Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 20, 2019


The Case of the Fenced-In Woman by Erle Stanley Gardner (1972)

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) was a prolific writer for the pulps when he hit it big with his lawyer character Perry Mason, who premiered in 1933's The Case of the Velvet Claws.  In total, Gardner wrote 88 novels and three short stories about his legendary character.  With sales of 300,000,000, the Mason books rank third in the best selling series books, right behind R. L. Stine's Goosebumps in second place, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books leading the pack.  There have been six Perry Mason films, four starring Warren William and one each starring Ricardo Cortez and and Donald Wood.  From 1943-1945 there was a 15-minute daily crime broadcast of Perry Mason on CBS Radio but Gardner withdrew his support when the series had little in common with his character.  (An attempt for a 1956 television program by CBS failed and that show soon morphed into The Edge of Night.)  Perry Mason did make it successfully into television the next year with Raymond Burr in the title role; the show lasted until 1966 in that incarnation.  In 1973, The New Perry Mason, starring Monte Markham, appeared and quickly sank halfway through the season after only 15 episodes.  Burr was lured back to the small screen with a series of made-for-television movies featuring the character from 1985-1995; Burr, however, died in 1993 so the show's focus switched to to lawyer friends of Perry Mason, played by Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook.  A projected feature film about Mason from Warner Brothers has been in the works for about nine years and may never see the light of day.  So, too, is an HBO limited series and reboot, although this one has been kicked around for only three years.  And then there's the Perry Mason comic book and the Perry Mason comic strip -- both from the early Fifties.  Let's not forget the audio theater dramatizations of Gardner's Perry Mason books.  Mystery author Thomas Chastain was authorized by the Gardner estate to produce two books in 1989 and 1990 about the character; although Chastain was a talented author, the books did little to reflect Gardner's character.

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman was one of two novels found in Gardner's files after his death and was the first of the two to be published.  It was issued with this caveat:  "Although the work was written a few years earlier and set aside, the publishers believe it was ready for publication.  But it should be noted that the author had not done his usual final-draft polishing and checking."  It's true that the novel is a little bit rough -- especially with Perry Mason repeating umpty-ump times the duty of a defense lawyer (something I'm sure Gardner would have smoothed out in a final draft) -- bit the book reads well for a later series entry.  (Many feel, and I agree, that the early Mason books are the better ones; they have a more powerful, raw pulp feel to them.)

Morley Eden designed his dream house and went to Loring Carson to build it.  Carson had two adjoining lots of land that were just right for the project and built the house for Eden straddling the two lots.  Carson, however, was a fast talker and just a bit shady, not telling Eden that he was going through a divorce and that a judge ordered that one of the two lots belonged to Carson's estranged wife.  So Eden was surprised when he found that Carson's wife had claimed her property by putting up a taut, five-wire barbed fence through the middle of the property, extending on one direction through the driveway, and in the other through the swimming pool through to the rear property line.  On Eden's side of the fence were the bedrooms; on Vivian Carson's side, the kitchen and servant's quarters.  Vivian Carson had also gotten a restraining order against Morley Eden, which basically accorded a lawsuit against her husband as Eden's only resort.  Loring Carson claims to have no money, but his wife is certain that he is hiding significant assets and she feels that those assets might be revealed if Eden sues her husband.

To muddle matters further, Loring Carson claimed that his wife was unfaithful.  He had hired a private detective to follow her, but he had mistakenly (he claims) pointed out the wrong woman for the detective to follow.  The woman that the detective followed happened to be separated and was having an affair with a single man.  In the confusion that followed, that woman's reputation was smeared in the press, and Vivian Carson's own reputation was placed into question.  And there Carson's assets.

Hired by Morley Eden, Perry Mason tries to untangled this mess which became even messier when Loring Carson is found murdered on Eden's side of the wire fence with a knife that may have come from the kitchen on Vivian's side of the fence.  Strangely, Carson's both shirt sleeves are damp, while his suit jacket sleeves were dry.  And then there was the matter of the wet cigarettes in Carson's mistress's purse in Las Vegas.

Morley Eden and Vivian Carson are both arrested for the murder.  The police and the prosecution are tight-lipped about what evidence they have against the two.  (Yes, yes.  There is such a thing as a discover phase before a trial -- another thing that needed to be corrected in the final draft.)  But as Gardner's manuscript stood, Perry Mason was going to trial without knowing what he was up against.  There's a lot of razzle-dazzle, legal and otherwise, and Mason pulls a Hail Mary pass by having Paul Drake take Della Street's fingerprints to be entered into evidence.  Luckily, the trial judge gives Perry some lee-way and all ends well.  (Except, of course, for Loring Carson and for the real murderer.)

The Case of the Fenced-In Woman is a fast and entertaining read for anyone willing to overlook the book's early draft flaws.  It just could have been much better.


  1. Thanks for the interesting background, Jerry, and reviewing a book I'd not known of. I might get a kick out of the early draft flubs, as, if nothing more, useful learning points. Happy New Year!

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