The Case of the Careless Kitten appeared in 1942 and was the twenty-first of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. The famous lawyer finds that solving this particular crime will depend on his understanding of feline psychology.
Helen Kendal receives an unexpected message from her Uncle Franklin. The message is unexpected because Franklin Shore disappeared ten years earlier and is presumed dead. Even more surprising is that Uncle Franklin wants her to contact Perry Mason. Soon afterwards a man is found dead. It’s clear that his murder has something to do with Franklin’s disappearance but what the connection might actually be is obscure, even to Perry Mason.
Helen’s kitten has just survived a poisoning attempt. It’s just as well he survives since that kitten will later provide Perry Mason with a very crucial piece of evidence. Someone has also tried to poison Helen’s Aunt Matilda. The elderly and imperious Matilda has been insisting for ten years that her husband Franklin is not really dead and she has obstructed every attempt to probate his will.
This novel follows the standard Gardner formula pretty closely. Which is no bad thing - Gardner’s formula was a very effective one and he demonstrated great skill in varying it enough to keep things interesting. As usual Mason takes on a client who soon falls under police suspicion. As usual Mason is not content merely to defend his client but undertakes his own investigation with assistance from his faithful secretary Della Street and private eye Paul Drake (and in this case from a careless but very helpful kitten).
Gardner had been a very successful trial lawyer whose own methods were as unconventional (and as effective) as Perry Mason’s. A courtroom scene is an essential element in the Gardner formula. He was smart enough to realise that while such courtroom scenes could be dramatic it was important not to let them run on too long and, even more importantly, it was essential that they should actually advance the plot.
This novel further develops the tense adversarial relationship between Mason and District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Burger strongly disapproves of Mason’s unconventional and exceptionally flexible approach to the criminal law and in this book the conflict between the two men comes to a head. In fact Perry Mason actually goes close to losing his temper, and is moved to offer a vigorous moral defence of his methods. Mason’s argument is that constitutional protections have been slowly but inexorably undermined and that this raises a very serious danger that the law could be used as a tool of political oppression. Mason is so passionate about this that the reader can reasonably conclude that Gardner shared his fictional hero’s concerns about the vulnerability of political freedom. Mason’s conclusion is that the danger is so great that lawyers are justified in taking a very bold and courageous approach to defending their client’s rights.
It goes without saying that Burger’s hostility inspires Perry to push his unconventional methods to the limit. It also seems to inspire a real edge of bitterness. Making Perry Mason angry is not a very wise thing to do.
One intriguing feature of the Perry Mason novels is the number of times that animals provide vital clues - a kitten in this book, a parrot in The Case of The Perjured Parrot, a canary in The Case of the Lame Canary and there’s at least one Perry Mason novel involving a dog. It’s an interesting technique - after all an animal is a witness that cannot deliberately lie.
Gardner began his career as a hardboiled writer for the pulps. The influence of the hardboiled school is apparent in the very early Perry Mason mysteries but his overall approach in the Mason books places Gardner firmly in the puzzle-plot tradition of the golden age of detective fiction. And Gardner was very good indeed at puzzle plots. Towards the end Della expresses her frustration that Perry’s solution of the mystery seems so obvious once it’s explained, and it has to be said that the vital clues are all laid out in plain sight. Although it does help if you have a basic understanding of cat behaviour!
The Case of the Careless Kitten represents Gardner at the top of his form. Highly recommended.