Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
First, on the GAD Facebook group, Jeffrey Marks — something of an expert on the life and work of Erle Stanley Gardner — mentioned The Case of the Crimson Kiss (1948) as Gardner’s sole inverted Perry Mason story. Then, entirely separately, a bunch of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines passed into my hands, and a quick scan through their contents showed that The Case of the Crimson Kiss was included as one of the three “short novels” in Ellery Queen’s Anthology Vol. 2 (1962)1…and, well, here we are.
The setup here sees roommates Fay Allison and Anita Bonsal, until recently competitors for the affections of Dane Grover, faced with the prospect of breaking up their menage because Fay and Dane are now engaged and are getting married in the morning. Of course, Gardner was a pro at introducing tone and plot with ruthless, seamless efficiency, so even this happy scene is cast in shadow with the opening lines:
Preoccupied with problems of her own happiness, Fay Allison failed to see the surge of bitter hatred in Anita’s eyes. So Fay, wrapped up in the mental warmth of romantic thoughts, went babbling on to her roommate, her tongue loosened by the cocktail which Anita had prepared before their makeshift dinner.
Gardner’s novels are wild, but having read the nine Doug Selby books since last picking up any of his short fiction, I’d forgotten how wild his stories can be. A faint air of menace pervades this opening, with sly mentions of the pair “straighten[ing] up the apartment…talking excitedly, laughing with lighthearted merriment” darkened by a possibly inconsequential reference to one of them moving with “the swift, silent efficiency of one who is skillful [sic] with her hands”. And then, Anita leaves the apartment ostensibly to go on a date, and by the simple action of what she does in the building’s elevator turns the entire story on its head — spin the wheel, take your chance, here’s where Gardner really kicks in and demonstrates how he was so much more than just a guy with a typewriter getting paid by the word.
It’s something of a tragedy to me that, as famous as Perry Mason became, Gardner’s writing never seems to get the credit it deserves. TV, of course, is much easier to consume than books, and the curious irony of authors with huge back-catalogues is that your average reader seems to be put off attempting them (“But where do I start?” is a common, entirely understandable, refrain)…but just pick up any pre-1950 work by Erle Stanley Gardner and tell me honestly that nothing in the first five pages grabs you. Plus, the reversals and neat surprises he puts into his plots actually serve a purpose; in contrast to Edgar Wallace two weeks back, who keeps throwing incident after incident at you and then sort of loosely turned it into a plot at some point, Gardner’s plotting is (at this stage of his career) pinpoint accurate, and engineered with the sort of precision that made the Swiss so good at…putting holes in the correct place in their cheese.
I’m labouring this point because it becomes very difficult to want to talk about the plot from this point out. I’ll say that Gardner obviously could never just write a straight howcatchem — where’s the fun in that? — and so while we watch someone plan and commit a murder (built around one devastatingly subtle point, thrown in with all the seeming carelessness of the best GAD practitioners) and are privy to Perry, Della Street, and Paul Drake working to capture them, there’s also a second murder whose perpetrator is unknown to us, allowing cake to be both eaten and had. If the setup to the inverted crime is particularly savage, and if that plan begins to fall apart under the simplest of oversights, the solution of the “surprise” criminal is equally well-handled (though, of course, possible to deduce on sheer numbers — as with most short stories), not least on account of how classically Gardner is still playing the Golden Age game of clues this far into the life of the puzzle plot.
The kiss of the title concerns such a mark found on one of the corpses, indicating a woman is responsible, and so you just know that this is the sort of ground the Golden Age would mine for surprise value. Gardner, though, either plays a smarter game than that or lampshades it, depending on your feelings about the following:
“That lipstick is a perfect imprint of a pair of lips. There was no lipstick on his lips, just there on the forehead. A shrewd man could well have smeared lipstick on his lips, pressed them against [the corpse’s] forehead after the poison had taken effect, and so directed suspicion away from himself. … It’s a clue that so obviously indicates a woman that I find myself getting suspicious of it.”
It’s also fitting that our criminal attorney would go on to become so much more famous than his creator, given how comfortably Gardner writes the relationships between Mason and the various people he encounters, making Mason a curiously realistic presence at the heart of all this fiction. The excessive formality when meeting for the second time someone he wants Lieutenant Tragg to believe he’s meeting for the first time is glorious in its brevity and purpose, and there’s an easy badinage with both private investigator Paul Drake…
Mason said “[Lieutenant] Tragg thinks I had [a key to the apartment]”
“Where did you get it?”
Mason shook his head.
“Well,” Drake said “[the body] didn’t have a key… If [he] didn’t give you the key, only one other person could have given it to you.”
Mason said, “We won’t speculate too much on that, Paul.”
“I gathered we wouldn’t,” Drake said dryly.
…and especially the way that Della and Mason interact, with Gardner’s observation of the professional mores between them tinged with the sort of ardent desire that their relationship walks so elegantly. For instance, here’s Della finding her boss still in the office well after hours:
After almost a minute Della Street said, “Hello, Chief. Can I help?”
Mason looked up at her with a start. “What are you doing here?”
“I came up to see if there was anything I could do to help. Had any dinner?” she asked.
He glanced at his wrist watch, said, “Not yet.”
“What time is it?” Della Street asked.
He had to look at his wrist watch again in order to tell her. “Nine forty.”
It’s arguable that Della never emerged as much beyond Perry’s biggest fan, and that Drake is the reliable right-hand(ish) man who’s happy to do whatever, whenever, wherever, but Gardner at least makes them interact in a way that more than simple plot mechanics. Plus, he always tried to give you at least a couple of minor characters to identify with or root for, and — since Fay, Anita, and Dane are little more than bland types required to make the plot happen — that responsibility here falls on Fay’s Aunt Louise, whose “love was big enough to encompass those who were dear to her with an protecting umbrella” and whose “hatred was bitter enough to goad her enemies into confused retreat”. It’s also true to Gardner form that the most intriguing backstory, that of a woman who has set about rehabilitating criminals, is treated as little more than a throwaway line to enrich someone we never even see. People don;t have to be on the page to matter in the best of Gardner’s works, and it’s lovely to see that motif carried through here.
Of course we hit the expected grace notes of a Perry Mason story — going into court with the odds against him, suddenly having a moment of insight, indulging in some doubtless-unprofessional conduct to secure the evidence needed to rescue his client — but when a formula is enriched this well, I don’t see why anyone would want to mess with it. Interesting to note, too, that this wasn’t anthologised until 1970, when it was put into a collection of four or five stories with this as the eponymous one — as best I can tell, it’s the only Mason in the collection. So the good news is that you can check this out, and I recommend you do if given the chance, but I can’t speak for the rest of the stories therein. But, c’mon, it’s Erle Stanley Gardner, which guarantees a certain degree of entertainment — maybe I should make a study of his Sidney Zoom stories sooner than I’d planned, because I do so love his work.
Watch this space…
1. [Volume 3 in the US, since the Ellery Queen’s Anthology Volume 1 (1960) wasn’t released in the UK]*