My grandmother was an avid reader. She particularly liked mysteries and her favorite author was Erle Stanley Gardner (or his alter-ego A.A.Fair) She had stacks of his slim paperbacks on her shelves. I was a science fiction reader as a kid. Mysteries didn't strike me as intellectual enough. How could my grandmother move so easily between Dickens and books about a television lawyer? Yes, I was familiar with the Perry Mason series starring Raymond Burr and didn't much like it either. When I did pick up one of the paperbacks and leafed through it appeared to be nothing but dialogue. Pretty thin gruel.
So it was a half century later that I finally read one of Gardner's Perry Mason novels, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, and discovered that my grandmother was onto something. Published in 1936, the 9th Perry Mason novel begins when Perry is consulted about a twenty-two year old manslaughter case by Bishop William Mallory, who not only stutters (an odd thing for a bishop) but is keeping a secret. The ensuing investigation uncovers a possibly counterfeit heiress and perhaps an orphan girl who may or may not an heiress. A cast of high-born and hirelings maneuvre for the fortune that's at stake. People go missing and inevitably someone dies.
Perry is in his element. "How I love a mystery, " he tells his secretary, Della Street. "I hate routine. I hate details. I like the thrill of matching my wits with crooks. I like to have people lie to me and catch them in their lies. I love to listen to people talk and wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is false. I want life, action, shifting conditions. I like to fit facts together, bit by bit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."
Fortunately, for a reader who prefers detective whodunits to legal thrillers, Perry acts a lot like a private eye of the era, and isn't always as above board as one might expect. As District Attorney Hamilton Burger tells him, "You know, I've always had a horror of prosecuting innocent men. I want to be certain a person's guilty before I bring him into court. You've got a wonderful mind. There are times when you've unscrambled some mighty tough cases which would otherwise have resulted in the escape of the guilty and the conviction of the innocent, but you simply won't keep within ethical limits. You won't sit in your office and practice law. You insist on going out to try and get hold of evidence, and whenever you do, you start matching wits with witnesses and pulling some pretty fast plays, altogether too damn fast."
You might gather from the foregoing that Perry's sidekicks Della Street, investigator Paul Drake, and nemesis Hamilton Burger are more nuanced characters than they appeared on the small screen.
It should be pointed out that this is, from what I've read, not a typical Perry Mason novel. Perry does need to clear a suspect who all the evidence seems to point too, however there is no climactic courtroom scene. Those scenes, as depicted on the TV show struck me as preposterous, but the brief courtroom action here feels authentic, not surprisingly since Gardner practiced law for twenty year.
I'll need to read another Mason that sticks closer to the usual forumla but this book at least was a pleasant surprise.
By the way. I have read over the years that Gardner never bothered to describe his famous lawyer (who we all know looks like Raymond Burr) but this isn't strictly true for at one point in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop Gardner writes: "Standing with his shoulders squared, feet spread slightly apart, the soft shaded lights of the library illuminating his granite-hard profile and steady, patient eyes, he said, "Yes, I'm Mason." That is a description, of sorts.