Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (1935) by Erle Stanley Gardner

This isn’t my first Perry Mason, but it is my first Perry Mason novel.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye is a ride. The book opens with a man named Peter Brunold coming to Mason for help. Brunold says that one of his artificial eyes was stolen, and he’s afraid that it could be planted at the scene of “a crime--a burglary, or, perhaps, a murder.” Mason agrees to help…by making a bunch of other fake eyes to presumably plant at crime scenes.

Our hero.

In the next chapter, he agrees to help a spineless whelp pay back money he embezzled. In the next, while trying to help the aforementioned young man, gets consulted on how to end a marriage without letting the husband know. In the next chapter, he gets called the scene of an assault and finds the husband (who’s also the man the guy in the second chapter was embezzling from) shot to death...with a glass eye clutched in his hand.


I’ll be honest, this is not a fair play mystery. You can follow Mason’s logic about why he suspects the killer, but there’s no real evidence pointing to them. What this book is is an exercise in watching Mason give shady advice, stay five steps ahead of everyone, and play legal games. In the course of this novel, Mason:

  • Tells a woman who planted a gun at a crime scene how to avoid the police and media
  • Has a conversation that involves the following (paraphrased) exchange: "Let's assume my client committed embezzlement." "He literally confessed." "My client can say whatever he wants; I don't make confessions."
  • Gives a witness to murder his car so she can go to his office and he can get a statement before the police can
  • Impersonates a window washer to talk to a witness
  • Stumbles on a dead body, plants an eye at the scene, then manipulates the police (who are tailing him, admittedly) into finding it

All of this culminates in a final courtroom gambit that is magnificent. It’s amazing; the instant you realize what (you think he’s) doing, you’ll laugh out loud. Honestly, his end goal wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be, but the build-up to it is wonderful.

The book isn’t perfect. The plot moves at 100 miles an hour and some of the parts fall off along the way. There are moments that build up suspicion or mystery that end up not meaning anything. For example, there’s one bit at the end of the first chapter (ROT13: Oehabyq tbvat cnyr ng gur fvtug bs Uneel) that never gets explained. But the main framework holds up, and frankly the ride is fun enough that these threads didn’t bother me much. This was a great book that wetted my appetite for more Mason novels. Recommended!

Other reviews: Ah, Sweet Mystery! and Mysteries Ahoy!

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