Nice to get back in touch with Perry Mason and crew…
Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the first mystery authors whose books I read after I realized there WERE mystery authors other than Agatha Christie. And way back then, while I was in graduate school, Gardner’s books were perfect for the limited leisure reading time I had available, which consisted of a rare hour or two of guilty pleasure crammed in here and there among my studies. Gardner’s short but action-packed stories were great for that, especially since I knew that in his world, Perry Mason’s clients were never guilty, so although Perry himself might skate a fine line or two while protecting them, it would all come out okay in the end. Which was something I couldn’t say about my classes! At one point, I had a couple of shelves full of Gardner’s paperbacks, mostly bought from the local used bookstore (remember, poor graduate student), but those have long since vanished sometime during some move or other. So, I was really happy to be offered an advance copy of the new American Mystery Classics e-book edition of The Case of the Borrowed Brunette to review for my blog.
Borrowed Brunette is a classic Perry Mason story, with clients who do everything they can to land themselves in trouble, while Perry, Della Street and Paul Drake do their best to get them out of it. In this case, Eva Martell answers an ad that is looking for a brunette with a very specific appearance – right down to specifying a height of 5 feet 4 ½ inches tall (not 5’4” or 5’5”) and a weight of 111 pounds (not 110 or 115). And lest our minds go where they might with this, the lucky brunette who gets the $50/day job can also bring along a chaperone, who will be paid $20/day – but can’t bring along much else. Eva and her roommate, Cora Felton, both fit the bill, so they both apply, along with a number of other brunettes, but it’s Eva who gets chosen, and she brings along her “almost-mother”, Aunt Adelle, as a chaperone. When they are taken to live in a fancy apartment, though, and Eva is asked to pretend to be someone named Helen Reedley, Aunt Adelle becomes suspicious, and decides to get Perry Mason to check things out. Which he does, with style. Of course, somewhere along the way, a dead body pops up and both Eva and Adelle become suspects. The rest is pure Gardner, as Perry and his team try to figure out whether anyone, including his clients, is telling the truth. Towards the end, there are some classic scenes as Perry fences with Hamilton Berger’s right-hand man, the overly confident Harry Gulling, who would love to take him down. And finally, Perry figures out whodunnit at the last possible moment – while he’s actually testifying in front of the Grand Jury.
Readers do need to keep in mind that The Case of the Borrowed Brunette was written in 1946, and so, as you might expect, some of its social roles and expectations, especially as regards women, may feel a little antiquated today. But I feel that it’s always a bit of a slippery slope to try to apply today’s attitudes too rigorously to books that are decades old. Instead, I just contented myself with being glad I didn’t grow up back then, when I probably wouldn’t have even been able to get into a highly-technical graduate school – although I might have had more time to read! Other than that, though, I very much enjoyed my re-introduction to Perry Mason and crew after many many years.
A few final things worth mentioning: First, Otto Penzler, who is the creator of the American Mystery Classics imprint, has written a wonderful introduction for Borrowed Brunette that I learned a lot from. Who knew, for instance, that Gardner wrote more than a million words a year (a novel a month and some short stories) during the 1920s and 1930s. Or that he had a ranch compound near Temecula with accommodations for six (six!) secretaries and even more support staff. Although I’m often tempted to skip introductions to get to the main story, I’m glad I didn’t skip this one. Second, I’m actually a teeny bit more of a fan of Gardner’s Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series than of the Perry Mason books, although I really like them both. If you’re interested, you can find my review here for Shills Can’t Cash Chips, which is from about 3/4 of the way through that series. Third, I try not to give too many five-star ratings, to avoid star-inflation, so my four-star rating for Borrowed Brunette is a solid “read this” recommendation. And finally, my thanks again to American Mystery Classics and Edelweiss for the review copy!