Book Report: The Case of the Cautious Coquette by Erle Stanley Gardner (1949)

This book contains not only the titular Perry Mason novel, but two other novellas featuring the sleuth. Theses stories are almost sixty years old, but Perry Mason stories are almost timeless. As a matter of fact, I used them as an example in the the March/April issue of The Writer’s Journal:

Are you writing a story with a short shelf life, or an allegory on human nature for all time? Regardless of what you intend to write, the details you include might inadvertently determine whether you’re an Erle Stanley Gardner; whose Perry Mason novels remain accessible and relevant decades after he wrote them, or a Justin Thyme, whose works connect with this year’s audience but will seem as dated as a Baltimore Orioles world championship in ten years….

How timeless are they? One of the suspects is an inventor:

“What does he invent?”
“Oh, lots of little gadgets. He’s made money out of some them.”
“What sorts of gadgets?”
“Well, right now he’s working on something in connection with infra-red rays. Before that, he worked out a device that opens and closes doors and does things like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“It works with invisible light, what I think they call black light. A beam runs across the room and as soon as some object corsses that beam it closes a circuit and does things–oh, for instance, like making electrical contacts so that the minute you walk into the house the elextric stove clicks on and starts cooking, the radio turns on, and lights come on, and … I don’t know, Mr. Mason, I think it’s just a gadget. So many of his things are scientifically fine, but impractical when you want to work on them.”

That’s not so far-fetched now, is it? We still don’t have those things commonly in homes, but they’re available and feasible. The language itself is more archaic than the plots or the characters, with all the talk of infra-red rays, black light, and lots of Gosh!

The stories are more whodunit than the most whodunit of the Lucas Davenport novels (recently reviewed here and here), but sometimes the plots have to be a bit contrived to get there. Within the brevity of these stories, it’s good.

A quick rundown of plots:

  • “The Case of the Cautious Coquette”: A simple hit and run tort case turns dangerous when two people “come clean” as the hit and run driver, and a woman named as a witness has her first husband inconveniently die of a gunshot wound in her garage.
  • “The Crimson Kiss”: A friend from Della’s hometown is going to be married, but is implicated in a murder of another Lothario.
  • “The Crimson Swallow”: A wealthy client comes to Mason to hire him to protect his new wife from whatever made her flee. A jewelry theft muddies the waters, as does the death of a potential blackmailer.

One thing these novels seem to indicate is divorce is bad for you. Ex-husbands die a lot.

Books mentioned in this review: