Thursday, June 4, 2009

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It.

The Case of the Beautiful Begger (1965), by Erle Stanley Gardner

In the 80 or so Perry Mason novels Gardner pumped out, I don’t think the formula ever varied at all. Someone would come to Mason about a legal matter of some sort. While Mason was dealing with that, someone would be murdered. Mason’s client would be accused and the lawyer would have to uncover the real killer’s identity to win his case.

But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Gardner was a masterful storyteller, able to concoct infinite variations on this theme. The Mason novels are plot-driven, dialogue-heavy tales that are quick and fun to read, dripping with entertaining plot twists.

In Beautiful Begger, a young woman comes to Mason for help after her rich uncle has been declared mentally incompetent by greedy relatives. Mason, as he always does, goes all out for his client—even when his client isn’t really playing ball with him.

In this case, his client’s primary concern is helping her uncle. To this end, she takes it on herself to pretty much bust him out of the sanitarium in which he’s been confined. This, in turn, makes Mason’s job that much more difficult.

It’s not long before someone turns up dead and the young lady is arrested for murder. But Mason soon comes up with a ploy (involving tampering—but not really tampering—with evidence) to trick the real killer into revealing himself.

Gee whiz, this is fun stuff. Mason is a smart, likable protagonist. There’s not a lot of deep characterization here, but little touches (like Mason giving a large tip and making a special point of verbally thanking his waitress after getting good service in a restaurant) help make the various cast members seem real.

But Gardner’s incredible skills at sound plot construction and basic storytelling are what really carry the novel along. Erle Stanley Gardner could not have written a boring Perry Mason novel if he tried.

Next time, we’ll see what Belgium sleuth Hercule Poirot is up to in The ABC Murders.

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