The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe was the thirteenth of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries, appearing in 1938, and it’s a particularly baroque example of the golden age detective story.
This is one of several Perry Mason books in which the famous lawyer becomes involved in a case before an actual murder has occurred. In this instance Mason initially becomes involved in what seems like a very minor if puzzling case of shoplifting. Perry and his secretary Della Street have taken shelter from a rainstorm in a department store restaurant. An elderly woman has been accused of shoplifting. Perry is exasperated by the store detective’s obvious ignorance of the law and intervenes successfully on her behalf, and then treats the woman and her niece to lunch. The woman’s name is Sarah Breel, but why was she shoplifting? She is a fairly prosperous widow and has never done anything like this before. Her niece Virginia Trent is a firm believer in Freudian psychological theories and explains her aunt’s odd behaviour in term of these theories. This affords Perry considerable amusement - he regards such theories with extreme scepticism.
Shortly afterwards Virginia Trent asks Perry Mason for help in somewhat stranger circumstances, involving her uncle’s indulgence in periodical alcoholic benders and some missing diamonds. Mason is intrigued by this family’s propensity for becoming mixed up in odd dramas and asks private detective Paul Drake to do a little digging on the subject. At this stage there’s no reason to suppose that any crime has been committed but Mason has a hunch that his services are likely to be required, and he’s right. Sarah Breel finds herself facing a charge of first degree murder.
When he was on top of his form Gardner could construct some delightfully outrageous plots, and he’s in very good form in this novel. The plots twists and turns in the most delightfully byzantine manner. There are two murders, two guns and two fatal bullets but the relationships between the murders, the guns and the bullets soon take on breath-takingly complex dimensions.
The climax comes in an extended courtroom sequence in which Perry Mason throws a series of curve balls that leave Detective-Sergeant Holcomb and Assistant DA Sampson reeling. It’s a bravura performance by Mason, and a bravura performance by Gardner as the plot twists get twistier and twistier.
While it’s perhaps not quite fair play, with Mason (and Gardner) having cards hidden up their sleeves, it’s still immense fun and the reader cannot help admiring the sheer inventiveness of the plotting.
Perry Mason is an interesting and slightly unusual golden age detective hero. He’s brilliant, but he differs from other equally brilliant fictional detectives in being somewhat morally ambiguous. His methods stretch legal ethics to breaking point and beyond, and in the early novels at least he is often guilty of conduct that is not merely unethical but positively illegal. In this respect he bears some resemblance to rogue heroes like Simon Templar who are happy to bend or even break the law in the interests of justice. Perry Mason is in some ways even more morally ambiguous - he puts the interests of his clients before the interests of justice. In fact his only real morality is that he won’t betray a client.
The early Perry Mason novels (I haven’t read any of the later novels) are dazzling and hugely enjoyable pyrotechnic displays. The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe is highly recommended.