A keeper? Well, probably.
There are a few authors who give me an irrational itch to own every book they published, or at least every book in their main series. Erle Stanley Gardner is one of them, even though in some ways he’s a terrible writer. His writing style improved a bit over the years – but the Howling Dog is one of his earliest Perry Mason books, and it seemed as if every third page told us about Mason confronting somebody or other with his feet wide apart, his shoulders squared, and his head thrust forward. We get it. Mason’s a stand-up guy. He doesn’t let anyone push him, or his clients, around. Now please let him relax before he tips over.
The Howling Dog isn’t exactly a terrible book, though. Gardner had his strong points, and his greatest skill was coming up with complicated plots. This one’s a doozy.
Let’s see. First, Arthur Cartright hires Perry Mason to make his neighbor Clinton Foley stop provoking Foley’s dog to howl. Also, Cartright wants to make a will leaving everything to the woman who is living with Foley as his wife – whether she’s legally Foley’s wife or not.
Next, Foley (not his real name, by the way) convinces the powers that be that his dog never howled in its life, and that Cartright’s dangerously crazy. Cartright mails Mason his will – but now he’s leaving everything to Foley’s legal wife, who may be an entirely different person. (And it turns out that she is.)
Whoever that woman who’s been claiming to be Mrs. Foley is, she seems to have run away – Foley’s housekeeper says she saw her go. And Cartright disappears too.
Maybe he has good reason. Only a few hours later, both Foley and his dog are found shot to death. It looks as if the dog died protecting Foley. Who did it? Cartright? Maybe. Or was it the unknown woman who showed up at Foley’s house by taxi; stayed a little while; and left again, somewhere around the time of the murder? And what about Foley’s housekeeper, a pretty young woman who’s going out of her way to look ugly? She has a good alibi for every minute of the evening – maybe too good.
By the end of the book, we have a pretty clear idea of what happened and who killed Foley (and the dog). The odd thing about this story, though, is that Gardner really seems to be more interested in showing us how Mason uses legal strategy and bluff to win his case than in explaining the mystery. After all, as Mason explains repeatedly to various people, it’s not a defense attorney’s job to prove exactly what happened – it’s his job to protect his client’s interests. And Mason’s very good at doing that.