"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Perry Mason in The Case of the Lucky Legs

With an internet group, I am reading (and in some cases rereading) Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, one per month, in order of publication. Our most recent read was The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third novel in the series, first published in 1933. It's a great read—quick and absorbing, with much action and an excellent evocation of life in Depression-era America. The story centers around a small-town beauty contest winner who gets mixed up in a murder in the big city. Mason defends her at the behest of a bossy, manipulative, wealthy man whose motives are difficult to discern until ultimately revealed. The way the character, Bradbury, attempts to bully and manipulate Perry is quite interesting--obviously he does not know Mason as well as we do.

Perry's interest, however, is in the protection of his client—a classic damsel in distress, though highly modern in her moral dilemmas and the choices she makes—and the joy he takes in a good fight. Gardner had spent some time as a boxer in his college-age years, and Mason exhibits an open joy in fighting through conflicts, with both mind and fists. Perry shows much of the physical toughness of Gardner's earlier pulp-fiction heroes—he even threatens to punch out a policeman. Gardner strives to make the point that Perry is a fighter, returning to this theme several times.

Perry is also ingenious and knows the law thoroughly, enabling him to triumph through brains while protecting himself and his clients with sheer force when necessary.

Lucky Legs was actually the first Perry Mason novel Gardner wrote, though it was the third to be published. As a result, it is rather more hardboiled than most Mason novels (which are much more hardboiled than the TV series was), and the plot is far simpler than the average Mason book.

The atmosphere of the book is gritty and often somewhat sleazy, and Gardner's establishment of Perry as the moral center of the books is very effective. Even more than in the television series, Mason will do whatever it takes to get his client off—but only because he knows his client to be innocent. Mason, in fact, mentions in this book an earlier case (not written as a Mason novel or story) in which he obtained a good plea-bargain deal for his client who killed a man who had been abusing her. (Things have changed a bit since those days, thank Heaven.)

Much of the action in this book, as in other Mason novels, takes place in taxicabs or private automobiles on night streets in the big city, and in cheap hotel rooms. The sense of physical entrapment so common to the Mason novels is established quite well here, and it even comes into play in Mason's office suite, as police or a client await while he tries to get into or out of his office without their knowing. Instances of police or private detectives "tailing" a suspect are quite common in this as in other Mason novels, and Mason even tails a character by chartering an airplane to follow a mail plane on which the person is supposed to be flying—quite an unusual story element in 1933.

To me, the feisty Perry of the novels, especially the early ones, is a much more impressive and interesting character than the domesticated version Raymond Burr portrayed in the television series, and although Gardner would ultimately reduce the amount of physical action Perry got into in later novels, this pugnacious Perry is basically the one we see throughout the series of books.

Perry is much more of a loner here, also, largely running things himself and keeping Della and Paul mostly in the background. One can see that as Gardner developed the concept into a series, Della Street and Paul Drake became much more prominent characters as a way of giving the readers more characters to identify with and as a means of reducing the amount of description necessary; with Della and Paul so familiar to readers, Gardner did not have to spend much time introducing them and could move on to his favorite aspect of writing, the creation of incredibly complex plots. In addition, Lucky Legs is very unusual in that it does not have any courtroom scenes. There is a decent amount of discussion about subtleties of the law, but the courtroom scenes, which would become a highlight of the series, have yet to be established here. Lt. Tragg and DA Hamilton Burger have likewise yet to be introduced.

It is particulary fascinating to read a Mason novel that has such a (relatively!) simple plot--Gardner was one of the great plotters, and TCOT Lucky Legs is startlingly straighforward in this regard (though still more complex than most hardboiled detection novels). Here Mason is basically a rougher, more resourceful and tenacious version of Ken Corning, Gardner's earlier defense-lawyer series character. Once Gardner began to incorporate into the Mason series the plot complexity that he had used in his Lester Leith and Ed Jenkins pulp stories, he began to create true classics of the genre, such as TCOT Counterfeit Eye, TCOT Haunted Husband, and TCOT Silent Partner.

The Case of the Lucky Legs appears to be out of print at present but is readily available at libraries and in used book stories and online booksellers. I highly recommend the book, and would suggest that those interested in the Mason series begin with the first two books, TCOT Velvet Claws and TCOT Sulky Girl. The Mason books are quite addictive and are well worth reading.

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