Thursday, July 31, 2014

Polly Wants a Killer: The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939), by Erle Stanley Gardner

In 1939, the American crime fiction reviewer "Judge Lynch" (William C. Weber) listed his favorite mystery novels of the year as:

A Coffin for Dimitrios (aka The Mask of Dimitrios), by Eric Ambler
The Crying Sisters, by Mable Seeley
Strawstack, by Dorothy Cameron Disney
Overture to Death, by Ngaio Marsh
The Problem of the Green Capsule (The Black Spectacles), by John Dickson Carr
The Footprints on the Ceiling, by Clayton Rawson
The Spider Strikes (aka Stop Press), by Michael Innes

I have read all these novels and I think the first and last of these books are truly exceptional, entirely original mystery classics.  Rich Westwood at Past Offences has reviewed the Ambler for this month's mystery challenge (a book from 1939). For my part I have been rereading the Innes, but it is loooong--about 450 pages--and I will have to blog it next month to do it justice.

So, what to do?  I turned to one of mystery fiction's old reliables, Erle Stanley Gardner, and his 1939 novel The Case of the Perjured Parrot--one of four crime novels (in three different series) that the prolific Gardner published that year.

In Parrot, attorney Perry Mason is hired by Charles Sabin, the son of eccentric millionaire Fremont C. Sabin, after the elder man is found shot to death in his mountain cabin. The elder man's pet parrot, Casanova, was left unscathed. But wait!  Charles insists that this parrot is not actually his father's parrot! But wait again! Why in the world would someone have substituted parrots? And where the heck is the real Casanova (the real macaw, you might say).  Perry is intrigued.

Also in the offing are the millionaire's private secretary, Richard Waid; his gold digging second wife, Helen Watkins Sabin; and Mrs. Sabin's son from an earlier marriage, Steve Watkins.  And then there's the "other woman," quiet librarian Helen Monteith, who says Fremont Sabin married her!  When the real Casanova finally turns up, he keeps saying Helen "shot me," but can a parrot testify in court?  And which Helen does he mean, anyway? Perry has got a definite situation on his hands.

This is quite a well-plotted mystery novel that zips right along and has an especially nice twist at the end.  The writing is flat, though functional.  On the strength of the Gardners I have read so far, I would say that Gardner was an American "Humdrum"--and I mean that in a positive way.  He had, as Raymond Chandler once enviously allowed, a fertile plotting brain; and that brain was in fine form here.  If plot's your thing (with some clever legal bits thrown in) you should enjoy The Case of the Perjured Parrot.

As stated above, Gardner is a flat writer and there's not much to tie this book to the specific year 1939. However, there are references to people being out of work and to Fremont Sabin's philosophy that people are too caught up in the pursuit of material things (easy for him to say!), and these remind readers that the novel is set in a decade where there was prolonged economic depression in the United States, with people seriously reassessing their lives.

Also, I would say, on the strength of the last sentence, that Perry and his loyal secretary, Della Street, were sleeping together--but then love, surely, is timeless.

16 comments:

  1. It's great to read about Erle Stanley Gardner in The Passing Tramp! For me he's one of the greatest plotters of the traditional detective story. It's a pity most people think of him as a minor representative of the Black Mask school, while he was really as a classicist in terms of form, even if not always in terms of style.

    However, even if I can see distinct affinities in plotting technique and even themes between Gardner and Crofts, I have to disagree with you on the humdrum label! Humdrums rely almost exclusively on plot, while Gardner's novels, despite being often plotted at the same level, have a bright varnish of suspense and fast-paced action that almost obfuscates the plots. You can read Gardner for the suspense and the action while paying little attention to the plot (in fact, in a few ones, like in Caretaker's Cat, Gardner somehow manages to disguise thin or incoherent plots behind all the fireworks). You can hardly say this about the humdrums. Gardner's novels, especially the earlier ones, also have a pulpish and streetwise tint I find totally alien to the humdrums.

    I'm not comparing their relative merits (I also have a huge respect for Crofts and Rhode), although I must say I will always have a soft spot for the Perry Mason novels, which were largely responsible for my love of detective stories and my choice of a career in law -- well, in fact Della Street (or rather Barbara Hale) was probably more responsible for the latter!

    Speaking of Della, there are several suggestions that her relationship with Mason was not platonic like the one in the ending of Parrot. For instance, as far as I can remember, they go on holidays together at least in Substitute Face and Drowning Duck. Also, in the ending of Drowsy Mosquito, Della turns down a marriage proposal by Mason, suggesting that they already had a happy, stable relationship that would be spoilt by marriage.

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  2. Well, I still think of him as an American Humdrum! That allows for a zippier and more modern American idiom, I think. For me, besides the emphasis on plotting, I'm reminded of the Humdrums in the flatness of the characterization and writing. Again, I don't see this as a bad thing, having written a book defending the artistic merit of plot-centic crime writers, specifically three of the British Humdrums.

