The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

What’s bothering me is why the facts don’t fit together. Don’t ever fool yourself that facts don’t fit, if you get the right explanation. They’re just like jigsaw puzzles—when you get them right, they’re all going to fit together.”

What doesn’t fit in this case?” she asked.

Nothing fits.”

Complaints about howling dogs are little outside Perry Mason’s area of expertise. His new client Arthur Cartright is insistent, however, that his neighbor Clinton Foley is inciting his dog to bark for the specific purpose of annoying Cartright. It is obvious to Mason that there is more going on here than a simple dispute between neighbors. As the feud reaches its boiling point, a case that began with a howling dog is about to get much more complicated. Luckily, murder is all in a day’s work for Mason.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley GardnerThe Case of the Howling Dog is one of the best early Perry Mason novels. Its howling-dog setup is the purest possible example of the typical Mason plot, in which the brilliant attorney’s attention is captured by a strange but seemingly innocuous situation that quickly spirals out of control. As he battles for his client in the courtroom and on the front page, Mason will do anything within the law to win his case—and here, he comes closer to the edge than ever, committing a major ethical breach in service of his client.

When he arrives at Mason’s office, Arthur Cartright is clearly agitated. He claims that the incessant howling of Foley’s dog is driving him crazy. Foley counters with witnesses who swear the dog does not howl. Though Mason secretly wonders whether Cartright might be insane, this only strengthens his resolve to represent the interests of a vulnerable man, however minor his concern may seem to be. In addition, Clinton Foley’s over-the-top reaction to the complaint convinces Mason that there is more to their relationship than either man is willing to share.

Unlike the obviously weird Cartright, Foley seems to be normal enough, living a quiet life with his invalid wife Evelyn. Despite their large and prosperous home, the Foleys employ only two servants, housekeeper Thelma Benton and Chinese cook Ah Wong. (The treatment of Ah Wong is odd. Gardner seems to be setting him up for a significant role in the story, as well as laying groundwork for a critique of the treatment of immigrants, but then seems to forget all about it. Since this plot thread never goes anywhere, we are left only with the offensive initial setup.) Thelma Benton attracts Mason’s attention immediately: she is young and quite attractive, but seems to be intentionally making herself appear dowdier. She is also Foley’s star witness, insisting that his German shepherd Prince is a quiet animal.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner As Mason delves into the pasts of Cartright and Foley, he learns there is far more to the story than a dog that barks in the night. One mystery follows another, and every time Mason thinks he has a handle on the case, it throws him another curveball. For a long time he doesn’t even know who he’s supposed to be representing. Is it Arthur Cartright, Evelyn Foley, or someone else altogether? (This client, once the confusion is straightened out, proves to be that pearl beyond price—a client who actually obeys Mason’s instructions not to talk to police without a lawyer present. Over the decades, he has instructed every one of his 82 clients to keep quiet, but I can count on one hand the number who successfully manage it.)

One of the shocking things about Perry Mason’s early adventures is how much lying he does. Mason has absolutely no compunction about impersonation, bribery, manipulation, witness tampering, or just plain dishonesty, as long as it is technically legal. “This is on the up and up?” a skeptical accomplice asks. “It’s within the law,” Mason hedges. In The Case of the Howling Dog, he really goes all out. He stashes away witnesses, hires actors to impersonate suspects, leaks false information to the press, and so much more. In the process, he exposes his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake to potentially serious consequences. Of course, they are happy to sacrifice themselves for Mason, but he never even asks before embroiling them in these situations.

Mason’s other sidekick in this case is law clerk Frank Everly, who receives the benefit of his boss’s hard-earned legal knowledge. Mason’s philosophy is that a defense lawyer’s only moral obligation is to provide the best possible defense for their client. Anything else, as long as it doesn’t actually break the law, is fair game. It’s not enough to have facts on your side, either. An effective attorney must stage-manage a trial as if it were a play.

A jury is an audience. It’s a small audience, but it’s an audience just the same. Now, the playwrights who are successful with plays have to know human nature. They recognize the fickleness of the mass mind. They know that it’s incapable of loyalty, that it’s incapable of holding any emotion for any great period of time […]

Pick some dominant emotion if you want, but touch on it only for a few moments. Then swing your argument on to something else. Then come back to it. The human mind is like a pendulum: you can start it swinging a little at a time and gradually come back with added force, until finally you can close in a bust of dramatic oratory, with the jury inflamed to white rage against the other side. But if you try to talk to a jury for as much as fifteen minutes, and harp continually upon one line, you will find that the jurors have quit listening to you before you finish.

