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The Case of the Hesitant Hostess is a 1953 mystery novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, featuring his famous defense attorney Perry Mason. The title of the story comes from Mason's attempts to find a fleeing night club hostess who is a key witness for his client's defense.

I bought this novel because I, like most people, mostly think of the Perry Mason television adaptation when I think about the "Perry Mason" series. But for almost twenty years before Perry Mason was on television, it was a very popular series of novels. There was over a hundred written, and together they sold in the hundreds of millions of copies. I picked this novel more or less at random, and I don't know how representative it is of the wider Perry Mason novelistic corpus, but it provided a good starting point.

The plot of the novel is rather involved, although not terribly important for either the enjoyment of the novel or for understanding its cultural role. Mason is defending an older, unemployed man who was arrested for the armed robbery of an upscale couple whose car was stopped at an intersection. One of the people in the car, a woman who owns a chain of nightclubs, claims she left the scene in the car of the titular nightclub hostess, a woman who has seemingly disappeared. Perry Mason, Della Street and Paul Drake must track her down over an action-packed weekend, where more and more mysteries are revealed, until Mason finally figures out what happened.

There are a few key differences between this novel and the television series:

  • The story telling is less linear: where the normal Mason episode starts with a crime and ends with a trial, the novel starts in media res, with the trial about to adjourn for the weekend. The investigative work and flashbacks occur during the middle section, before returning to trial. There are also more scenes and digressions allowed in a 200 page novel than there are in a 50 minute television episode.
  • The story has more adult content: not suprisingly, without the television standards of the 1950s and 60s to contend with, the story is allowed a lot more suggestive content, with more sex, drugs and violence. This is also noticeable in the character of Perry Mason, who while still as sauve as his television counterpart, comes across as less of a high school guidance counsellor and more like James Bond: Mason is shown to be skilled at gambling, romance and fisticuffs.
  • Related to the above point, the novel also is a bit more socially critical than the television series. The novel does discuss the fact that justice is not blind, and tends to favor the rich. The idea that the police can be corrupt, forbidden by the television standards of the 1950s, is present in the book.

Overall, while sticking to the basic premise of a sauve defense lawyer saving his clients in an improbable manner, the book allows much more intricacy of plot and depth of character than the television series. However, it doesn't seem to go too far away from being a page turning adventure series, serving the role of airport fiction in an era when people still commuted by train. While interesting for a reader who is a fan of mystery stories, it might not be of as much interest for everyone.

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