    Of course I haven't read enough of the Masons, or any of his other series, so am just basing my impression on what I have read. Parrot may be exceptional, but I wasn't reading it for the suspense or action (many of the events were related at second-hand), but for the mystery plot.

    I like to think of Perry and Della as being an item, because otherwise I just wouldn't get those two at all! I will have to see what Jeff Marks says, but doesn't this somewhat parallel Gardner's own situation in real life?

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  3. A few points. Gardner deliberately made his PM books exist in a vacuum of time so that they would remain "timeless." He also left the description of Perry Mason up to the reader (though that was shot down when Raymond Burr came along.)

    In the early books, Perry and Della are suggested to have a romantic relationship. However, as Gardner tried to get the books into the Saturday Evening Post, he trimmed those parts out so that it would be suitable for the middle class audience he wanted so desperately. In the early books, Perry proposes 3 times to Della. She turns him down because the office is where all the action is, and she doesn't want to be left out.

    The Lester Leith stories are probably classical detective stories by Gardner. Dare I hope for another collection of those from Doug?

    The Case of the Crimson Kiss is actually an inverted PM story. It's a novella, not a novel, but interesting to read.

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    1. Well, I'm determined to believe the two were an item!

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  4. I bought one of his books earlier in the month so I am looking forward to giving him a shot.

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    1. I think it's generally considered that his best books were roughly 1935-1945, but I'm far from the expert here!

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  5. I've been a big Perry Mason fan ever since I was old enough to take them out of the library; this is not Gardner's A-level work, to me, but it's certainly a B-plus novel. Gardner is at his best when he comes up with one of his bizarre story hooks and then manages to integrate it into a solid puzzle plot. I don't remember solving this one as a teenager, but when I re-read it as an adult, the murderer stood out for me ... I won't say precisely why, for fear of spoiling someone's enjoyment, but it has to do with how the parrot learned to say that "Helen shot me", and once you consider it the answer is fairly unambiguous. And I remember the final events of this one as being a bit more sappy than most (except the tear-jerking TCOT Terrified Typist), which is possibly why Perry and Della go off in the final moments to canoodle in the moonlight!

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    1. Noah, oh, I had my eye on the culprit very early on, I must admit (just on general mystery principles). But I enjoyed the turns of the investigation and I must say that Perry's analysis of the alibi matter was really nicely worked out. And I liked the twist, even if it was m-m-m-maudlin. And if it inspired Perry and Della to canoodle, all the better, I say!

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  6. That's about the same assessment as I'd give of The Case of the Perjured Parrot, so obviously I think your review is triffic.

    (the real macaw, you might say)

    And this especially so: loud applause, groans, vomiting simulations, etc.

    As I discovered a couple of days ago The Mask of Dimitrios was originally published in 1937; 1939 was its year of US publication (with the title change to Coffin). The same goes for Cause for Alarm (first published 1938, US publication 1939), which I've just reread and much enjoyed, and will be writing up sometime in the next day or two.

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    1. Hi, Realthog, glad you liked the review. I must admit I do have a fondness for groan-inducing puns!

      By the way, my Black Lizard pb edition of Dimitrios gives the Hodder & Stoughton British first edition year as 1939 and that's how booksellers who have the British first edition list it. Great book! Ambler to my mind is one of the best crime writers who ever lived.

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    2. By the way, please give me your web address where you do your reviews and I will add to my list on the right!

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  7. 'Gardner deliberately made his PM books exist in a vacuum of time so that they would remain "timeless." '

    A choice many authors (or editors?) make. That's why I don't read their books.

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  8. Sounds great fun Curt (and I love the cover too) - I always want to read more Gardner from the 1930s as it seems so different fromt he 50s variant which for some reason seemed to be the one I mostly read as a kid growing up in Italy during the 80s.

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  9. One of these days I'll write that article I keep saying I'm going to write about the use of parrots in the Golden Age detective novel. It's amazing how many there are in addition to this Perry Mason novel: The Chinese Parrot, The Avenging Parrot, The Purple Parrot, Murder on Wheels, Death at Swaythling Court, etc., etc. Then there's this ripped from the headlines crime story that should be turned into a Law & Order episode.

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    1. Four more and youve got a Top Ten, John!

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  10. I thoroughly enjoyed The Case of the Perjured Parrot. I think your assessment of the book is pretty much spot-on. One of the things I like about his 1930s Perry Mason novels is Mason's very dubious legal ethics - in some ways he's similar to thriller heroes like the Saint who also play fast and loose with the law.

    Another Perry Mason novel that features an animal as a vital clue is The Case of the Lame Canary. I highly recommend that one.

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