The Case of the Howling Dog – Erle Stanley Gardner – a Penguin Perry Mason. Cover by Romek Marber – 1963
The Perry Mason series ranks as the third best selling book series of all time, with total sales of around 300 million. That’s more than Terry Pratchett, Ian Fleming and George R Martin put together. Only Harry Potter and Goosebumps have sold more copies.
This makes the author of the series – the criminal lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner – the best-selling American author of the 20th century. Eat your heart out Ernest Hemingway. Unlike Hemingway, Gardner also published under numerous pseudonyms, including Kyle Corning, Carleton Kendrake and Les Tillray. He shouldn’t have bothered. Perry Mason had Gardner, and his estate, laughing all the way to the bank.
Perry Mason – also a criminal lawyer – features in more than 80 novels and short stories. Most of them involve a client’s murder trial. Mason’s main M.O. is to establish his client’s innocence by implicating another character, who then confesses. The Case of the Howling Dog was the fourth in the series.
When a potential client goes to see Mason about a howling dog and a will, the attorney isn’t interested. He doesn’t enjoy drafting wills, and wonders if the man should see a vet. However, the man’s next question – whether a will is legal if the person who made it had been executed for murder – piques Mason’s interest. In addition to the will and the dog, he encounters a man who has run away someone else’s wife – and a sexy housekeeper. The latter explains the slightly risqué detail on Romek Marber’s 1963 cover illustration.
In this week’s TLS William Boyd announced that he’d worked out James Bond’s precise address in Chelsea from the details in Fleming’s novels. There’s not much chance of doing the same thing with Perry Mason.
Characterisation wasn’t Gardner’s strong suit. His novels provide very few details about Mason’s family, personal life, background, and education. We know that he lives in an apartment because he’s occasionally roused from sleep to go to the office, but he doesn’t entertain anyone at home. We know his tastes in food because many scenes take place in restaurants. And we know that he is an excellent driver as – unusually for a lawyer – he has a penchant for car chases. Despite the sexy housekeeper, his secretary is Mason’s only real romantic interest.
Other than those sketchy facts, there is so little physical description of Perry Mason that the reader is not even sure what he looks like. Perfect material for film and TV adaptation then.
As if selling 300 million books wasn’t enough, Warner Bros released a series of six Perry Mason films in the 1930’s, starting with The Case of the Howling Dog. But for Baby Boomers, probably the best-known incarnation of the enigmatic lawyer was Raymond Burr in the CBS TV series which ran from 1957 to 1966. Since Burr, three other actors have played Mason on screen. The latest is Mathew Rhys in the HBO series which premiered in June 2020.