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Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll

The Case of the Foot-Loose Doll by Erle Stanley Gardner

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Usually mysteries starring super-lawyer Perry Mason open in Mason’s office. However, Gardner departs from custom with one of the longest first chapters that he ever wrote in his 75- Mason-book output. In the initial chapter, about ten percent of the book, he tells the odd story of Mildred Crest and the mess she landed in.

A working woman, Mildred receives a double blow. Her fiancée breaks their engagement and vanishes with funds he purloined from his accounting firm.  She then does what lots of Americans do when they are agitated: she jumps into her car and drives around aimlessly.

Distraught and thus distracted from noticing another person is as desperate as she is, she gives a girl hitchhiker a lift. The hitchhiker grabs the wheel and the car plunges down into a Southern California abyss. Mildred then does what anybody would when presented with the chance to start a new life. She assumes the identity of the dead hitchhiker.

The problem, of course, is that we should be really picky about just whose identity we filch. The hitchhiker has a past. It catches up with Mildred in the guise of a blackmailing PI. The dodgy PI gets an icepick in his chest.  Poor Mildred, who has just made a couple unfortunate choices anybody could’ve chosen, finds herself up against charges that she snuffed both the hitchhiker and the blackmailer.

Like Dame Agatha, Gardner was not a producer of pretty prose. For instance, in this one his subtle wit names a hotel Vista del Camino – A View of the Road. What distinguishes his writing is the sheer narrative power – once started, must finish! Also, he plays lots of enjoyable tricks with two bullets or multiple guns so in this one it is six – count ‘em, six – icepicks.

To me, the lasting attraction of Gardner’s fiction is that the deadly issues of improper police procedures, eyewitness misidentification and incorrect understanding of circumstantial evidence are still dangerous issues for people today who wittingly or not fall afoul of our criminal justice system. Recall, it is a system that is staffed by human beings, entities not known for perfection.

Persuaded in their own minds that Mildred is the perp, the police manipulate and prime an impressionable  eyewitness to misidentify Mildred as the one who bought the icepicks.  And witnesses may testify falsely, though they will swear up and down they are telling the truth (the research on witness unreliability turned my hair white). Because juries and judges are unduly receptive to eyewitness evidence, wrongful convictions are frequently caused by witness misidentifications.  Usually circumstantial  evidence – when it is correctly construed – is the best evidence. But in this story, the DA’s office misinterprets such evidence.

It’s an existential issue: cops, witnesses, juries, and judges may be convinced they are doing the right thing, but the reality is that they may be doing some poor joker – or Cousin Scooter, or you, or me  – a monstrous injustice. Hoo-boy. Who needs to read about ordinary people that make the usual unfortunate decisions and end up dealing with a hostile universe in Simenon, Camus or Sartre when you can read Erle Stanley Gardner?

 

 

 

 

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