Wed 26 Sep 2012
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece. William Morrow, hardcover, March 1936. Pocket 277, paperback, December 1944; 17th printing (shown to the right), July 1953. Reprinted several additional times, both hardcover and soft. TV episode: Perry Mason, 28 September 1957 (Season 1, Episode 2).
Veteran and long-time readers of detective novels always know what’s going to happen when the lights go out at night in a large house full of guests and two individuals decide to change bedrooms at the last minute. Warning bells go off every time, don’t they? They should. It never fails.
And when you have an uncle who’s been known to go sleepwalking before, carrying a large carving knife along with him, you also know exactly who’s going to be accused of the murder that occurs, don’t you? You needn’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question.
This was a very early case for Perry Mason, either the eighth or ninth. (The Case of the Stuttering Bishop was published the same year, but if Niece was published in March, my money would be placed on it being the earlier of the two, making it the eighth.) The Mason persona changed over the years, the harder-boiled version gradually becoming softer over time. The novels being serialized in The Saturday Evening Post may have had much to do with it, with the process accelerating even more when the TV series with Raymond Burr came along.
In Sleepwalker’s Niece Perry skates inside the boundaries of proper judicial behavior, and just barely. A key point in the murder is a question of timing. When was the murder knife in the locked cabinet when it should be and when it not there? Just to confuse matters a little, Perry buys an identical knife from a hardware dealer who just happens to be the fiancé of the secretary of the defendant, who also happened to be in the house the night of the murder.
And Perry of course has the knife along with him when the case goes to trial. There is a lot more to the book than the murder, though. Besides nearly a dozen possible suspects, or so it seems, there is also a pending divorce action, a case of business fraud, a neurologist who says the defendant’s nervous affliction is phoney, plus wills, pre-nuptial agreements and more.
It’s a complicated case, with all these ingredients in it, and it’s no wonder that from the bottom of page 201 to the top few lines of page 203 there is one solid chunk of text — a single paragraph without a break — which is what it takes for Perry to explain all the details to Della Street when the trial is over.
From me to you as a would-be reader of this novel, the moral of the tale is to keep an eye on Perry every single instant. He has rabbits in a hat he can pull out at any time, and he brings his own hat.
It might also be noted (so I will) that he and Della also have eyes on each other. It was fun to see Paul Drake pop into Perry’s office just in time to see Perry and his devoted secretary break away from each other after more than a peck on the cheek.