My maternal grandfather is largely to blame for my interest in Erle Stanley Gardner and that California author’s best-remembered fictional creation, Los Angeles defense attorney Perry Mason. As boys, my brother and I would spend occasional nights at the home of our mother’s parents, while our own father and mother visited with their friends or dined out together. Our grandfather was a great fan of TV crime dramas, and evidently less concerned than our mother was about how television might corrupt young minds. So he let us sit with him while he watched such classic small-screen fare as Adam-12, The F.B.I., Cannon, Mannix and, of course, Perry Mason.
I didn’t realize back then how formulaic those Perry Mason episodes were. But they followed a familiar pattern: a murder takes place; an innocent person (most often a woman) is charged with the crime; and Mason (played so well by Raymond Burr) not only takes on the difficult defense of the accused, but manages in the end to convince the real killer to stand up in court and—tossing aside his or her Fifth Amendment rights—confess in a tearful or angry outburst. “I did it! And I’m glad I did!” that person might declare, much to the astonishment of District Attorney Hamilton Burger, whose haplessness somehow never lost him his high-profile job.
Not until many years later, after I’d added crime-fiction reviewing to my journalistic endeavors and begun collecting vintage mystery novels to study how the genre had evolved, did I discover that Gardner’s Mason books—at least the initial ones (he penned a total of 82!)—were rather different from the courtroom action-heavy pursuits of justice presented on the boob tube. Editor and New York City bookseller Otto Penzler got it right when he explained, in 1977’s The Private Lives of Private Eyes, Spies, Crime Fighters and Other Good Guys, that “Mason’s earliest cases are straightforward, action-filled thrillers which have little to do with jurisprudence.…A considerable disdain for the law is in evidence (as in most books about private detectives, particularly in the 1930s when Mason’s recorded career began), and results are more often obtained with a punch to the mouth or a blasting revolver than by a clever deduction.”
Indeed, the template for that pugnacious Perry was laid out on the opening page of Gardner’s first published novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933):
Perry Mason sat at the big desk. There was about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was like the face of a chess player who is studying the board. That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression. He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.
Gardner had spent most of a decade practicing law in southern California, employing sometimes innovative tactics to defend clients in legal jeopardy, before he determined to pursue a fiction-writing career. He went on to produce millions of words for pulp magazines, particularly Black Mask, the same periodical that helped launch the literary futures of Carroll John Daly, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Gardner learned from his magazine experiences that readers liked yarns incorporating hard-boiled exploits, so he gave Mason a split nature, a sharp legal mind combined with an aptitude for fisticuffs. Chandler labeled Gardner’s protagonist “the perfect detective.”
That perfection is well tested, though, in The Case of the Haunted Husband (1941), Gardner’s 18th Perry Mason outing. Its story commences when a young blonde named Stephane Claire Olger is fired from her hat-checking job in San Francisco by a dishonest boss and decides to hitchhike south to Hollywood. “You can’t tell,” she says optimistically to a fellow employee, “I might bust into pictures.” Instead, Stephane makes the mistake of boarding a Buick coupe in Bakersfield, driven by a seemingly polished gent in his early 30s, dressed in a dinner jacket and topcoat, with a “short, black mustache, and drink-red eyes.” The driver’s not only nipping too much from his flask and driving too fast, but he insists on pawing at his passenger in a rude pantomime of affection. When Stephane demands to get out, and yanks the keys from the ignition, the driver loses what control he had over his car and swerves into oncoming traffic.
The next thing Stephane knows, she’s horribly battered and is being pulled to safety from behind the steering wheel of the powerful Buick, which has careened off the roadway. There’s no sign of the dinner-jacketed driver. It’s as if he never existed—which is exactly what the cops think is the case. The Los Angeles DA’s office wants to charge Stephane with manslaughter, because a rider in one of the other cars involved in that crack-up died. Furthermore, the DA is convinced Stephane stole the Buick in Bakersfield, rather than accepting a ride in it from some elusive intoxicated motorist. The automobile’s owner, “a big-shot Hollywood producer” by the name of Jules Carne Homan, claims his four-wheeled property had previously been filched from his home in Beverly Hills, and was likely abandoned by joy riders in Bakersfield—just waiting for Stephane to step behind its wheel and speed toward the City of Angels.
Gardner’s protagonist becomes involved in all of this through Hortense “Horty” Zitkousky, a most voluptuous secretary friend of Stephane’s in LA, who delivers the basics of the case to Mason and his faithful Girl Friday, Della Street. Mason, in turn, asks his preferred private eye, Paul Drake, to make a few inquiries, determine if Miss Olger is a client worth taking on. Without too much shoe leather having been spent, Drake realizes there’s “something fishy” going on here. Something that seems linked to repeated phone calls between Homan’s residence and a “cheap rooming house” in San Francisco; a cafeteria employee in New Orleans, Lois Warfield, who’s been sending her meager bucks to that same San Francisco rooming house, convinced they’re being used toward the release of her supposedly incarcerated husband; and suspicions that the mustachioed driver of Homan’s ill-fated Buick was someone he knew. Phony identities and a loquacious chauffeur further enliven this yarn.
As Mason, the self-proclaimed “paid gladiator,” charges ever deeper into the investigation, defending his client with every trick in his bag (and up his sleeve), he risks overstepping—not for the first time—the bounds of what’s legal, and may wind up in the slammer himself. The assistant district attorney prosecuting Stephane Olger seems more than a little perturbed by his opponent’s deft antics, complaining of Mason to police lieutenant Arthur Tragg:
“There never was a more clever outlaw. Essentially, the man is nonsocial, nonconventional, and nonconformist. He may respect justice, but he certainly has no regard for the letter of the law!”
“But,” Tragg pointed out, “he’s done more to solve murders than any man on the force…but…well, damn him!”
Erle Stanley Gardner, trained as a concoctor of dynamically paced short stories, wasn’t big on character development; he never took much time out from his action to psychoanalyze or inflate the back stories of his principal players—Mason, Della, and Drake—and provided equally scant information about Tragg and Ham Burger (the last of whom didn’t even appear until the series’ sixth installment, 1935’s excellent The Case of the Counterfeit Eye). However, he was a demon plotter. Gardner may never have imagined a red herring or the surprise appearance of a bleeding corpse that he didn’t like. In addition to his main storylines, his complex tales packed in subplots to keep things moving along until Mason could finally figure out how all the clues fit together. (Unfortunately, script writers for the old Perry Mason TV program often jettisoned these secondary elements from their adaptations. When The Case of the Haunted Husband was boiled down to an hour-long episode in 1958, for instance, it lost the whole side story about Lois Warfield and her estranged hubby.)
Modern crime-fiction enthusiasts often ignore the Perry Mason novels because they’re so plot-driven, and because those readers believe—mistakenly—that the books are as formula-bound as the two TV shows they spawned. (The less said about the second Mason series, which debuted in 1973 and lasted just 15 episodes, the better.) Yet Jeffrey Marks, the Ohio author of an unpublished Erle Stanley Gardner biography titled For the Defense, believes these books still command an important place in the field’s maturity.
“While Gardner was not the ‘inventor’ of the legal mystery, he was to it what Edison was to the telephone, the person who refined the instrument and made it accessible to the masses,” says Marks. “Genre historians have long disputed the identity of the true inventor of the legal mystery; many settle on Anna Katherine Green, whose The Leavenworth Case (1878) is aptly subtitled A Lawyer’s Story. Gardner significantly influenced this subgenre with his hugely popular, fast-paced, plot-driven tales of Perry Mason. In most of the books, the plots hinged on points of California law (often drawn from cases in which Gardner had acted as defense attorney). Though heavy on dialogue and spare of descriptive literary passages and characterization, the tales won immense popularity for their legal verisimilitude and clever twists. In his own way, Mason is every bit the archetypal genre character that Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot is. Over the decades, he has come to epitomize the scrappy defense lawyer in fiction and in other media. The entire legal thriller subgenre owes him a debt, from Scott Turow and John Grisham to television shows like Law & Order and L.A. Law.”
The Case of the Haunted Husband (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with ghosts—regardless of what some of its book covers over the years have suggested) isn’t customarily listed among the “best” Perry Mason novels. However, it displays most of this series’ strengths and weaknesses. And like the entries in Gardner’s other worthy series, starring LA gumshoes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, Haunted Husband has one very important thing going for it: it’s an indisputably fun read.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine. You can link here to previous entries in his “rediscovered reads” series.