“You’ve never been in a case before where an officer was killed in the line of duty. Take my advice and don’t get in one. Things happen in cases of that sort. You could get hurt. You will get hurt.”
After a tough deposition, Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street are looking forward to a quiet dinner at their favorite restaurant. When they arrive, however, the owner is upset by a strange event. His new waitress, Dixie Dayton, just ran out in the middle of a shift, leaving her mink coat behind. Even a ratty mink like this one is beyond the means of a waitress—how did Dixie get this coat, and why would she abandon it? And why is her boss Morris Alburg so worried?
Mason is soon juggling two potential clients who may be connected to the murder of a police officer, a situation that will put his legal skills to the test.
The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink is the thirty-ninth Perry Mason novel, but Erle Stanley Gardner still has plenty of new tricks up his sleeve. The overall setup sticks to a long-established formula: Mason, Della, and private investigator Paul Drake team up to outwit police lieutenant Tragg and prosecutor Hamilton Burger in defense of their client, who is always innocent. Instead of a glorious legal showdown, however, this case is cracked outside of the courtroom, with shocking results. The hardboiled shenanigans are a lot of fun, even if the solution relies too much on previously unrevealed information.
The Mason novels demonstrate optimism about the concept of the American justice system, tempered by a profound and justifiable distrust of its reality. Unlike his television counterpart, the literary Perry Mason walks some very mean streets, often pushing the boundaries of ethics in the service of frankly shady clients.
“I have a distorted idea of what goes on. I’ve seen too many contracts lead to lawsuits. I’ve seen too many marriages terminate in divorce courts. I’ve seen too many differences of opinion that have resulted in murder…A lawyer never gets to hear the details of a normal, happy marriage. He never gets to see a contract that terminates without a difference of opinion, and with both sides absolutely satisfied. So what? He becomes a cynic.”
Mason’s flashy legal maneuvering, while exhilarating to the reader, hasn’t won him any friends in the police department. Some feel that he abuses the letter of the law to get criminals off; if he ever puts a foot wrong, they’ll show him no mercy, especially if he’s defending a cop killer. Even the usually friendly Lieutenant Tragg has his knives out for this case. “You’ve cut corners before,” Tragg warns. “You’ve managed to get away with it because they were cases where you were in the right. If you’d been in the wrong you’d have been lashed to the mast.” Tragg is savage here.
Gardner’s special writing style, simultaneously pulpy and pedantic, is given free reign.
“I thought you were a shrewd criminal lawyer who knew his way around. You talk like a reformer. I might as well write to Prudence Penny and say, ‘My dear Miss Penny: What shall I do? There is a gunman who wants to kill me. He’s almost succeeded twice in the last twenty-four hours, and now I know where I can put my finger on him. What should I do?’”
[Mason:] “And instead of saying, ‘rub the guy out,’ Prudence Penny would say, ‘My dear Miss Whosis: You must remember that we have laws to take care of people of that sort. You should consult the authorities at once and tell them about your danger. They’ll know what to do.’”
The story zips right along, propelled by entertaining verbal sparring between the characters, including a large and lively supporting cast. Yet at any moment, the narrative can take a hard left into “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”-style prose, describing mundane activities in the greatest possible detail. Perhaps this is because the inner lives of these characters can never be known, only their outer appearance and actions. What Perry Mason hopes and dreams we will never find out. All we can hope to learn is exactly how Perry Mason opens his mail and picks up his car at the parking lot.
Most of the time there’s a certain clunky, legalistic charm to all this, but The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink makes a serious error by devoting so much time to the restaurant visit early on. Though some may be delighted by this glimpse into the characters’ personal lives, I am honestly not here for a pages-long description of Mason ordering a steak in the very first chapter. Fortunately, the book improves rapidly once they make it out of the restaurant, but it’s a tough slog at the start.
After that first hurdle, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink reveals itself as one of the most striking and unusual Perry Mason novels. It’s much more action-oriented than was usual by this point in the series, in some ways a throwback to the more rough-and-tumble titles of the 1930s. It is frustrating that the one courtroom scene is relatively short and unresolved. Della Street also plays a smaller role than usual, as Mason decides early on that this case is too “hardboiled” for a woman. (In fairness, he comes to this conclusion while Paul Drake is being worked over by vice cops in a seedy hotel room.) Still, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink provides a jolt of vitality for a long-running series and keeps the reader guessing until the last, shocking line.
The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink is available in ebook format in the US from Della Street Press and in paperback and ebook formats in the UK from the Murder Room