The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1958) by Erle Stanley Gardner

Today’s read begins with Perry Mason buying the personal effects of Helen Cadmus at an auction, which includes diaries and photos. She committed suicide by jumping off Benjamin Addicks’ yacht, or so it is said. Many of the photos are of gorillas, which Addicks, for whom she worked as a secretary, was conducting psychological experiments on. Mason’s purchase attracts newspaper attention, it being assumed that he is taking an interest in Helen’s nautical calamity. However, that goes on the backburner when Mason becomes interested in a different case altogether involving Addicks’ ex-housekeeper, who was suing him for defamation of character. Yet one night this case, which is assumed to be settled, takes an unexpected turn, and Mason has to decide if murder has been committed by a killer gorilla…

Overall Thoughts

I found it interesting that the route to the central murder case is more indirect, and instead the plot builds up to it with other subsidiary legal matters. I think this helped to make the narrative less predictable and like Perry Mason, the reader is unsure how much they can trust various characters; just because someone was innocent of a smaller crime, does not automatically make them innocent of a bigger one. By not making Helen the primary focus of the mystery Gardner also doesn’t have to grapple with a is-there-enough-proof-to-suggest-murder case. These can be hard to do well, as often the evidence the fictional sleuths must work with is rather intangible and not altogether satisfying for the reader. Instead, Helen’s role in Gardner’s book is more interesting.

It has been quite some time since I have read anything by Gardner, his work not compelling me to seek more by him, so I was surprised to find myself enjoying this one as much as I did. The whole gorilla aspect of the narrative is bonkers, particularly the idea that someone might have hypnotised a gorilla into murdering someone. Although this part of the plot is mostly kept off the page until the final few chapters. In some ways I think the gorilla component of the mystery is something of a gimmick, which incidentally allowed Gardner to incorporate some research conducted by Dr Gradwohl, who was important in the development of legal medicine in the USA.  In contrast to mysteries such as Alan Melville’s Death of Anton (1936), there is little in the way of animal characterisation here.

This is not a mystery you can expect to figure out unless you are capable of the lucky hunches and moments of inspiration that Mason has. This is a story to enjoy for the ride it takes you on, as the legal twisting and wrangling is a lot of fun and the plot is well-paced and action focused. Reader credulity is stretched a lot in this one, and in the main I could cope with this until the denouement, which was a bit too scooby doo ridiculous for me. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review also picked up on this, remarking that ‘some characters [were] on [the] dizzy side, but old-time zip has not abated in fortieth PM yarn.’

Rating: 3.75/5

See also: Bev at My Reader’s Block, Curtis at The Passing Tramp and Matt at Paperback Swap Blog have also reviewed this title.

11 comments

  1. I delved deep into the Perry Mason oeuvre a few years ago, and made a sort of study (and a blog post) about the writing style. Here’s a handy trope checklist, in case you’d care to mark it up while The Case of the Grinning Gorilla is fresh in your mind:

    1. Was there a financially reckless person who’s described as a “plunger”?
    2. Did somebody establish residence in Nevada for the purpose of a divorce?
    3. Was there a strong-willed type with bushy eyebrows?
    4. How about a cold-blooded individual with a thin line for a mouth?
    5. Did a judge comment dryly that “this Court wasn’t born yesterday”?
    6. Did a prosecutor make “one of the briefest opening statements” ever?
    7. Any mother-of-pearl doorbell buttons?
    8. Was the fat metaphorically in the fire?
    9. Any metaphorical sewing of vests on buttons?
    10. Did they hit the high points of what happened because they may not have much time?
    11. Was there a best dinner in town on the expense account, contrasted with soggy “hamburger sandwiches”?
    12. [My personal favorite] Did people “slam up” the telephone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha that is such a great checklist!
      Let’s see in this ESG novel we have:
      1. We don’t have anyone financially reckless, but we do have someone trying to commit income tax evasion.
      2. Nevada definitely comes up. Big tick there, though not for divorce.
      3. Can’t remember any bushy eyebrows.
      4. Nor a thin lined mouth, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
      5. We do get that sort of comment when Perry Mason pursues a certain line of investigation.
      6. No
      7. We have some pearl earrings. Does that count?
      8. No fire extinguisher needed this time around.
      9. YES! Della Street uses this comment with Perry.
      10. Don’t think so.
      11. Not sure, though there is a bit of romantic comedy involving some fortune cookies.
      12. Not that I recall.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow, it seems like ESG resisted a lot of tropes in that one! I’m glad sewing a vest on a button made the cut! (:v>

        Like

  2. I’ve just re-read “The Case of the Amorous Aunt” and found 3 or 4 of the above tropes (sort of);

    1) A character is described as “plunging” at Las Vegas (which does sort of reference Nevada) but is not normally reckless.
    3) Perry, Della and Paul had a good dinner (steak, and lobster for starters!) but there is no mention of the expense account, nor of hamburgers.
    12) The only definite one – “he slammed up the phone”.

    Another trope not mentioned above (and not in this book) – Perry is reluctant to question someone on a particular topic, because he thinks the prosecutor has set a trap in order to “crucify” him.

    Liked by 2 people

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