Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Dead Body
This story opens with the joys or rather the pains of having to do administrative tasks within the workplace, as Della Street manages to finally get Perry Mason to attend to some of the letters which have been piling up. However he is not made to suffer for long as a new client called Charles Sabin arrives. His multi-millionaire father, Fremont, has recently been murdered in his remote mountain cabin, his pet parrot seemingly the only witness. The killer appears to have a soft spot for animals, leaving food and water. But Charles is only interested in Mason defending his right to control his father’s estate, rather than his step-mother, Helen, who he says his father regretted marrying. One interesting point emerges at this point: the parrot in the cabin is not the one which was Fremont’s pet. Why has someone made a substitution? Very soon into the case whilst the Sabins are quarrelling over money, Mason comes across an unexpected person in the case; a librarian named Helen Monteith and her story seems to give a new complexion to the sort of man the victim was. This is a case full of questionable marriages and forgeries, as well as a parrot who repeats a very incriminating sentence: ‘Put down that gun, Helen! Don’t shoot […] you’ve shot me.’
Despite the initial unusual setup this was an average/ okay read for me. A problem I often have with Gardner’s work is that I can’t get attached to the characters. The pace though was by and large good, though unfortunately the heady and hectic pace of the first three quarters of novel made the coroner’s inquest in the final quarter painfully slow. In some ways it felt like page filler, with a lot of information being repetitive, before the solution appears and consequently this solution though very good and clever, loses dramatic impact. Post solution though there is a further twist to end the tale which was enjoyable. Having read three Gardner novels now I am wondering whether when reading these books there is a conscious feeling of a formula being used. I guess if it is a formula you love then you probably don’t mind this, but for me it takes time to get into the milieu of Mason’s world, to an extent. Maybe this means I am more conscious of the formula going on because it is not a one I am naturally drawn to, as I know I am a sucker for a country house mystery, a subgenre which has a formula of its own, but when reading such works I am not paying as much attention to the fact a formula is taking place. Does this make sense? Do other people feel like this or am I just the weird one?
One section of the book which interested me a lot is when Mason delivers this slightly long speech:
‘I’ve mentioned before, when people get fixed beliefs, they interpret everything in the light of those beliefs. Take politics, for instance. We can look back at past events, and the deadly significance of those events seems so plain that we don’t see how people could possibly have overlooked them. Yet millions of voters, at the time, saw those facts and warped their significance so that they supported erroneous political beliefs. The same is true of things which are happening at present. A few years from now we’ll look back in wonder that people failed to see the deadly significance of signs on the political horizon. Twenty years from now even the most stupid high school student can appreciate the importance of those signs and the results which must inevitably have followed. But right now we have some twenty million voters who think one way, and some twenty-five million voters who think another. And both sides believe they’re correctly interpreting the facts.’
The way such sentiments chime into today’s political climate hugely struck me and also reminded me of how cyclical human history is.
If you are someone who has likes mystery fiction with an American legal milieu or have enjoyed Gardner novels in the past then I think this book will probably be a more enjoyable read for you than it was for me. It’s not a bad novel. Definitely read poorer works this month, but Gardner just doesn’t knock my socks off as much as I would like him to.
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933)