This is the 13th Perry Mason mystery, and it is this month’s book group choice. Brad beat us all to the punch and got in early with his review. The American Mystery Classics series has recently reprinted this title with an introduction written by Otto Penzler. I very much enjoyed the stats he included in this section, which leave me in awe of Gardner’s productivity! Gardner wrote 130 mystery novels, 82 of which had Perry Mason in. Penzler provides further numerical data:
- ‘1,200,000 – The number of words that Gardner wrote annually during most of the 1920s and 1930s. That is a novel a month, plus a stack of short stories, for a fifteen-year stretch.
- 2,400,000 – The number of words Gardner wrote in his most productive year, 1932.
- 300,000,000 – The number of books Gardner has sold in the United States alone, making him the best-selling writer in the history of American literature.’
One hopes Penzler did not need to count the words individually to find this out!
The introduction is also good at discussing how Gardner’s writing style changed over time, bearing in mind his early experiences writing for pulp magazines such as Black Mask. I think this introduction is helpful for those new to Gardner’s work, as well as interesting for those who have tried it before.
‘Sleuthing attorney Perry Mason can’t resist a good mystery, so when he sees an older woman being accused of shoplifting during a department store outing with his assistant, Della Street, he doesn’t hesitate to intervene. Armed with an assumption of innocence and the legal acumen to silence her accuser, Mason leaps to the woman’s defense–until her niece appears, acknowledging her aunt’s guilt, and pays for the stolen items. Soon thereafter, Aunt Sarah is accused of stealing a valuable set of diamonds, and her niece, Virginia, enlists Mason’s aid. The man who left the jewels in Sarah’s care insists that she didn’t take them, but when he turns up dead, she’s left with nobody to vouch for her. Nobody, that is, but Perry Mason–expert in the art of defending the innocent.’
I’ve read at least 7 Perry Mason mysteries to date, ranging from the 1930s to 50s, so I have some idea of what to expect. Yet I found that Gardner still had plenty to surprise me with, as unlike my other reads by this writer, I found the opening of The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe to have an almost domestic feel. I think perhaps I am more used to the stories in which the mystery begins with Mason receiving his new client in a manner like Sherlock Holmes, at his office. Instead in today’s read the story commences with a heavy deluge of rain which drives Mason and Della Street into a department store restaurant. Naturally, this gives them an entry point into Mason’s next case. Nevertheless, this entry point takes a while to fully form as I found there was a longer run up to Mason’s receiving his case than usual.
However, before you panic, this does not have a negative impact on the pacing of the story, as once the ball gets rolling, it gains a lot of ground fast. One corpse soon multiples into two dead bodies, and the case we are initially faced with becomes engagingly more complicated, with Perry Mason having to spin more and more plates to keep ahead of the police. When reading this book Mason reminded me of a circus ring master and he runs a very slick operation. Although I am pretty sure that he and his associates must live on Red Bull, as they never stop!
Returning to the opening of the novel inside the department store, I must admit I didn’t find Sarah Breel, the lady who is accused of blatant shoplifting, particularly sympathetic. Whilst there is the suggestion she might be a kleptomaniac, I think I was too sceptical of this and added to which I found Sarah’s demeanour rather high and mighty, given that she was in the wrong. Thankfully though I found I warmed to her as the narrative unfolded and she has to hold her own against the police. Within that social context I think it was easier to side with her slightly imperious manner. You enjoy her and Perry Mason getting the better of the police. The police are not presented in a wholly favourable light as they are shown to be wanting to trap the person they assume must be the killer. There is nothing genteel about suspect interrogation, even if it does not involve violence and at one point there is quite the set-to between Sarah Breel’s doctor and Sergeant Holcomb. This type of interrogation conflict is more of an American trademark, in crime fiction at that time, I think. The dynamic we see between Perry Mason and the police is not one we would see as readily in British counterparts of the era. It would perhaps be seen as more of a thriller way of doing things.
I enjoyed how the initial story setup is turned on its head as more disclosures are made by certain characters, as they cause us to revaluate what we think has happened or is going to happen. The criminal plot put me in mind of a spider web, as it is not a case with a lone event to focus on, but instead has several components. Perry Mason is good at holding these disparate events in his head, trying to assess how they fit together, whilst I think the police investigation suffers more from tunnel vision.
A key part of a Perry Mason mystery is the courtroom showdown and for that to happen events need to take a turn for the worse. It is only with the cards stacked against him, that this showdown can achieve its high impact value. After all we don’t want Mason’s victory to be too easy for him. What adds to the drama of the piece is that we can see what effect Mason is having internally upon the prosecution team, as they begin to fear that he is gaining the upper hand too much.
Due to the courtroom context what evidence can be brought into the trial is more limited and I think this hinders Perry Mason revealing a full solution at this juncture. Consequently, this necessitates two characters afterwards filling in the gaps. This is realistic but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying.
The courtroom showdown feature of the Mason mysteries also entails another trademark of the series which is Perry’s tendency to have several cards up his sleeves which he can surprise his opponents, and also his readers, with. However, as readers I don’t think we want these moments to feel too like rabbits being pulled out of a hat. It is a fine balance. Overall I think Gardner manages this, although there is one piece of evidence which I felt was a bit too convenient.
Nevertheless, this was another successful Perry Mason read. It is definitely a story which has a just-one-more-chapter readability to it.
Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)