Saturday, February 1, 2020

Erle Stanley Garner’s The Case of the Curious Bride

The Case of the Curious Bride was the fifth of Erle Stanley Garner’s Perry Mason mysteries, appearing in 1934.

Perry Mason is of course famous for the flexibility of his legal ethics and in the early novels he pushes that flexility to extremes. He’s always careful not to cross the line into illegality but he sure does go very very close to that line. In this story he pulls some delightfully fancy tricks, persuading the Prosecution to torpedo its own case.

As usual Perry Mason gets involved before the murder takes place. A woman comes to his office to ask for legal advice of behalf of a friend. Obviously she is asking for the advice for herself and Mason makes it clear that he’s well aware of this and he’s not prepared to play such gamers. This hurts the woman’s pride and she storms out of the office. And then Mason, who despite being a lawyer does have a conscience, feels guilty. The woman needed help and he didn’t give it. So he decides he’s going to have to track her down before she gets herself into trouble.

Mason was certainly right to be worried that she’d get herself into trouble. Soon she’s facing a murder rap.

Rhoda Montaine’s problem is her marriage to Carl Montaine, a marriage that may or may not be invalid. This is because she presumed that her first husband Gregory Moxley was dead, but he’s far from dead and he’s going to be very troublesome. She has other problems as well. Carl’s father is a multi-millionaire, he dominates Carl completely and he does not approve of Rhoda. Carl himself is a big problem. Rhoda, a trained nurse, nursed him through a drug problem. He’s over the drug problem but it seems to have left his character even weaker than it already was. There’s also Dr Millsap, who is in love with Rhoda.

It’s no great surprise that Gregory Moxley winds up dead, permanently dead this time. Rhoda is the obvious suspect. The evidence seems overwhelming and Deputy D.A. Lucas can’t believe his luck - this time he can’t possibly lose, not even against Perry Mason.

Most lawyers faced with such clear-cut evidence against a client would despair but Perry Mason has some amazingly devious tricks up his sleeve this time. Seeing an unbreakable alibi destroyed is always fun but this novels offers a very clever variation on the theme. Of course it will only work if he can persuade the Deputy D.A. to walk into a trap, and there may be some minor ethical quibbles. In fact there may be some gigantic ethical quibbles.

And that marriage question will play a huge part in the trial as well.

District Attorney Hamilton Burger does not feature in this story. His first appearance will be in the sixth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye. In The Case of the Curious Bride Perry’s adversary is Deputy D.A. John Lucas, a similar although perhaps slightly more abrasive character. While we’re used to seeing Perry play fast and lose with legal ethics it has to be said that Lucas comes up with some dirty tricks of his own. The question is whether he can play such games as well as Perry Mason plays them.

Neither Lieutenant Tragg nor Sergeant Holcomb appear in this story, in fact there is no significant part payed by any particular police officer. Della Street and Paul Drake on the other hand were regular characters in the novels right from the start.

Gardner really is in fine form in The Case of the Curious Bride. Courtroom scenes can be dull in the hands of lesser writers but they’re never a problem for Gardner - he knows how to build up to the inevitable display of legal pyrotechnics from Mason. We can see that Mason is about to pull a rabbit out of the hat but we have no more idea than the luckless Deputy D.A. as to how he’s going to do it. This is a lovely piece of plotting and a very very enjoyable tale. Highly recommended.

The Case of the Curious Bride was adapted for the second season of the Perry Mason TV series so I thought that having just read the book it would be fun to watch the episode immediately afterwards. You can read my thoughts on the TV adaptation at Cult TV Lounge.

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