Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, the crafty defense attorney in over 80 novels and short stories, and protagonist of a long-running 20th century TV series, has earned enough of a place in American cultural history that the popular cartoon “The Flintstones” even gave him a Stone Age counterpart in “Perry Masonry.” That many of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels are still in print affirms the fact that the title character (and the stories) are still relevant more than 75 years after their initial publication. Just what is it about Mason that continues to appeal to contemporary readers, and what can we learn from the bestselling mystery writer of the last century? As it turns out, a great deal, and on both counts.
One lesson we learn, in case we’ve forgotten, is that deductive reasoning combined with solid facts can and did solve fictional mysteries to a reader’s satisfaction even before great advances in forensic science, DNA testing, and cell phone tower tracking. The Case of the Lame Canary is an entertaining dip into our recent history–to a time when all night drugstores served as the most convenient venue for a quick phone call, Packard and Auburn automobiles were as much household words and Chevrolet and Ford, and while those cars were not equipped with air conditioning, they still came with ash trays.
Characters in Gardner’s Mason novels tend toward the stereotypical and one-dimensional, but as readers, it is important to keep in mind that these types were largely created by Gardner himself and serve as archetypes for much of 20th century detective fiction. From the murder victim who deserved to be murdered (thus the plausible throng of potential suspects) to the capable (and always attractive) Girl Friday (Della Street), we know these characters; we’ve grown up with them. Like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin and Christie’s drawing room denouements, they are a part of our cultural literacy, and Gardner writes these personalities with skill and aplomb.
While it may be tempting to view the characters and the formulaic nature of the novels dismissively, it is important to keep in mind that when Gardner published his novels, he was a pioneer in the detective fiction genre, in form as well as in formula. That said, The Case of the Lame Canary stands out among the body of Perry Mason cases for a number of reasons, one of which Mason himself points out with a decidedly postmodern awareness: “Most cases hit you an awful wallop right in between the eyes with a mess of complicated circumstances which gradually simplify themselves when you start unraveling them. This case starts out with a lame canary and goes on from there in a big way.” The case does, in fact, double back on itself more than once, and through the use of dual identities, mistaken identities, and impersonation, Gardner places the reader right in the center of the same complicated muddle that the fictional Mason is experiencing.
Alongside the by now well-worn representations of men as cads and women as dolls, identity remains a major theme throughout the novel, and at times, only the canary is what he seems to be. As a result, the novel is one of Gardner’s more literary endeavors and likely to endure as a standard of the 20th century detective genre. Fiction cannot live in a vacuum and readings change over time, and while we can no more measure Victorian fiction with a 20th century gauge than we can define 1930s fiction by 21st century standards, The Case of the Lame Canary, read with an awareness of its temporal context, will hold its own. Despite unrealistic dialogue, flat character development, and copious clichés, The Case of the Lame Canary is a good story told by one of the masters of the genre.
© M.T.Erickson 2013