This book is getting downgraded - seems the Top Mysteries List I started working with had some errors in it and this book had been put on the list by by a fan who felt it belonged there. No matter, it's a good mystery anyway.
Year of publication: 1933
Series and no.: Perry Mason, no. 1
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Los Angeles, USA; 1930s.
A woman comes to Perry Mason to get help in keeping certain facts from being printed in a sleasy tabloid, facts that can hurt not just her marriage but also the career of a local politician. But then her husband is murdered and things get complicated.
Before starting reading this book, my very first Perry Mason story, I had assumed that I would be reading a legal mystery-thriller, perhaps something that would take place at least partially in a courtroom. This belief comes from my mother, who was a fan of the Perry Mason TV show when she was younger and always talked of him as if he were a younger version of Ben Matlock. For the purpose of this particular story he could just as well have been a private detective - not an entirely scrupulous one. I confess my surprise at finding someone who it seems certain was modelled on Sam Spade, except with a greater sense of loyalty to his clients. (There are more parallels with The Maltese Falcon, but I'm not in the mood to write a comparative essay. If you're interested, you'll have to have a look for yourself).
The tone of the book is unmistakably hard-boiled, and there are hard-boiled story elements in it, such as the detective who can just as easily use brawn as he does brain, a femme fatale in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy mold (plus a familiar, loyal, nice girl secretary for contrast) and a sleasy journalist, on top of enough double-crossing to make one’s head spin. Of course, there isn’t really enough violence, sex, slease and cynicism to make it a real hard-boiled novel, but it has the veneer of one. As a matter of fact I find the style ever so slightly grating, but the plotting makes up for it.
Like so many other detective novels I have read, there is a definite "before and after the murder" element to the story. I don't just mean the regular lead-up and subsequent detective work, but two different but connected stories with a change of pace in between. The before part, the blackmail plot, is a tightly plotted but relatively straight-forward thriller and has Mason using his muscles and threatening people in true hard-boiled fashion, while in the "after" part the pace slows and the hard-boiled elements are toned down and Mason's brain gets a workout in a traditional puzzle plot mystery.
This story is very much plot-driven, and most of the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts or handy stereotypes, including Mason and Miss Street. I am looking forward to seeing how and if they develop into more distinct characters in subsequent books.
Rating: A thrilling, plot-driven mystery with a veneer of the hard-boiled. 4 stars.
Awards and nominations: None that I’m aware of.