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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Another Plum by Erle Stanley Gardner—and a Call for Action!

The Case of the Howling Dog is an excellent early installment in Erle Stanley Gardner's long series of Perry Mason novels—in fact, it is one of the best Masons I've read. It was the fourth Perry Mason novel to reach print, published in June 1934 after being serialized in Liberty magazine. In this book, Gardner clearly begins to indicate the kind of plot complexity he was ultimately able to bring to the Mason novels. Gardner was simply one of the greatest mystery plot writers of all time. In addition, the book displays Perry's legal manipulativeness at its very best, especially the outside-the-courtroom variety which was such an important element of the books (and so rare in the TV series).

The story has the classic elements of the Mason books: Perry going way out on a limb for his client, a damsel in distress; Della's intense loyalty and Paul Drake's good-natured professionalism; a tough, single-minded prosecutor in Claude Drumm; a cast of suspects and victims whose motives are perpetually murky; impressively clever and sneaky pretrial manipulation of evidence by Mason; a fast-paced, eventful story; direct, understandable prose; a good look at Mason's philosophy of the law; and fascinating, dramatic courtroom scenes with an effectively presented breakdown of a crucial witness. In addition, the central mystery of the howling dog is interesting and used to good effect.

Some flavorsome quotes for you:

"You're getting this case all mixed up, brother," Drake told him.
Perry Mason laughed grimly.
That's the way I want it," he said.

The courtroom atmosphere was stale with that psychic stench which comes from packed humans whose emotions are roused to a high pitch of excitement.

"What did Judge Markham think?" [Della] asked.
"I don't know," he told her, "and I don't give a damn. I know what my rights are and I stood on them. I'm fighting to protect a client."

[Mason:] "My idea of a fair trial is to bring out the facts. I'm going to bring out the facts."
[Drake:] "All of the facts, or just the facts that are favorable to your client?"
"Well," said Perry Mason, grinning, "I'm not going to try the case for the district attorney, if that's what you mean; that's up to him."

"We're a dramatic people," Perry Mason said slowly. "We're not like the English. The English want dignity and order. We want the dramatic and the spectacular. It's a national craving. We're geared to a rapid rate of thought. We want to have things move in a spectacular manner."

"If you don't put that woman on the witness stand, and she's convicted, it's going to mean that your reputation will be ruined," [Perry's legal assistant Frank Everly] said.
"All right," Perry Mason told him; "it'll be ruined then."

[Mason:] "There are lots of ways of trying a lawsuit. There's the slow, tedious way, indulged in by lawyers who haven't any particular plan of campaign, other than to walk into court and snarl over objections, haggle over technicalities, and drag the facts out so interminably that no one knows just what it's all about. Then there's the dramatic method of trying a lawsuit. That's the method I try to follow."

"If it doesn't go right," said Perry Mason, "I'll probably lose my reputation as a trial lawyer."
"But you've got no right to jeopardize that," said Frank Everly.
"The hell I haven't," Perry Mason told him. "I've got no right not to."

"A jury is an audience. It's a small audience, but it's an audience just the same. . . . [A]ll audiences are fickle."

"[District attorney] Claude Drumm, who had been smoking a cigarette in the corridor, came stalking back into the courtroom. . . . He strode with well-tailored efficiency, a dignified superiority toward the criminal attorney who must needs make his living from the trial of cases, rather than bask in the dignity of a monthly salary check, issued with the clock-like regularity with which government officials expend the money of taxpayers."

And here are the last words of the book (no plot spoilers involved), with Gardner's opinion on original sin:

"You," said Della Street, staring at him, "are a cross betwen a saint and a devil."
"All men are," said Perry Mason, unperturbed.

The Case of the Howling Dog is unfortunately out of print, but used copies are fairly easy to find, especially through online services. This is a Mason novel that all who enjoy the series—or would like to know what it's all about—should read.

It is also a book that ought to be adapted into a TV movie, and NOW!

The Perry Mason novels would surely be an excellent source for faithful adaptation into a series of films (as the A&E network did so effectively with several Nero Wolfe narratives a couple years ago, and Granada has done so beautifully with the Hercule Poirot series starring David Suchet). I think that enough time has passed since the Raymond Burr TV series for audiences to accept a new actor in the role, with the stories set in their original time frame. It is high time that some smart producer and TV channel undertook the project of bringing these wonderful stories to a new audience through film. Whoever chooses to do so will definitely reap great rewards.

Of course, I'm ready to begin work on the adaptations as soon as the contract is inked.


Hunter Baker said...

Wow, this is really different from the television Perry. I need to start reading.

Love the taxpayer quote.

Hunter Baker said...

Do it on spec, baby. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

S. T. Karnick said...

Can't--have to have the rights lined up first.

Hunter Baker said...

The guy who got the rights to continue Nero Wolfe did it by showing the estate a manuscript he wrote for his mother who was distraught the series was ending.