When charged with republishing the work of someone as prolific as Erle Stanley Gardner, the chief difficulty must surely be where to begin and where — crucially — to stop. As a creator of memorable, compelling, easily-communicated, and complex protagonists the man perhaps has no equal, but as a plotter his loosey-goosey tendencies can sometimes get the better of him…a fact demonstrated no more clearly than in the wild variation represented by the eighty-six Perry Mason books published between 1933 and 1973. So the (thus-far) four titles in that series put out by the American Mystery Classics range make interesting reading.
The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe (1938) is the thirteenth novel to feature Mason and his ever-dedicated secretary Della Street, and represents the stronger end of the Gardner Plotting Wedge. Fleeing a sudden downpour, Perry and Della end up lunching in a department store and so are on hand when the elderly Sarah Breel is accosted by a store detective and accused of shoplifting…and, Perry being Perry, he’s quick to point out that, since Mrs. Breel hasn’t left the store, whatever items she may have been secreting about her person haven’t technically been stolen. Later that day, Mrs. Breel’s niece, Virginia Trent, calls at Perry’s office to air her fears about her aunt…and suddenly we’re away in a whirl of jewel thefts, disputed identity, and murder.
From the title, it might be assumed that a fair amount of mystery revolves around the reason for the well-to-do Mrs. Brent resorting to theft in order to acquire stockings and pyjamas, but that element of the plot is resolved quickly. The shoe is question becomes relevant when found daubed with blood near the scene of a murder, and suddenly Perry finds himself drawn in to events far more deeply than he’d imagined…much to the chagrin of (at this point) series regular antagonist Sergeant Holcomb.
“[S]omehow I have a feeling I haven’t asked the right questions.”
“Then go ahead and ask the right questions,” Mason told him.
“How the hell can I when I don’t know what they are?”
“Well,” Mason said irritably, “how the hell can I answer them when you don’t ask them?”
The antipathy between these two highlights one of the strongest features of Gardner’s writing, namely the way he is able to give you a character and their attitude perfectly at first meeting, and to communicate this so effectively through every other encounter. Be it private eye Paul Drake with “the appearance of continually smiling at life, whereas his actual outlook was exactly the opposite”, businessman Bill Golding whose “waxy skin [was] stretched so tight across his prominent cheekbones that there hardly seemed enough left to cover the teeth”, the sultry Eva Tannis giving an edict “as one might order a dog into a corner” or even just Perry showing up “freshly shaved and seeming as buoyant as a new tennis ball”, Gardner’s skill with just the barest sprinkling of words is on full display here, and remains perfect throughout.
Of course, these simple character sketches perform a more functional role, too, allowing Gardner to slot his Types into whatever role his plot ends up requiring, so that — unlike with, say, Agatha Christie or Christianna Brand — anyone can turn out to be anything and it never really surprises you. This is a facet of his writing you just have to live with, however, since we’re generally here for whatever skulduggery precedes Perry pulling off “one of the most astounding pieces of legerdemain which had ever been perpetrated in a courtroom” as he somehow manages book after book. Which is not to say that Gardner’s characterisation lacks merit — the sang-froid of Mrs. Breel in any situation contrasts beautifully with her niece’s obsession with psychology, and the breaking of Mr. Marquand is as artful a piece of writing as the genre has yet achieved — more that he is by now comfortable with the tics that would start to inform and allow the sheer volume of words the man would put out in the years ahead.
Interesting, too, is the glimpse given from the other side of the courtroom, with deputy D.A. Larry Sampson coaching a witness through his testimony and warning him against what he sees as Perry’s chicanery…never suspecting that he is, of course, playing right into Perry’s hands. The sturm und drang of the closing trial — those of us who love our “incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial” will have a field day — works all the better for how hopeless the situation seems…until a twist that almost renders this an impossible crime rears its head and, of course, swings the whole thing in Perry’s favour. Maybe it was me getting a bit too swept up in things, but I felt this aspect could have been explained a little more clearly once it hits, since I had to do a little bit of drawing on a separate piece of paper to get it right in my head…but it’s the only false note in a plot that is very satisfying and puzzles along with the best of them.
And, hot damn, doesn’t the air between Perry and Della ever crackle some:
“Sorry to keep bothering you, Della,” he said when he heard her voice on the line. Hope I’m not interrputing a heavy date.”
“When I have a heavy date,” she said, “I can’t even hear the telephone.”
Somehow this title passed me by in my previous reading of Gardner — well, c’mon, the guy wrote 742,036 books — and it’s probably among the best places to get your first taste of what made this series so great if you’ve yet to dip a toe into the ocean that is the man’s oeuvre. It’s swift, funny (“You’d think that any man who realizes that…the legislature haven’t seen fit to put closed seasons on husbands would know better than to teach a prospective wife how to shoot a revolver.”), packs some great surprises, and shows Perry, Della, and Paul working together magnificently in the manner of the best Gardner teams. Honestly, I don’t know why I left it so long to read another Mason — well, in fairness, I had Doug Selby keeping me busy, and have now stepped out with Bertha and Donald — and I know that I’ll be back for another visit before too long.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: 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.