Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Case of the Fiery Fingers

The Case of the Fiery Fingers – Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner turned out 80-some novels starring lawyer Perry Mason. There’s bound to be a few clunkers. So, chary readers new to Gardner may wonder which is a good ‘un. I’d highly recommend The Case of the Fiery Fingers (1951).

A practical nurse tells Perry that she suspects that a husband is going to do in his invalid wife. She asks Perry’s advice on how to prevent the murder. The sneaky husband, however, gets the drop on the LPN by having her arrested for theft. In an outstanding courtroom scene in Chapter Five, Perry defends his client by hilariously twisting a witness in knots. Chapter Five is one of the longest and best chapters Gardner ever wrote.

The invalid wife is indeed ushered out of this vale of tears before her time. Perry defends the victim’s sister, who is looking at the gas chamber like a rabbit looks at headlights.  As Perry gets ready for the trial, the despondent client is no help at all. Other client and police shenanigans must be endured by Perry, his secretary Della Street, and the PI Paul Drake.

Gardner’s strong point is his ability to tell a story briskly and concisely with a minimum of character development, stripped down exposition, and tons of dialogue. While his novels have flashes of humor, Gardner is not a funny guy. But in The Case of the Fiery Fingers he’s uncharacteristically droll. He describes Paul’s typical posture:  “Drake jackknifed himself into the overstuffed chair, swung his knees up over the arm, clasped his hand behind his head, and eyed Mason with a bored indifference that was completely deceptive.”

Perry speeds and turns recklessly so Paul drives. But in one scene Della drives as maniacally as Perry. “You’re hitting fifty and not giving a damn about anything” Paul yelps. Della coolly replies “Well, I get you there in less time, so you don’t suffer so long, Paul.”
Besides respecting women who drive as expertly as Danica Patrick, Gardner liked a healthy woman with a healthy appetite. Della orders “a nice thick steak done medium rare, a stuffed, baked Idaho potato with lots of butter, some toasted French bread, a bottle of Tipo Chianti . . .” Ah, 1951 – when only health food enthusiasts worried about carbs.

Also, along “good old days” lines, this novel has keen retro expressions like “the little minx,”  “as tough as taxes,” and  “set one’s cap on somebody.” The characters sport evocative names like Nathan, Imogene, Harvey, Virginia, Georgiana and Marta.

Readers toying with the idea of reading a Perry Mason novel won’t go wrong with The Case of the Fiery Fingers.

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