Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Case of the Negligent Nymph - Erle Stanley Gardner

I must have read twenty-five or thirty of Erle Stanley Gardner’s eighty Perry Mason novels during my teen years in the mid-1960s. I don’t remember specific titles anymore, but I do remember being fascinated by the Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake characters and what a great team they made. The legendary courtroom battles that Perry Mason always won were the icing on the cake that introduced me to the legal thriller genre, a genre I’ve enjoyed off-and-on to this day.

So I thought I knew what to expect when I decided to read Gardner’s 1950 Perry Mason novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph. But I was only partially correct, and now I wonder if this one is truly representative of my reading experience all those years ago. In this one, Mason inadvertently becomes a participant in the crime of a woman he will shortly find himself defending in court – all the while trying to cover up the fact that he is the unknown “accomplice” who plucked the woman burglar from the water as she tried to make her escape. (I’m no lawyer, but is that even ethical?)

But before long, Mason has more to worry about than his accidental participation in a home burglary. The bodies start falling and his client, despite all the good counsel she receives from Mason, follows none of it. Instead, she seems determined to drag her lawyer deeper and deeper into a complicated plot that could very easily see both of them ending up in prison. Perry Mason deeply regrets his instinct to help the woman escape the vicious guard-dog that was rapidly gaining on her in the deep water. But, really, what else could he have done?

Erle Stanley Gardner
Gardner managed to pack a rather complicated plot into what is a relatively short novel (the 1968-vintage paperback I read has 215 pages), but the lack of space for character development sometimes makes it difficult to remember which is which and how they tie into the plot. I would, in fact, recommend that readers take a moment to jot down the names of each new character as they encounter them, along with a brief description of who they are and how they fit in. I wish I had done that because it would have helped.

That brings me to my main quarrel with Gardner’s approach to The Case of the Negligent Nymph (other than the dangling participle or two that jumped out at me). The novel ends rather abruptly, after a farce of a courtroom section that was borderline silly, with the reader still not in possession of all the pertinent facts. Gardner then rather clumsily has Perry Mason expose some of the missing pieces by reading a long newspaper article aloud to Della Street. That is followed by a conversation between Mason, Della, and Paul Drake during which the gloating Mason provides the rest of the missing information. Frankly, I felt a bit cheated as a reader that I had to learn some of the key elements of the story at the same time Mason was explaining it to the novel’s other two recurring characters. Please, crime writers, show me, don’t tell me.

Bottom Line: The Case of the Negligent Nymph was a disappointment to me, but I do wonder if I would have actually enjoyed this one as a fifteen-year-old. Maybe it’s just that I’m a more mature reader now than I was when I read all those other Perry Mason novels. I do have on hand another Perry Mason novel, this one called The Case of the Haunted Husband, that I plan to read soon. I’m hoping for a better reaction to that one.

6 comments:

  1. While I've watched several episodes of Perry Mason on TV, I've never actually read any of the books. Although I think I have a copy of The Case of the Calendar Girl floating around my house somewhere. I should find it and give it a read and see how it measures up to this one. :)

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    1. I'd be curious, Lark, to see if it's better written than this one. I haven't seen a dangling participle in a published book in years - and the main one I spotted in this one was hilarious. Can't believe the editors missed it back then.

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  2. Goodness me this takes me back to watching Perry Mason every single week all those years ago. These days I don't care for court cases in books so I probably would not read this, shame you were disappointed though. I gather they've made or are making a new TV series?

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    1. I'm always hesitant about re-reading something from the distant past in case it just doesn't hold up to my memories. And that's what happened this time, but I'm going to go ahead and give it that one more try.

      No new series. I just happened upon an old paperback from 1968 I didn't even remember ever having and decided to read it. I found the one other one I've mentioned as a freebie on Amazon Prime.

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  3. :) Remembering Perry Mason is a bit of a time warp. I've never read the books, but the I know the feeling of disappointment on re-reading a book years later.

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    1. It's that time warp aspect of Perry Mason that made me give it a try, Jenclair. Not sure how wise it was...but it was interesting.

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