Monday, February 9, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #3

The Case of the Gold-digger's Purse - Erie Stanley Gardner, 1945

When Perry Mason’s confidential secretary, Della Street, peeks inside a red-headed gold-digger’s purse, she spies a roll of bills big enough to gag a mastiff – and the gun that killed businessman-heel Harrington Faulkner.

Mason and Della don’t feel it proper or opportune to burden the police with their knowledge. Then – too late – it dawns on them that Della’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon. The police regard the gold-digging ingenue and Mason and Della with the most profound suspicion.

Turns out that in order to raise funds her tubercular boyfriend needs for a sanitarium stay, the gorgeous but loyal gold-digger figures on separating the businessman-heel from a little of his dough. She offers the heel her BF’s cure for the heel’s sickly goldfish. Proving nobody is completely bad, the poor fishies with ick are the only creatures for which the heel has any human feelings. However, her plan goes ahoo when the fish vanish and Faulkner ends up shot to death still with shaving lather on his face.

Thus, Mason has to solve multiple disappearances: rare goldfish called Veiltail Moor Telescopes  a.k.a. “the Fish of Death,” a secret formula of an new ick remedy, a vanished bullet, and the real murderer.

In rating this 1956 mystery, the 26th Mason novel, I can give only a qualified thumbs-up. On the positive side, we readers enjoy the retro names (Adele, Genevieve, Elmer, tail-rot for ick) and retro artifacts (straight razors, fountain pens, cars with finicky chokes). The nemesis Lt. Tragg proves himself the worthy opponent. Gardner gets across points about the fallibility of the police and their unwitting misconstrual of evidence when they think they know who the perp is. In the last scene, Perry and Della do a victory waltz at a dance hall. Letting her guard slip, she calls him “darling.”

On the down side, Gardner spends time on characterization, a literary nicety he usually – wisely - subordinates to plot, a rapid pace, and a surprise solution. The result is a problem: we are given enough information on both victim and gold-digger that we readers detest both of them. The gold-digger – the little minx - gives Perry a mere perfunctory “thank you” for saving her life and the BF’s freedom. 

Gardner also complicates matters to the point where the red herrings start to smell bad. Plus, Gardner doesn't give us readers a fair chance to solve it before Perry reveals all.  A vital clue is given about five pages before the ending. Grrrr.

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