In the course of his career, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 82 novels and four short stories about Perry Mason. All had titles on the pattern The Case of the [Adjective] [Noun]. He wasn’t the first to use this pattern, but it became so associated with Mason that I’m surprised other writers ever dared use it. Some did, though, and here’s a look at the best “cases” in my library. Interestingly, they all came out within a decade of each other; I guess after a while “The Case of…” became Gardner’s almost exclusively. To keep some balance, I’m only going to include one Mason in the list…
The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) by John Dickson Carr – If you read Carr, you probably already know that this is one of Dr. Gideon Fell’s greatest cases, with two different locked-room murders and a memorable setting in the Scottish Highlands during World War Two. If you don’t read Carr, this would be a great place to start.
The Case of the Crooked Candle (1944) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I haven’t found most of the Perry Mason mysteries I’ve read to be all that impressive considered as detective stories – the plots have plenty of twists and turns, and of course there are usually some entertaining goings-on in the courtroom, but only rarely do I finish one thinking I had a fair chance at the solution. Well, here’s one of the exceptions – when it was published, Anthony Boucher called this story of murder on a yacht “an intricate puzzle of tide movements which would delight Freeman Wills Crofts”. And any Crofts fan ought to check it out.
The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin – Crispin’s first novel, starring Oxford professor Gervase Fen, who would go on to become his series detective. This is one of his better ones, with a clever impossible crime, a vivid array of suspects and a vivid backdrop of Oxford University in wartime (World War Two seemed to bring out the best in a lot of mystery writers). The main weakness, surprising since it’s one of those books where the murder victim was widely hated, is that the murderer’s motive seemed pasted-on.
That said, I have one other thing to get off my chest about Gilded Fly. Chapter One introduces us to, among other characters, a famous playwright named Robert Warner and “his Jewish mistress, Rachel West”. Since nothing is made of Rachel’s Jewishness throughout the rest of the book – it isn’t even mentioned – I do wonder why he brought it up in the first place. Maybe I’m just a little hyper-aware after coming across the real anti-Semitism in other mysteries from this period.
The Case of the Seven of Calvary (1937) by Anthony Boucher – Boucher’s first novel and my favourite among them, even if it isn’t his best on technical grounds. Fast-paced, suspenseful, the jokes are funny – my only real complaint is that the detective, Dr. John Ashwin, didn’t appear again in a published novel. (There’s an unpublished novel in the Boucher papers that stars him, as well as a single short story… I hope they are released to the world one day. Also, at the end of Seven there’s a reference to another Ashwin case, apparently involving an impossible murder on a funicular railway – I don’t know if Boucher had an actual idea for this one or just intended it as a Conan Doyle-type throwaway reference; I suspect the latter.)
The Case of the Turning Tide (1941) by Erle Stanley Gardner – I said I would only include one Perry Mason book in this entry, but Gardner wrote a few books with this title pattern that didn’t have Mason in them. This one and the later Case of the Smoking Chimney star one Gramps Wiggins, a colourful old coot who I suspect would have got along famously with Sir Henry Merrivale the way Harry Truman did with Winston Churchill. I wish Gramps had appeared in a few more novels, and I wish Gardner had plotted more of his books the way he did this one – not as many surprise twists as in a Mason (or a Selby or a Lam & Cool), but a solid and convincing mystery.