There’s an appealing irony in the assertion that you know an author has hit the big time when everyone remembers the name of their characters over that of the creator themself: Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Tarzan, Jason Bourne, we erudite types remember them, of course, but the world at large – fuelled no doubt by TV and films – associates more with their representations than their origins. Erle Stanley Gardner – a King of Crime, lest we forget – is not just less well-known than his character, but also the piece of music that character is himself overshadowed by; all together now… Frankly, he must be like the biggest-selling author in the world on those terms. Well, uh, yeah, he kinda is, actually. And yet, despite my avowed love of the man and his writing, it’s taken me 70 posts to get round to reviewing him here; what gives?
Well, two things. Firstly, I’d read a lot of Gardner before starting this blog and had sort of lost track of exactly what I had and hadn’t already encountered, and secondly a lot of it was written at high speed and with, er, some quality control issues and so some of what I’ve read since hasn’t exactly covered him in glory. However, The Case of the Borrowed Brunette is about as classic a Perry Mason – oh, yeah, that’s the famous character, but the way – novel as you’ll get, and showcases a lot of what Gardner did extremely well and also a lot of the flaws in his process.
What’s great is the hook: Mason spots identically-dressed brunettes standing on street corners for several blocks and, upon investigating, finds they’re replying to an advert asking for someone of their really rather specific description. When one of these women is hired for the still somewhat-nebulous job, he is asked to look into things to check the setup is all above-board. Shenanigans ensue, someone dies, and before long Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake are trying to get their client exonerated on a murder charge. It is simple, clean, direct, and crammed full of the rattling prose and borderline-hardboiled dialogue that make Gardner such a joy:
“You’re a lawyer?”
“You have clients?”
“They pay you?”
“You represent their interests?”
“I’m not your client. Somebody else is. Therefore you’re representing somebody else. Those interests may be adverse to mine. If they are, you’re my enemy. Why the hell should I answer your questions?”
Now (of course) there’s the final courtroom showdown with Harry Gulling for the prosecution to make it extra personal, but Mason won’t take it lying down (of course) and has his own share of surprises in store. Except that his client has plenty of surprises in store for him. Oh, and he’s hauled up in front of the grand jury and threatened with expulsion from the profession. All in a day’s work, eh?
And yet the older, more jaded reader in me found this all a little too difficult to engage with in quite the same way as the younger, more eager man I see in photographs. Sure, you never once imagine that Mason will naff it up any more than you do that Poirot will fail to solve the case, but the actions he engages in here – not quite falsifying evidence, but stopping a shade short of that in the hope of possibly proving some kind of point about some obscure aspect of law – at times make it difficult to sympathise with him completely. Sure, Gulling’s a hissable Bad Guy who wants to do our hero down, but when the hero behaves as Mason does in this book…I find it less charming than I used to. There’s a difference between One Man Against the System and One Man Twisting the System to His Own Ends; it almost seemed like their conduct was reversed.
It’s also interesting to note that for all his legal ingenuity – and there’s a final flourish that’s so audacious I laughed out loud with delight – the issue of Mason’s own culpability is left unaddressed. There’s an argument that his involvement here brings about the events that happen and, while I’m not bemoaning the absence of a brooding, tortured soul it kinda feels like Perry Does What Perry Wants, which was not something I remember taking away from the other books. It’s left a bit of a weird taste, I’ll be honest. And is prompting something of a retrospective reassessment of the books I’ve read previously.
However, that’s my problem. As a puzzle this is a lot of fun, and as a swift and easy read you could do little better than start here as an introduction to Gardner’s most famous creation (it’s also one of the books where his famous ‘plot wheels’ don’t cause sudden and incomprehensible lurches in tone or focus). But it’s interesting to note that the world he was created for and the world we live in now are not merely different – that’s an inevitability, and spoils the joy of classic crime fiction not one bit – but, more importantly, probably incompatible.