The Case of the Sulky Girl, published in 1933, was the second of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. Gardner was by no means a novice author - he’d been a prolific writer of pulp fiction for some years and was in fact one of the most popular contributors to Black Mask.
The Case of the Sulky Girl follows the standard formula that would make Gardner one of the most successful mystery writers in history. As anyone familiar with Gardner’s work can attest the adherence to formula was no bad thing - it was a formula that worked and Gardner’s mastery of plotting ensured that the reader would still find it a formidable challenge to match wits with Perry Mason.
A young woman seeks Perry’s advice in relation to a will. It’s not the sort of matter an eminent trial lawyer would normally concern himself with but the client’s manner intrigues him. She seems sulky - or is she actually in a panic and trying to cover it up?
Frances Celane is potentially a very rich young lady. Potentially, because the terms of that will mean that she could stand to inherit the very modest sum of $5,000 - or she could come into a fortune of more than a million dollars (fabulous wealth indeed in 1933). It all depends on her uncle who is also the trustee of her father’s estate. The will allows him an extraordinary degree of discretion. There is also a suggestion that Miss Celane is being blackmailed.
To call Frances Celane high-spirited would be an understatement of epic proportions. As Perry remarks to his faithful secretary Della Street, if Frances is not a hell-cat she’s certainly a hell-kitten.
As is usual in a Perry Mason mystery the famous trial lawyer gets involved in the case before a murder actually occurs. And a murder does most certainly occur. There’s one suspect with a very obvious motive, but that suspect has an alibi. There’s also an eyewitness to the murder. At least the eyewitness saw something, but what exactly did he see?
Gardner had a passionate belief in upholding the rights of accused persons and an equally passionate conviction that police officers and district attorneys rarely had much respect for those rights. His fictional alter ego shares those beliefs. The problem as Mason sees it is not corrupt cops or DAs (although some undoubtedly are corrupt). The real problem is ambitious opportunistic DAs who will quite cheerfully railroad a suspect all the way to the gas chamber to advance their careers, and over-zealous policemen who will pressure suspects into making statements and answering questions that in fact they are under no obligation to answer. In such circumstances (in Perry Mason’s view) a defence attorney need feel no moral qualms about cutting a few corners himself. In fact, particularly in the early Mason mysteries, the wily lawyer at times goes perilously close to breaking the law himself.
Having been a very successful trial lawyer himself Gardner not only understood the ins and outs of legal procedure he also had a profound understanding of the psychology of juries. Knowing the law is helpful but it’s not enough. A good lawyer has to be a consummate actor, a skilled strategist and a psychologist. Perry Mason is all of these things. Gardner could write courtroom scenes that are tense and exciting but what makes them particularly enthralling is that no matter how extravagant Mason’s style might be these scenes are legally soundly based. Mason’s legal tricks work because they’re the very legal tricks Gardner himself was notorious for using.
The courtoom scenes in The Case of the Sulky Girl are especially good as Mason lays elaborate traps for the unscrupulous but hapless DA.
Gardner has been criticised for the weakness of his characterisations, a criticism that is both tiresome and entirely irrelevant. Gardner wrote plot-centred mysteries and his plotting was masterful. In this particular case though Frances Celane does come across as an entertaining if perhaps not very deep character. Her uncanny ability to do just exactly what Perry Mason doesn’t want her to do and to dig herself an ever deeper hole provides quite a bit of fun.
It’s also odd that critics who get very excited about social comment in detective fiction haven’t noticed that there’s a great deal of such social comment in the Perry Mason stories, particularly in regards to troublesome and complex issues like the balance between law and order on the one hand and individual freedom on the other.
The Case of the Sulky Girl is classic Gardner - ingeniously plotted, fast-paced and with a wonderful bravura courtroom climax. Highly recommended.