Saturday, October 30, 2010

Perry Mason in His Literary Youth

First published in 1934, The Case of the Howling Dog was the fourth entry in Erle Stanley Gardner's long-running series featuring Perry Mason.

At this point, Gardner was still in the process of establishing the formula that he would adhere to once the series hit its stride. Lieutenant Tragg, the intelligent and sympathetic homicide detective, and Hamilton Burger, the D.A. who would become Mason's principal adversary had not yet been introduced. The police department is still represented by the oafish Sergeant Holcomb, who wouldn't recognize a clue if it bit him in the backside. The D.A.'s office is represented by an assistant D.A., Claude Drumm who immediately falls into every trap that Mason so cleverly baits for him.

Della Street, the faithful and adoring secretary, Paul Drake, the reliable detective, and Perry Mason himself are still evolving into the characters they would ultimately become. Mason is a bit rougher around the edges than the suave attorney that most crime fiction readers would recognize, and at this stage of the game he's much more willing to severely bend, if not actually break the law in the interest of serving what he sees as the greater good.

As is often the case in this series, the plot becomes almost hopelessly convoluted: A man comes to see Mason about his neighbor's howling dog and about writing a will. Complications ensue.

Suffice it to say that there will be a murder. Inevitably, Mason's client will be the prime suspect, and inevitably the case against the client will appear to be open and shut. As always, the D. A.'s office will be salivating at the chance to finally beat Mason after suffering so many ignominious defeats at his hands. And of course, as always Mason will pull the rabbit out of the hat and save the day at the very end.

Obviously, this story is a bit dated and is clearly a product of its times, but it's still a fun read and an opportunity to see Perry Mason and these other characters in their formative stages.

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