1 JIGGER* ITALIAN VERMOUTH
1 JIGGER GIN
1 PONY** RUM
1/2 PONY GRENADINE
4 DASHES LIME JUICE
“Shake, pour, imbibe, kick the cat and send for the caretaker.”
– From So Red the Nose
* 1.5 ounces
** 1 ounce
I think there’s this idea that drinkers in the 1930’s just didn’t do sweet and fruity — that a stiff brandy with a lime wedge constituted a cocktail, and a dry martini was their idea of light and feminine. But that’s not really true. My experience has been the mid century liked a little sweetness, so long as it was heavy, rich, and of a consistency just a tad thinner than Pepto-Bismol.
The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat doesn’t have a lot of generational crossover appeal for those of us born in the age of cough syrup, is what I’m trying to say.
Actually, it took a few attempts, but I came to enjoy Caretaker’s Cat. And I think my persistence deserves credit, since the first round gave me the mother of all gin headaches. However, it did also allow me to revisit my New England rum, grenadine, and red vermouth.I mixed it up a bit as well and tried Beefeater gin instead of my usual Tanqueray.
So, once you have acclimated to the taste, Caretaker’s Cat is a pretty passable summer drink, as long as you have the stomach (and head) for it.
“I’m not a lawyer,” Mason grinned, “except as a sideline. I’m an adventurer.”
– From The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat
Perry Mason was a television show that ran in the 50’s and 60’s and somehow managed to stay glued in the cracks of the cultural consciousness without being remarkable in any way. I recognized the name, and definitely recognized the theme song, despite never having seen even part of an episode (And I’ve seen every Dick Van Dyke Show episode an embarrassing number of times, so don’t even start about millennials and classic television.). I asked my grandma about it (since she was alive at the time and all), and while she could still rattle off the full name of every character, she couldn’t tell me one thing that made the show remarkable or interesting.
But 20-some years before Perry Mason was a popular television series, it was an even more popular book series, the third most bestselling book series to this day, in fact. Lawyer-turned-author Erle Stanley Gardner had been at it for just two years when So Red the Nose was published, but he would keep going well into the 1970’s, publishing 82 Perry Mason novels in total.
The picture above might give the impression that these books are courtroom dramas, but the seventh installment, at least, is a pretty traditional noir-lite mystery full of men with fedoras and cigars driving fast cars, smoothly talking their way out of tricky circumstances, and digging mysteriously on dark, rainy nights.
This particular hard-boiled mystery starts off with the delightful premise that criminal lawyer Mason is going to take on the eponymous cat as a client, as the little furball is getting kicked at out of his home after the eponymous caretaker’s boss dies in fire. If other titles in the Mason series are any indication, this type of cutesy conceit is one Gardner used often, at least until the late 40’s, when the books turned into an excuse to put semi-nude women on the cover.
Anyway, Mason, of course, starts investigating the caretaker’s rich boss’ death as a murder, and two other murders are thrown in along the way just for funsies.
There are clear good guys and bad guys from the beginning (i.e., people Mason trusts with his infallible gut instinct versus those he doesn’t), so the end reveal isn’t any kind of shocker. It’s fine though. As I’ve said before, many mysteries are more about the how than the who.
Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?
Like most of the other mysteries I’ve read, Perry Mason: The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun but forgettable, as well as fast and breezy at less than 200 pages.
You can put Mason’s secretary/love interest Della Street down on our list of Old-School Awesome Female Characters, though. She’s seems to only exist to give Mason shit and not put up with any of his.She and Mason go undercover towards the end of the novel, and it is totally fun and sexy in that wry, retro way. It kind of reminded me of similar scenes in Bones or Castle, back before those shows started to suck.
Mason, by contrast, reinforces my burgeoning theory that all sleuths (except Miss Marple) are self-righteous pricks. This theory started with my very first novel for this site, but I have to say that I enjoyed Mason’s gruff, adventurous overconfidence over Philo Vance’s insipid version. I’m sure it says something about how I’ve internalized our culture’s toxic masculinity, but at the end of the day, only one character has a stupid, stupid, fake British accent.
So if you have a flight to catch or a beach to lay upon, grab one or twenty of the Perry Mason series. You’ll have some mindless fun, and, the best part is, you can read them again on the flight home, as if for the very first time.
The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is available in paperback or kindle on Amazon.
Next time: We finish off the mystery novels with a little murder, a little death row, and a lot of bourbon.