Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series was actually recommended by my father. It used to be very popular back in his days. It’s embarrassing not to have known such a famous series from a renowned author like Erle Stanley Gardner. Purely my ignorance. Correcting my mistake, I picked up two books from the series. One of them is The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece.
Before I get into the story part of the book, there are few things which astonished me. First, the front page of the book claims Erle Stanley Gardner is the only author to have outsold Agatha Christie. WOW! Being a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s works, I thought no one could have matched her standard of storytelling and suspense. This detail got me all the more excited. Second, one chapter into the book, I was really intrigued by the writing style. The narration had dialogues mostly and less of description. It was more like a script. Hence, I can see the story move in top speed every page. I usually love reading dialogue parts in any book. This book had 90% of dialogues. Impressive.
Perry Mason, our protagonist, is not a detective. He is a criminal lawyer, very famous and successful. Della Street is his secretary. As clever as her boss, she and Mason have some romantic track going on which I couldn’t figure out much in this book. May be it’s an ongoing one throughout the series. Jackson, another lawyer, works with Mason. Paul Drake is a private detective who Mason employs for his cases. These four characters seem to be the central ones for all the Gardner’s books.
The story. Edna Hammer approaches Perry Mason requesting him to help her Uncle, Peter Kent, who has a sleepwalking problem. She feels her uncle could have committed a crime. Mrs Kent alleges that Peter Kent tried to kill her in his sleepwalking a year ago. She has employed her own lawyers to settle her marriage. Peter Kent also has problems going on with Maddox, his business partner. Perry Mason decides to meet everyone and resolve the issues. Edna, Mason, Peter Kent, Maddox and his lawyer Duncan, and Kent’s half brother Rease stay at Kent’s residence for a night. Edna locks the sidedoor in the kitchen where the knives are kept fearing her uncle might sleepwalk and kill someone. In the morning, they find Rease dead and a blood smeared knife under Peter Kent’s pillow. Did Peter Kent actually kill his brother? How did the knife come out of the locked door? What was the motive behind killing Rease? Thus, starts the investigation.
It’s very difficult to explain the story as there are so many aspects, storylines and clues involved. Perry Mason journeys through everything and puts all the pieces together. He has a very clever way of talking, getting people to admit the truth. His interrogation and cross examining skills in the court are very enjoyable. It’s just not the evidence part of it; the story involves lot of psychology. Nearly the last 40-50 pages cover courtroom drama. It’s so pumped with energy that it’s very difficult to put down the book then.
Having said the above, I also felt this story lacked depth. As much as I enjoyed Perry Mason & Co, the rest of the characters were very weak. Edna was whiny, Kent was stupid, Maddox and Duncan were irritating. None of the characters stood out as unique. The plotline was too confused; timelines were mentioned too many times, and the breakthroughs lacked punch. Somehow, the title of the book was a giveaway too. At the same time, the revelation and explanation was very good. Mason brought out the Poirot feel.
Perry Mason is a very impressive character. May be I picked the wrong book to start the series. I wouldn’t say the story is bad, it just lacks seriousness. The story starts well but becomes dull after a point. The feel of the environment and the atmosphere I sense in Agatha Christie’s books was missing. Poirot was a detective and Mason is a lawyer and that difference definitely holds prominence in this comparison too. I’ll read a few more books in the series to decide if the front page detail of Gardner being better than Christie is true or not.
You can give this book a pass.