tugged into the whirlpool of dark situations to the point of being framed for murder, Paul Drake investigates and Perry defends right up to the delicious moment of pulling a confession out of the real killer – every time! It’s amazing that Hamilton Burger bothered showing up in court.

    Even in early childhood, I told my parents I wanted to be a professional actor. They sidestepped this by suggesting I be an actor like Perry Mason – in other words, a lawyer. I entertained this notion for a long time because I didn’t know what kind of work a lawyer really did. (I didn’t understand the life of an actor either, so that turned out okay, too.) After college, I befriended a defense attorney who showed up one night to a rehearsal for a play I was directing, crowing about how he had gotten his client off! Yes, the guy was a rapist, and he WAS guilty, but my friend was so thrilled that he had WON THE GAME . . . and that’s when I knew I had been right not to try and become Perry Mason. Mason was lucky because every defendant was innocent. I assume he had the skills to get the guilty off too, if he so chose.

    Cut to years later, and my best friend’s mom and I bond over our love of Perry Mason. She had read ALL of the novels, so I tore through a bunch of them. I can’t remember a single thing about them, except that I liked the TV show much better. I think it managed to cut all the dull parts out, Kate! I highly recommend it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, Brad, your remarks regarding lawyers reminds me of The Killing Needle by Henry Cauvin where the protagonist Maximilien Heller says,”I passed the Bar examination and I’ve even argued cases in court. But I quickly realised that my hard work resulted in scoundrels being rewarded and rogues being saved from the scaffold they so richly deserved. I’m ashamed of the profession!”
      (The book by Cauvin was reviewed by JJ)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gardner is usually fairly heavy on the legalese in the Mason books, but I think it’s just to highlight firstly how absurd the law is (usually it’s Mason getting one up on someone due to some obscure legal precedent) and secondly how unscrupulous-yet-awesome Mason is at exploiting this to his ends (see previous parentheses). Gardner wrote at such speed and with such an unusual approach (his plot wheels are a thing of legend, but also part of what makes him hard to rally behind as he was somewhat inconsistent) that you’re never entirely sure how anything is going to turn out. Whereas Christie or Sayers would have a raft of ideas to bould towards, Gardner delighted in a sudden shift of mood to overturn everything that came before, and this is as exciting as it is unsettling to his construction.

    I read loads of him in a very short time pre-blog when I was just churning through books and didn’t mind the repetitive nature of his schemes and reversals, and the vitality of his writing is part of why I made him a King of Crime even though individual titles don’t comel themselves to memory any more. I seem to remember TCot Shoplifter’s Shoe and TCot Substitute Face being good ones, but then my records and recall from back then aren’t the best. I retain the impression that the Doug Selby D.A. books are of a pretty high standard, so perhaps taking a sideways step away from Mason might help. with your appreciation of Gardner without having to ingurgitate huge quantities of his output.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I remember that you elected him for one of Kings of Crime so was interested as to which stories you might recommend. Have to say in TCot Restless Red Head Gardner doesn’t really do any sudden shifts at the end. The ending is pretty much expected, hence my feeling rather under whelmed. I haven’t heard of Doug Selby’s books, so googling shall be in order.


  3. I’d advise you to start with the very early Perry Mason novels in which he really plays fast and loose with legal ethics. Gardner (who had been a very successful trial lawyer himself) believed strongly that the system was weighted very much in favour of the police and the prosecutors and that therefore a defence lawyer was fully justified in bending the rules to give his client a chance. In the early books Mason bends the rules quite spectacularly!

    So far I’ve loved all the 1930s Perry Mason books that I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

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