Friday, July 18, 2014

Vintage Mystery #32

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for O-6:  Read one Mystery that has Woman in the Title

The Case of the Hesitant Hostess – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1953

Fans and critics agree that the following Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner rank the best for courtroom fireworks, convoluted plots, and swift pace:  Lazy Lover (1947), Lucky Loser (1957), and Foot-Loose Doll (1958).

I would argue, however, that Hesitant Hostess (1953) should rank among the best because of its setting and atmosphere. Gardner examines the process in which a gang makes pots of money by opening nightclubs and gambling joints. Punished for their good looks by being coerced to become shills, hostesses distract suckers from realizing they are victimized in crooked games.

Unwary squares find themselves in trouble as rubbing elbows with crooks gradually turns into helping said bad guys do their dirty work or paying big costs like death, injury, and disability when not paying up. Given enough venal ruthlessness, Gardner finds, gangs find it relatively easy to gain control of a medium-sized burg, corrupt the police department, and stymie reform with bribes and violence.

The gritty noir setting and tone remind us of Gardner’s other series featured the PI duo of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Crime doesn’t not come out of everyday stuff like infidelity or personal indiscretions. Instead, the crime is the outcome of a complex criminal scheme. Gold Comes in Bricks (1940) is about an intricate fraud. Turn on the Heat (1940) examines the corruption of local politics: seedy cops, crooked politicians, co-opted news reporters, mean gangsters, and cowed citizens.  Top of the Heap (1952) is about gambling hells, income tax scams and fraudulent gold mines.  All Grass isn't Green (1970) is about the ins and outs of dope smuggling for criminal syndicates. Gardner took endless interest in process, such as how gangs succeed, how detectives ferret out information, how the cops manipulate and prime impressionable  eyewitness to misidentify blameless people as perps.

There are lapses in this Hesitant Hostess. We don't even get the name of Mason's client until the fourth chapter. Perry meets one of Drake’s operatives, talks to him at length, and we never get his name either. We are told Perry and Della win in a casino but are not told what they played. Chapters 3 and 16 are so long – unusually long for Gardner – that we wonder if Gardner just lost track of the length of his usual chapters.  The motive for framing Mason’s client rather wilts under scrutiny.

But I quibble. To both Mason fans and newbies, I highly recommend this mystery as one of the more tightly plotted and atmospheric Perry Mason novels from the Fifties.

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