"When you once get the correct master pattern, every single event fits into that pattern. It dovetails with every other event which impinges upon it. When you get a master pattern which seems to accommodate all of the events except one, and you can't make that event fit in, it's pretty apt to mean that your master pattern is wrong."- Perry Mason
The infamous courtroom conjurer, Perry Mason, has an admitted lack of interest in routine cases, but suspects that the problem that's bugging John L. Witherspoon has some points of interest – revolving around a murder presumed to have been solved and the murderer was hanged by the neck twenty years previously. And that's the premise of Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942).
John Witherspoon is a wealthy patrician who prefers that the ancestry of his future son-in-law can be traced back to the passengers aboard the Mayflower, which becomes a problem when Marvin Adams, the love interest of his daughter Lois, turns out to the be son of a convicted murderer. Marvin's mother always kept this a secret and Witherspoon wants Mason to pore over the transcript of the trial to see if there's any room for rehabilitation, if not, he's adamant to break up the engagement. Even if he has to put Marvin in a position that brings his inherit, homicidal tendencies to the surface.
As to be expected from a Perry Mason novel, the plot buzzes with activity and quivers along multiple lines, which includes an extortion racket, a Hollywood scandal sheet and a shady private investigation firm – alongside the imagery of a drowning duck. There's no mystery how a duck can loose the ability to float on the water in this book, it's a new chemical known as a detergent, that affects the oily substance that helps them water proofing their feathers. Marvin is a keen young man interested in chemistry and psychics, who performed the experiment with the detergent and a duckling. And that forced Mason to adjust the evidence when stumbling upon a present-day crime scene.
Leslie L. Milter was one of the private detectives who worked for the firm Witherspoon hired to dig around in Adams' past, but when Mason and Officer Haggerty entered Milter's apartment they find his body sprawled on the kitchen floor – dead after apparently inhaling a whiff of deadly gas. But even more noteworthy is the aquarium, in which a duck was so far submerged that only part of its head and beak was sticking out of the surface while struggling not to drown.
A huge chunk of the fun in these stories is derived from Perry Mason manipulating and scheming his way through a murder case, from altering evidence at the scene to bending witnesses to his hand, which is arguably even more fun to read than his court room shenanigans. At least, I think so, because every action Mason undertakes usually has an opposite reaction, giving you the idea of a mental chess game. Perry Mason’s job is not just to provide an answer at the end of a story, but to move the entire plot to that destination. If that makes any sense.
There's a second murder that follows a pattern that has been rather prevalent on this blog: accidently finding (minor/borderline) locked room mysteries that were never recognized as impossible crimes. A second man is poisoned with gas in a room that was not locked, but the personal situation of the victim ruled out suicide and the trained police dogs patrolling the ground eliminated any outsiders – leaving John Witherspoon as the sole suspect and soon finds himself in the same circumstances as Marvin's father all those years ago.
Unfortunately, the solution to this second murder was under whelming to a locked room enthusiast like myself, however, it was only a cog in the wheel of a bigger story that, if not the best Mason novel I have read to date, was still a good read. Plot-wise, it was in search for a better second-half, but overall, not a bad read.
The Case of the Empty Tin (1941)
The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942)
The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943)