Vintage Mysteries: Switchbacks

Review: The Case of the One-Eyed Witness
by Erle Stanley Gardner

A keeper? Yes – this one’s confusing fun

We lived in California for two years when I was a child, and one thing I remember was switchbacks. Driving up into the mountains, the road would climb steadily up the side of a cliff for what seemed like a long time, then suddenly it would turn almost 180 degrees and continue climbing, but going the opposite direction.

Perry Mason seldom leaves California, so I guess it’s appropriate that this story is full of switchbacks. It starts when Mason’s dinner with his girlfriend / secretary Della Street is interrupted twice. First, he gets a phone call from a terrified woman who tells him she’s sending him money, then hangs up before telling him any of the important details except for a name and address. Soon afterwards, a girl whose job is to wander from table to table selling cigarettes bursts into tears at him and tells Perry and Della a pitiful story. It seems that her ex-husband stole her baby and sold it for adoption, and she doesn’t dare try to get the child back because she’s part Japanese. (This book was published in 1950, only five years after World War II. Was prejudice against the Japanese that strong back then? I suppose so, since the story had to sound plausible to the original readers. Fortunately, this is only a small part of the setup.)

Anyway, Perry’s got a paid-up but nameless client and a bit of contact information to use to unravel the situation – but his only contact is killed when the man’s house burns down later that night. Now what? Well, Paul Drake, Perry’s private detective, manages to trace the woman who phoned. Oops – she’s vanished and her husband is very evasive; is she still alive?

Well, of course she is. Her husband’s the one who gets murdered. So Perry digs in getting ready to defend her. The only little problem is that she insists she never phoned Perry or sent him money. She seems obsessed with protecting her son – well, her adopted son. Hmm. Turns out she was being blackmailed – the blackmailers claim her son’s birth mother is part Japanese, and they’ll tell the world if she doesn’t pay up.

Oh yes, and one member of the blackmail ring was – of all people – her husband. (Boy, has she got motive.) And remember the man whose body was found in his burned-out house? Well, he’s alive, alive enough to try to pull a gun on Perry Mason.

It’s a twisty, turny story, and somehow by the end Erle Stanley Gardner manages to connect all the strange bits and pieces of the plot – even the weepy cigarette girl back at the very beginning of the story – so that Mason can hand them over to Lieutenant Tragg with a nice big bow on the top, and the reader can close the book feeling dizzy but satisfied.

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