His methods don’t always hold up to cross-examination, however. When Everly points out to Mason that one of his shenanigans has discredited testimony that they both know to be truthful, Mason shrugs it off. It’s always interesting to get these glimpses behind the curtain. Mason presents his methods as pure pragmatism, without ever quite acknowledging how much he contributes to, and thrives upon, the circus-like atmosphere of the courtroom.

“I don’t like routine,” Mason admits. “I want excitement. I want to work on matters of life and death where minutes count. I want the bizarre and the unusual.” He certainly gets all of that and more in The Case of the Howling Dog, which combines Perry Mason’s trademark courtroom pyrotechnics with some startlingly cynical behind the scenes manipulations. Even on the very last page the twists keep coming. With its intricate mystery and superior legal drama, The Case of the Howling Dog is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s best.

Second Opinion

Mysteries Ahoy!

Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.

Vintage Pop Fictions

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Availability

The Case of the Howling Dog is available as an ebook and audiobook. The 1934 film version stars Warren William as Mason, in an appropriately rascally performance.

The Crime Coast (1929) by Elizabeth Gill

The Crime Coast by Elizabeth Gill

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It would be discouraging on the eve of a summer holiday to have an unknown man fall into one’s rooms and die on one.”

This holiday in the south of France was supposed to be a big adventure for Paul Ashby and his friends, their last hurrah before settling down to jobs and adulthood. Now the others have cancelled, leaving Paul to make the trip alone. He’s afraid he’ll have a dull time of it. He needn’t have worried.

The night before his departure, a stranger collapses on his doorstep. Major Kent was also planning a trip to France, to find his missing son, but his heart attack makes that impossible. Paul offers to undertake the search himself. This impulsive gesture plunges him into a world of artists, thieves, and killers on the French Riviera, guided by the irrepressible painter Benvenuto Brown. If he’s not careful, however, Paul may find himself the next victim. Continue reading “The Crime Coast (1929) by Elizabeth Gill”

The Swimming Pool (1952) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Swimming Pool by Mary Roberts Rinehart

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“What are you afraid of?” I demanded. “Don’t pretend to me, Jude. You’re scared to death. You’ve done something, haven’t you? Something wrong. Maybe something terrible. What is it?”

In the golden days of 1929, beautiful Judith Maynard held court over her admirers beside the swimming pool. Twenty years later, everything has changed for the Maynard family. Their father went broke and committed suicide, and siblings Lois and Paul are barely hanging on their decrepit country estate. Only Judith has remained the same, still lovely, still the center of attention.

Then Judith, too, begins to change. She abruptly divorces her rich, older husband. The darling of cafe society retreats to the isolated family house of her youth, shunning her friends and nailing her bedroom windows shut. Judith is terribly frightened of something, or someone. The swimming pool, once the site of girlhood triumphs, has become a special source of dread. When a dead body appears in the pool, mystery writer Lois must find out just what her sister was so afraid of. What she’s not prepared for is how far back into the past these sins will reach. Continue reading “The Swimming Pool (1952) by Mary Roberts Rinehart”

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer

The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Young man, I have had the good or bad fortune to have been in contact with several notorious and unsavory cases of homicide during the past two years. Perhaps the poor fellow over there looks like just another case of heart failure to you, but I’m getting so I can detect the very smell of murder.”

A lean forefinger wagged in O’Rourke’s face, and Miss Withers pronounced solemnly, “I can smell murder now!”

The man in brown never intended to take the seaplane to Catalina, but after missing the steamer, he has no choice. Anyway, the flight is only twenty minutes. Even a nervous flyer can handle that.

Suddenly, turbulence throws the man into a panic. “I’m dying,” he cries. “I don’t want to die!” Everyone thinks it’s a case of nerves, but by the time the Dragonfly lands, it carries eight living passengers and one corpse. The man in brown “hadn’t wanted to die, but he was dead.” Continue reading “The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer”

Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen

Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Ellery, this is killing for the sake of killing. The Cat’s enemies are the human race. Anybody on two legs will do. If you ask me, that’s what’s really cooking in New York. And unless we clamp the lid on this—this homicide, it’s going to boil over.”

