Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Perry Mason Comes to the Aid of an Elderly Shoplifter

The thirteenth entry in the Perry Mason series was published in 1938. It's still pretty early in the series and two of the major characters who would appear in virtually all of the books, D.A. Hamilton Burr and homicide detective Lieutenant Tragg, still have not been introduced. But the basic form of the novels has been established, and this is a very good example of the early books in the series.

As the book opens, Perry and his secretary, Della Street, duck out of a rain storm and have lunch in a department store tea room. The two observe what appears to be a refined, elderly woman, and Perry tells Della that the woman is a shoplifter. Sure enough, a store detective soon appears and begins bullying the poor old woman, whose name is Sarah Breel. 

Perry intervenes and the issue is settled, but almost as soon as he is back in his office, he's contacted by Breel's niece, Virginia Trent, a nervous young woman who is studying psychology. Virginia is convinced that her aunt has suddenly become a kleptomaniac. In particular, she's afraid that her aunt has stolen several very valuable diamonds that were left in the possession of Virginia's uncle, a jeweler.

Perry discounts the young woman's notion that her aunt has suddenly developed deep psychological problems but sure enough, the diamonds are missing. Before long, somebody will be dead and Sarah Breel will be found with blood on the heel of her shoe, a gun in her purse, and a handful of diamonds. As always, it looks like a slam-dunk victory for the D.A. who quickly charges Breel with murder in the first. But even this early in the game, the reader understands that it ain't over until Perry starts pulling rabbits out of a hat in the courtroom, and the book ends with one of the better courtroom scenes in the series.

This early on, the series was still heavily influenced by the pulp conventions of the day, and there are great scenes like this one: 

"Mason pushed his way through heavy green hangings and into an office. A man stared coldly at him from behind a desk. A woman, some years younger, her contours displayed by a clinging blue evening gown, stood near the corner of the desk. Her hair was glossy black and filled with highlights. Her full lips held no smile. Her brilliant black eyes blazed with emotions she strove to suppress. Full-throated, well-nourished, she seemed seductively full of life, in striking contrast to the man who sat behind the desk, his waxy skin stretched so tightly across his prominent cheekbones that there hardly seemed to be enough left to cover the teeth, which showed in that ghastly grin seen on starving people...."

Wow, all that and contours too! They don't write 'em like this anymore...

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