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…
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.’