Forget the dog days of August. In New York City, summer is the season of the Cat. A killer who “comes and goes like a breeze,” the Cat has brought the entire city to the edge of hysteria. There have been five victims so far, with nothing in common except their terrible ends, strangled to death with silk cords. No one is safe anywhere: not in the subway, not in the park, not even in their own beds.

Ellery Queen retired from detection after his last case went wrong, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims. Solving the Cat murders could lead to his redemption…unless failing to solve them becomes his downfall. Continue reading “Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen”

The Chinese Chop (1949) by Juanita Sheridan

The Chinese Chop by Juanita Sheridan

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

I was going to get out of that house. Something evil lived there. Too many people, under a façade of amicable companionship, were disguising ugly secrets.”

With her first novel accepted for publication, Janice Cameron sees the chance to reinvent herself in New York City. The New York housing market is tough, though, especially in the dead of winter. Enter Lily Wu, a fellow Hawaiian who is of Chinese descent. Lily is looking for someone to share a room in a Washington Square townhouse, a very specific house. Why does it have to be that house, Janice wonders, and why tonight? She soon learns that all of its residents have something to hide—and that includes her new roommate Lily. Continue reading “The Chinese Chop (1949) by Juanita Sheridan”

The Chuckling Fingers (1941) by Mabel Seeley

The Chuckling Fingers by Mabel Seeley

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Murder is something more than someone dead and someone a killer. I couldn’t get Jacqueline away now. Murder is a trap.”

Ann and Jacqueline are cousins who have always been more like sisters. Jacqueline’s marriage to wealthy lumberman Bill Heaton seems to promise her real happiness at last after the death of her first husband. So Ann is surprised to be summoned to the Heatons’ home on Lake Superior only weeks later, and even more shocked to find her cousin on the verge of a breakdown.

She learns that a number of strange events have been disturbing the Heatons, with the dark atmosphere centering around a rock formation known as the Chuckling Fingers. The stage seems set to repeat a decades-old family tragedy, unless Ann can save her cousin…and herself. Continue reading “The Chuckling Fingers (1941) by Mabel Seeley”

Die in the Dark (1947) by Anthony Gilbert

Die in the Dark by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“You see, Mrs. Watson, fear is a wild animal and during these last years he has been unleashed and has roamed through the world, biting and infecting.”

Of all the people who saw the advertisement, only two take special notice. To Emily Watson, it seems like exactly what she needs: a lovely home available for a woman of refinement, surrounded by a peaceful forest. Emily’s accommodating nature has led her to be taken advantage of by a sponging nephew and “temporary” roommate who won’t be dislodged. A cottage in the woods could be the refuge she is looking for.

To Arthur Crook, it looks like a murder waiting to happen. In her haste to escape a bad situation at home, Emily may be rushing headlong toward something even worse. Continue reading “Die in the Dark (1947) by Anthony Gilbert”

Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

Vultures in the Sky by Todd Downing

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“What began as a pleasure or business trip for most of us has turned unfortunately into an unpleasant and serious affair. I think the time has come for all of us to put aside our circumlocutions and acknowledge openly the fact that one of us in this car is a murderer.”

All of the passengers on the train to Mexico City are on edge. Maybe it’s the heat, or the vultures, or the railroad strike that has left their train the last one on the tracks. Treasury agent Hugh Rennert’s unease begins when he is approached by another traveler who overheard a strange conversation on the platform: “I’ll get off with you at Monterrey and you can get the money. If you don’t, I’ll blast the train on this trip […] Earrings and cuffs. Don’t forget the special edition.”

Then a tunnel plunges the train car into darkness. When they emerge into the light, one of the passengers lies dead. Continue reading “Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing”

Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

10 Stars (10/10 stars)

“I am afraid,” he said simply. “Yes, I Hercule Poirot, am afraid.”

Heiress Linnet Ridgeway has everything. She’s beautiful, rich, and completely independent. When she meets handsome Simon Doyle, her happiness is complete. The fact that Simon is engaged to her friend Jacqueline de Bellefort is surely just a technicality. Jackie doesn’t see it that way, however. She devotes herself to making the couple miserable, trailing them wherever they go.

As Linnet confides to Hercule Poirot, the newlyweds hope that a Nile cruise will help them escape Jacqueline. But Jacqueline isn’t the only one who might be dangerous to them. Someone like Linnet, who has so much of everything and takes it all for granted, provokes strong reactions. In the shadow of ancient temples, death has never been nearer, leading to a shocking crime. It won’t be easy for even the great Poirot to uncover a shipload of deadly secrets. Continue reading “Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie”