In honor of Erle Stanley Gardner’s birthday today, I thought I’d do a top 10 list of my favorite Perry Mason novels. There are as many lists as there are folks reading the books, so you can take mine with a grain of salt, but I can say that I’ve read all 80 of the books and from that standpoint, I do feel qualified to make this list. (Well, that and 3 years writing a biography of him!)
Most of these works came from a very creative period of 1938-1945 for Gardner, when many of his best works appeared in all of his series.
If there’s sufficient interest, perhaps I can do a top 5 of the Cool/Lam books later. Since there are only 29, I’d feel silly doing a top 10.
1) TCOT Lame Canary – this was supposed to be the last of the Perry Mason books. Gardner was tired of not being published in the slicks and he was ready to try other characters. The Saturday Evening Post bought the rights to this story after Gardner had spent significant time in revising (and it shows.)
2) TCOT Careless Kitten - Gardner takes an opportunity to lament the loss of individual rights. Tragg and Burger try to attack Mason by arresting Della for harboring the client’s long-lost uncle. Mason feels like the cards are stacked against the innocent victim in contemporary society. “It’s high time for citizens to wake up to the fact that it isn’t a question of whether a man is guilty or innocent, but whether his guilt or innocence can be proved under a procedure which leaves in the citizen the legal rights to which he is entitled under a constitutional government” [italics are Gardner’s]. This legal ideal would be revisited in the Court of Last Resort and in many of the later Mason books. This dedication to individual rights, first outlined in his popular literature, would later lead Gardner back to the courtroom to help innocent citizens get a fair break from the American justice system.
3) TCOT Drowsy Mosquito – In this book, Gardner outlines his own personal philosophy. Living outdoors is needed to make you healthy. Being in touch with nature is the best cure. It’s shown when the client actually lives outside of his house, enjoying a tent more than a bedroom. Of course, the client is killed, so maybe it’s not all that healthy? It also is one of the few times that Perry and Della are in immediate danger. Since they appear in about 40 books, you know that nothing happens to them, but it’s interesting to see how Gardner handles it.
4) TCOT Borrowed Brunette – one of the first of the titillating titles. There would be many to follow but this is one of the first. It’s also an interesting premise which uses a variation of the Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” by advertising for a particular type of woman. Gardner liked to say that he didn’t read within the genre, but this story (and others) show that he did.
5) TCOT Drowning Duck – Gardner introduced a character very much like himself in this book, a rugged outdoorsman who lived away from society. It’s an interesting look at how he perceived himself. Gardner also used some current science from that era for the catchy title. He spoke with mystery author Sally Wright’s father to get the details straight.
6) TCOT Buried Clock - Gardner makes his only reference to World War II where one of the main characters is recuperating from an arm injury received during combat. He goes to a cabin in the woods in order to convalesce after his wartime service and hears the ticking of a clock outside. He finds the clock and noticed that the clock is not set to the current time
7) TCOT Empty Tin - Mason makes a few good legal observations, based on Gardner’s early legal career. Mason tells Lieutenant Tragg that a suspect heard two shots instead of one. When the suspect questions Mason about this, Mason points out that the police do not want to uncover a single witness who contradicts all other witnesses. According to Alva Johnston, Gardner had used this strategy in the 1920s when he’d been questioned in Ventura after Gardner had gotten a mobster there acquitted of murder. Gardner used the acquaintance to research his own pulp stories and learned a great deal about mob activity in Ventura. When the police picked up Gardner to question him about some of what he had witnessed during his research, Gardner began by avoiding answering the questions. However, he soon became overly helpful, telling wild stories filled with details that contradicted other witnesses and including his own guesses about the case as part of his testimony. Obviously, no prosecutor would want to put such a witness before a jury, and Gardner was released and not bothered.
8) TCOT Velvet Claws – The first book in series. It’s fascinating to see how well Gardner creates these characters who don’t change much over the course of 40 years and 80 books. It’s a bit more hard-boiled than most and doesn’t have the courtroom scene at the end of the book, but it’s still a pageturner.
9) TCOT Crooked Candle - reintroduces Gardner’s use of physical evidence as clues. In this and many subsequent Mason works, the case will revolve around one or two pieces of forensic evidence that the police will interpret one way, while Mason corrects their interpretation by the end of the book. These clues would become a mainstay of Gardner’s later works as he began his work with the Court of Last Resort and saw the difficulties in using circumstantial evidence to convict a man of murder.
10) TCOT Half-wakened Wife – starts to see the merging of Perry and Gardner, particularly with a description of Mason pacing the carpet, trying to come up with a plan of action. Jean Bethell shared Gardner plotting process, which was quite similar. Gardner would sit in a rocking chair, moving back and forth until he had worked his way across the carpet. He would then pick up the chair, move it back, and then start again. Mason’s relentless pacing ties character and creator even more closely.