ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Troubled Trustee. William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1965. Pocket, paperback, 1967; many subsequent printings. Ballantine, paperback, April 1995.


   If you’d care to know how a mystery writer whose career began back in the 1920s felt about hippies, beatniks and the “love revolution,” look no further. The trustee to a young girl’s estate is in the process of hiring Perry Mason to represent him (page 6):

    “At the time of her father’s death, the people with who Desere was running around with had long hair, wore beards, had dirty fingernails, were left-wing idealists, and looked down on her as an heiress. They dipped into her money right and left, patronized her and considered her a square. She went overboard trying to live up to their ideals so they’d respect her. They took her money but always looked on her as an outsider. She’s a sensitive young woman who was hurt, lonely, and eager to be accepted as one of the crowd.”

   And so for four years Kerry Dutton has been in charge of what’s called a spendthrift trust for her, but he’s made not a single accounting for it, and all of the investments he’s made using the money are in his name. Which he did for the best of motives. He’s in love with her. Later, on page 12, Perry Mason is discussing the situation with Della, his long-time confidential secretary:


    “Sometimes,” Della Street said, choosing her words carefully as though she had rehearsed them, “a woman will be close to a man for a long time, seeing him in the part he has cast for himself and, unless he makes some direct approach, not regarding him as a romantic possibility.”

   If Della had any other implications in mind, they seem to have eluded Perry altogether.

   Some short while back, I reviewed a book by Gardner’s alter ego A. A. Fair, and if I may quote myself, what I said at the time was that his “strong point was plotting.” That was Kept Women Can’t Quit, which came out in 1960. Here is it five years later in Gardner’s career, and unless I missed something — several somethings, as a matter of fact — the best I can call the plotting is sloppy.

   On page 103, a courtroom witness seems to know about the $250,000 Dutton has accrued in his own account, based on the money entrusted to him; yet on page 128, the judge is astonished to have Dutton testify that he had done so, and I don’t even see how the previous witness could possibly have known.


   Chapter 17 centers around a witness who claims he heard a shot just before putting on the ten o’clock news, which is not really time enough to help Perry’s client, but somehow Perry thinks it does. And on page 149, when the witness appears in court, he says he heard the shot just before the nine o’clock news. Hamilton Burger jumped to his feet to strike out the testimony, and so did I.

   There’s more. On page 93, Perry learns that the murder victim had been at one time briefly questioned about a murder that took place in a rooming house where he was staying, but fortunately he had an alibi. On page 171, it turns out that were a whole series of such rooming house murders, that he had lived in two of them, and that the police had “descended on him like a ton of bricks.”

   And if you were to allow me to continue just a little longer, I’d say that there is a huge chew of coincidence still to come, one so large that it takes a couple of sizable gulps and another big swallow to get it down.

   It’s all fixable, except for perhaps the latter, and of course you do have to realize that coincidences like this one actually happen. All in all, though, I really think Gardner was coasting with this one, and he was making it up as he went along. And he never went back to tidy up the loose ends.

— September 2003

[UPDATE] 01-28-12.   It’s been too long since I wrote this review for me to remember the details, especially those dealing with the points I brought up as examples as poor plotting. I wish I’d been clearer about each of them at the time, when they were still fresh, because to me now, it sounds as though I may have been sounding off on very minor discrepancies.

   I don’t think I was, however, so I haven’t edited this review to delete them or change anything I said. If you’re reading a detective novel in which the clues, the timing of events and the testimony of witnesses is important, then so are the details, and that’s the point of my review.

   I wrote this rather negative assessment, as I recall, with a great deal of reluctance. Gardner was the first “grown-up” author that I ever read. I still remember being allowed the first time into the adult section of the local library and seeing a The Case of the Lucky Legs on the shelf. I grabbed it, took it home with me, and I thought it was terrific.

   As for Gardner’s opinion of the hippie movement, he was 76 at the time, and I might suggest that in the mid-60s no one over 30 understood either the Love Generation or the Sexual Revolution, except for the long hair and scruffy beards.