The Case of the Lazy Lover, by Erle Stanley Gardner

Title: The Case of the Lazy Lover (A Perry Mason Mystery)

Author: Gardner, Erle Stanley

Publication Data:  1st edition William Morrow, 1947.  First paper Pocket, 1952; this is the second printing of Pocket #909, 1953.  Multiple editions in multiple languages exist.

I remember some months ago sounding off about the Perry Mason novels written between 1939 and 1947 as being my favourites, because they were the most puzzle-oriented.  This fell out of a box in my collection and it caught my eye, demanding to be re-read.  Certainly it had been a number of years since I had come across my own copy or any other; although this is not scarce, it can frequently be tough to lay your hand on any specific Perry Mason novel merely by browsing your local used bookstores.  I have to say, it was a very pleasant rediscovery.

I was a little startled to note that this was written as late as 1947, the very boundary I had sort of arbitrarily come up with.  Part of it, I think, is that the title gives very little hint of what’s actually going on in the novel.  (Neither does this salacious cover, which although technically accurate hints at a future that just ain’t gonna happen.)  ESG was at the peak of his powers here, or very close to, and this is one of the few really well-written Perry Mason novels.

I have to add that I will assert that even the least of them is worth reading, although his last few were somewhat more style than substance.  Gardner’s apprenticeship in the pulps made him appreciative of having found a workable formula with which he could actually sell his work, and he rarely varied from it.  Something odd comes to Mason’s attention; he devotes his attention to it and it soon turns out to be a murder case. Perry’s client is in increasing danger of being arrested.  Mason and Paul Drake and Della Street run around, mix up evidence, interview witnesses and just generally wreak havoc, to the general displeasure of the police.  The beginning of Act III is the start of the trial, or preliminary hearing, of Perry’s client on a charge of murder.  An involved trial sequence ensues and Perry solves the case during the course of the trial.  (Not, I must say, during the actual trial itself, by and large.  Mason is a “put the clues together in a startling way” detective rather than a “wait for the murderer to make a mistake and then pounce” type.)

In this case, Mason’s day begins with an envelope containing a cheque for $2,500 from a woman who is unknown to him, and no accompanying explanation.  Later that day, he receives an identical envelope with another cheque for $2,500 drawn on a different bank.  Mason investigates and is drawn into events involving a wealthy mining speculator and his beautiful wife, the writer of cheques, who is apparently having an affair with his assistant.  They’ve run away together, but the speculator needs his assistant to testify in a pressing and rather shady legal matter and will forgive almost anything if he can get the testimony he so urgently requires.  Perry has to find the wife and assistant and beard them in their love nest.

Paul Drake, of course, comes up with immediate answers as to who is where and with whom, and pretty much doing what.  The funny thing is that the assistant doesn’t seem to be all that interested in his hot inamorata, according to people like motel managers, but instead is very lazy about everything.  More complications ensue and half the cast, it seems, is in the vicinity of a muddy farm when a car goes off the road and the speculator is found dead.  When his wife is tried for the murder, Mason takes the last third of the book for a trial,  a very surprising set of revelations and a murderer whose situation no one would have guessed.

The puzzle aspect of this novel is so strong that page 168 is a full-page map showing that muddy farm and all its relevant tire tracks, footprints and even dog tracks.  Luckily for the story, the owner of that farm went out and laid down boards to cover those tracks, against precisely such an eventuality as a Perry Mason novel happening to occur, it seems.  The whole map is very relevant, of course, but quite a departure for ESG.  I can only remember off the top of my head one other such inclusion in the Mason novels, TCOT Crooked Candle (a diagram showing how a candle attached to a tabletop would end up tilted if the situs, a sailboat, was heeled by a tide).  It’s also a departure for 1947; truly, this must be one of the last examples of such a map that isn’t meant in jest or irony.

And believe me, there is some very clever stuff here.  Gardner’s hook of the duplicated cheque goes into great detail about how to establish a false identity (in 1947 terms, of course, when picture ID and PINs were unheard of).  We also learn a useful method of forging signatures.  There’s a fascinating way of getting people to sell you back the stock in your own company that involves telling them the absolute truth.  We learn how to sort the letters for a busy lawyer and what one does on the night shift at a parking garage.  We learn about footprints and tracking.  And I have to say that the solution, and the identity of the murderer, is one of the cleverest in ESG’s oeuvre.

The only poor effort is the title.  Truly not one of ESG’s best, and titles like TCOT Troublesome Tracks or Forgotten Frail come to mind based on the plot with no problem at all.  I think this must have been the publisher, or ESG, deciding to go with the sexual allusion.

Notes for the Collector: My 2nd (1953) printing of the 1st paper (1952), an image of which edition is above, cost me $5. Mine is in similarly average shape.  The market for ESG is quite well established in places like http://www.abebooks.com and prices are fairly clearly based on reality; not so on eBay, for instance, where a premium is asked for paperbacks with covers with mild sexual content such as this edition.

I note with some interest the bar of type at the bottom, which is not common for Pocket designs of the surrounding decade.  Interesting also is what they cared to make clear, that this was a “genuine” mystery and “the complete book * not a word missing”.  I’m not old enough to remember clearly, but I do remember a popular sentiment of my youth that all such “pockabooks” were trimmed in length and content; apparently Pocket cared to assert that in their case at least this was not so.  We are still firmly in the late hegemony of the twenty-five cent paperback, but in a few years this price will begin to inch up.  Anything more than a quarter was marketed as being somehow “special”.

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