Monday Memories: The Case of The Lucky Loser


This is the seventh of my Monday Memories series of posts. In these posts, I pull a book off my shelf, somewhat randomly, and tell you a bit about it. It's not a review of the book so much as a memory of the book, a bit about what might have been going on in my life when I read it, and my thoughts on who might like this book. 

The Book

The Case of the Lucky Loser, a Perry Mason mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner, Third Printing by Ballantine Books, August 1991. This edition published by arrangement with William Morrow and Company, Inc. Manufactured in the United States of America. Copyright 1956, 1957.

Why This Book?

I've been struggling about what book to pull off my shelf this week. Honestly, I'm also kind of up for a change of pace in my reading - I'm reading a science fiction ARC right now that's a break from the non-fiction books I've been reading. 

So, I wanted a book for this post that was completely different than last week's businesslike financial investing book, and one that also said "Hey - I'm not ALWAYS that serious non-fiction reading nerd!" 

That's what led me to the bookcase with all my non-fiction books, where I pulled this one down, and I thought, "Well, that's the book for this week."

What's This Book About?

From memory:
It's a Perry Mason mystery! What's not to like?

From perusing the book after I pulled it off the shelf:
Most of my favorites are in this one - Perry, Della and Paul of course (they don't need last names, do they?), and Hamilton Burger, the not so smart prosecutor. Lieutenant Tragg isn't in this one though.

Anyway, there's an initially mysterious woman who engages Perry to observe a court trial, there's her husband, the heir to a "vast industrial empire", there's a hit and run accident that may have been a "frame up", and then there's Gardner's writing, which takes you through lots of twists and turns, and moves along so fast it sucks you right in. I almost re-read the entire book!

Just like his character Perry Mason, I find Gardner himself a rather fascinating character. A lawyer in California who enjoyed strategizing and appearing in court, he began writing for pulp magazines in the 1920s. His detectives, Cool and Lam, were the subjects of a series of books published under the pen name A.A. Fair - one of at least seven pen names he wrote under. His first Perry Mason novel appeared in 1933, at which point he left his legal career. Beyond the Mason books, he also wrote for TV, radio and movies. In the 1950s he became very interested in forensic science and investigative procedures. He founded what he called "The Court of Last Resort", a project seeking to reverse miscarriages of justice, which led to a short TV series of the same name. Gardner married twice, and had one daughter. He died of cancer in 1970 at his ranch in Temecula, CA. At the time of his death he was the best selling American writer of the 20th century.

What Was Going On In My Life When I Read This?

In my twenties and thirties reading had to compete with work and a pretty active social life, so my time with books wasn't what it is today. When I bought this book I would have been in my early 30s and living in Evanston, IL. Evanston, right next door to Chicago, is blessed with an abundance of book shops. I did find the time to spend some of my weekend hours happily perusing one shop after another buying up both used and new books.

My taste in books back then was more eclectic than it is now, I think. I read a bunch of Don DeLillo, everything Anne Rice wrote, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City - the book is MUCH better than the movie), Tama Janowitz, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon (I loved Mysteries of Pittsburgh), Tom Clancy, William Gibson, Larry Niven, and a bunch more. 

But my guilty pleasure reads were definitely Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books. They may be formulaic, or overly simplistic, or whatever other pulp-ish synonym you want to throw at them. But the Perry Mason books are also fun, quick reads with their own style, evoking a nostalgia for a time in America that never really was. For easy entertainment, immersing myself in a Perry Mason book fit the bill, and since they are short enough to be read in a day, they fit my available reading time back then as well. 

I started buying them at a chain bookstore that had moved into downtown Evanston. Ballantine was republishing all Gardner's books with new covers, and in sequence. I first started buying them when the series had been coming out for a year or more, so I could pick up three or four at a time. But they are such quick reads that I soon caught up to Ballantine's publishing schedule, and then I had to wait to get my next Perry Mason fix. 

It was just like binging a series on Netflix and then having to wait and wait for the next season to drop. But 25 years earlier than Netflix. And with books. For me, the guilty-pleasure binge didn't stop until I had bought every Perry Mason book I could find - I just counted and I have 66 different Perry Mason titles on my bookshelf! According to Wikipedia, there were 82 Perry Mason books altogether, so I have a few more to find.

Why Would Someone Like This Book?

You can still buy new editions of the Perry Mason books. A series of six of the titles was issued by Mysterious Press as a tie-in to the 2020 HBO series, which is taking Mason back to his 1930s roots. If you only know Perry Mason from the 1950s TV show, these books would be a good place to start finding out why Gardner's Mason books have sold over 300 million copies.

So that's my "Monday Memories" book post for this week. What's your guilty pleasure read? Leave a comment below.