So, as a longtime classic mystery fiction fan, I was very curious how Gardner and his attorney would fare in my court of private opinion. The result, in a very satisfying way, is contradictory. My mix of sentiments is actually better than the non-verdict of a hung jury, because there is much conclusive evidence to invite further investigation with a few more books. But it is undeniable that there are points in the testimony that speak admirably of the defendant even as other elements expose some mighty weaknesses in the case.
Indeed, 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog has much to recommend, starting with its curious premise. A man comes to Mason complaining that his neighbor’s dog is fraying his nerves with his baying and wants a legal remedy. He also asks for details about drawing up a will where all his possessions would go to that neighbor’s wife. The conflicting requests – coupled with reports that the client has been watching his neighbors through binoculars – make deputy district attorney Pete Dorcas question the man’s sanity, but Mason thinks there’s more to the situation, and there is.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that my early assumptions about the plotline’s trajectory were completely upended, and that the story quickly became much more complicated (at times, unnecessarily so) and also loopier. Part of the challenge is that a few plot threads, such as the search for a deported Chinese servant – unfortunately referred to by all the police and lawyer characters, including Mason, as a “chink” – are left fluttering. Generally, though, everything adds to the picture, and there are some very neat setups that deliver dramatic disintegrations of key witnesses on the stand.
The Case of the Howling Dog delivers two such moments, and they are clever and inventive: one involves casting doubt on an eyewitness’s statement, while the other unwraps a bandaged hand alibi. But the real shock for me is Perry Mason’s use of ethically dubious – and in one case certainly illegal – actions to make sure Bessie Forbes, the client he is defending, is not found guilty of murder.
Knowing little more than his pop culture reputation, I had always assumed that Gardner’s famous character was a by-the-books defender of justice who won his cases handily by being shrewd and playing fair. But here Mason engages in some very questionable behavior, acting as a maverick rule-bender and taking a few phenomenal risks. One choice involves hiring an actress to impersonate a suspect, while another finds Mason manufacturing a confession of murder and forging a person’s name on the document(!). Why he coerces Della Street, his adoring personal assistant (and potential witness for the prosecution if this stunt isn’t successful), into helping him type the letter is anybody’s guess. After all, Mason is forward-thinking enough to destroy the typewriter afterwards, commenting that, like a fingerprint, each machine is unique.
The grounds of such a disbar-able offense is that it will lead to the excavation of a new floor foundation where Mason suspects the bodies are buried. Even though the fake confession is indirectly sent to a journalist and not to the police, it’s still an unbelievable gamble, but then all of the attorney’s hunches pay off (naturally) and it is the prosecuting district attorney who is nonplussed and disgraced.
So this early Perry Mason story is a rather wild and outsize affair. Although entertaining and actively paced, I couldn’t help comparing it to Rex Stout’s masterful Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin mysteries, and Gardner suffers in comparison. True, Wolfe is allergic to courtrooms, but both he and Mason share a penchant for the climactic reveal and for confronting the criminal with convicting evidence. But Rex Stout’s prose (as he filters it through Goodwin’s tongue-in-cheek narration) is often nimble, carefully chosen, compact, and compelling. Unlike his plotting on display, Erle Stanley Gardner’s syntax and style comes across as repetitive and artificial.
Second, the interactions of the characters (and often the characters themselves) come off as stilted and stereotypical. People in Perry Mason’s world tend to fall into two camps: they are either adoring and fawn at the feet of the celebrity attorney or they are belligerent and antagonistic to him. Such binaries aren’t a great problem – it certainly helps identify heroes and villains in the cast – but it does draw attention to the artifice that Gardner has built. I will be generous and overlook the casual misogyny as yet another era-crafted artifact, but it’s still troubling to hear Perry Mason bark multiple “Shut up and listen” commands to a woman who is thoroughly composed and rational. Or, as Gardner needlessly tags it in Chapter 12, “Shut up,” he told her, “and listen.”
This was a surprising and provocative reading experience, and perhaps provoked me in ways the author didn’t intend. I look forward to trying another Erle Stanley Gardner in the near future. If Bertie Wooster recommends it, then that’s good enough for me.