Perry Mason Solves the Case of the Haunted Husband
I've been reading Gardner's Perry Mason books off and on for many years. Many years ago, I was an intense fan of the series, and read them all, at least once. Now, after a lot of water over the dam, I'm looking at them again.
Those who are used to really fine mystery writers, such as Ross Macdonald, may find the writing style here off-putting. It can be stiff and mechanical. Nonetheless, I still love the general setting: the characters of Perry, Della, Paul, Lt. Tragg, and Hamilton Berger. That, and the ingenious plots, are why I read Perry Mason.
On the whole, the ones written by 1945 are the best. This one was written in 1941, and is an exception to the rule: it's one of the few that I did not especially like. It begins with a young woman, Stephane Clair, hitchhiking. She is picked up by a man who "makes unwanted advances". There is a struggle, the car crashes, killing another driver. The driver of Stephane's car mysteriously vanishes after the crash, no one sees him, and so Stephane is charged with manslaughter. Perry takes the case, and by a complicated chain of evidence, Perry is led to a mysterious man in San Francisco, one L. C. Spinney, and then to a woman from New Orleans who arrives in LA looking for her husband. Perry and Drake take her to a hotel, where various other people shuttle in and out. I won't attempt to summarize all the evidence and reasoning. Eventually the case involves a Hollywood producer, his chauffeur and brother, various uncles, friends, and wives. Two murders occur in that same hotel.
There are some good courtroom scenes, unfortunately not with Hamilton Burger. Lt. Tragg has a strong role, more than usual. Unusually, Perry waxes philosophical at one point. Obviously, this is Erle Stanley Gardner trying to come to grips with life and death.
There are too many scenes tangential to the plot, such as Perry, Drake, Tragg, and Della at dinner together. There are several loopholes and unresolved threads. Too many characters are introduced only to be dropped and never heard from again. In the better stories, there are fewer characters, but the ones who are introduced have some significance, if only to be red herrings. Maybe I missed it, but why was the man driving the car in the opening scenes wearing a tuxedo? This is played up as a big clue for a while but never resolved that I saw. How did he (that driver) leave the scene of the accident so easily?
One symptom of the problems with this book: who is the "haunted husband"? Haunted by what or who?
The very last scene plays out in a hotel room, in that same hotel. The events of the last couple chapters are confusing and poorly presented. Upon reflection and re-reading, they do make sense, however. There is a good plot and a good idea in there stuggling to come out. I actually guessed part of the final explanantion, and the murderer. Fairly early on, there is a small key clue that I noticed. This is pretty usual for Perry Mason stories, which are almost always fair, in that the reader has a chance to deduce a lot of what is going on.
I have to wonder if this book doesn't represent a transition or "mid life crisis" of some sort for Gardner. At this point he had written about 18 of these Perry Mason stories. I can imagine that he was stuggling to find a change, a new direction. Did he have any conception of the enormous success that lay ahead? Certainly he could not have imagined the TV series.
Of all the Mason books, I would put it in the bottom half. Recommended for those wishing to complete their collection of Perry Mason reads.
BTW, the TV episode based on this novel is quite a bit simpler and very good.