Monday, May 29, 2017

Crooked Dice Are the Least of Perry Mason's Problems in this Complicated Case

As the fifteenth Perry Mason novel opens, we find the attorney at his desk, desperately attempting to avoid answering the morning mail, the task which he hates above all others. Fortunately, his secretary, Della Street, come to the rescue at the last moment, telling Mason that there are three people waiting to see him about a situation involving a wealthy man. Mason responds, telling Della, "I don't like rich people....I like poor people."

He goes on to explain that rich people only have boring problems, while poor people are mixed up in the muck of life, which is much more interesting. This is (I assume unintentionally) hilarious. In the eighty-five books in this series, Mason's clients are virtually all very wealthy people, living in large houses with all kinds of servants and extended family members. (It's the extended family members that are usually the problem.) Only in a handful of books does Perry ever represent someone who is genuinely poor, and even then, there's almost always a rich person lurking in the background who will write Mason a very generous check once the case is over.

Which is a very good thing, because Perry's monthly nut must be enormous. Leaving aside the expense of running his own office, his monthly tab at the Drake Detective Agency is always astronomical. Without all those rich people to pay the bill, Perry would probably never get anyone acquitted.

In this case, Perry agrees to see the three potential clients, wealthy or not. (It's better than having to answer the mail.) The case involves a wealthy and eccentric seventy-two-year-old man who has decided to marry for the first time. His niece, who runs his household, thinks her uncle should be able to do whatever he wishes, but other, much more greedy relatives are afraid they will be cut off and so want to have the poor guy declared incompetent so that they can prevent him from getting married and take over his finances.

Perry agrees to handle the case and, before long, of course, someone will be murdered and Perry's client will be the prime suspect. The evidence appears incontrovertible and things are looking bleak. This is one case, though, where Erle Stanley Gardner gets a bit too cute. He places so much emphasis on the main piece of evidence against the client that the reader very early on figures out what has almost certainly happened, even before Perry does. Still, it's a fun read that will appeal to any fan of the series.

As another aside, towards the middle of the book, Perry is having lunch in a restaurant somewhere in downtown L.A. when Della calls him in a panic. There's been a major development in the case and it's essential that Perry immediately fly to Seattle. Della has booked him a ticket on the next flight, which leaves in thirty minutes. Perry spends another five minutes or so giving Della instructions, then drives to the airport, finds a parking place, and makes the flight! 

When this book was first published in 1939, I guess that a person could probably still do this, but almost eighty years later, the reader nearly falls out of his or her chair laughing at the absurdity of the idea. (Of course, I suppose it's always possible that Perry enrolled very early in the TSA PreCheck program...)

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