Perry Mason, attorney at law, is just returning to his office from a long day at court. His secretary, Della Street, has a pile of letters for him to sign, and one client to see. The potential has been waiting for an hour.
Mason at first demurs, but Della tells him the girl is in trouble. Her name is Nellie Conway. She is thirty-two or thirty-three, slender, dark hair, gray eyes, and has “and the most perfect poker face you’ve ever seen.”
After finishing the paperwork, Mason agrees to see the poker-face client. Miss Conway asks how to prevent a murder. She tells him she is the night nurse for Mrs. Elizabeth Bain, who was injured in an automobile accident. She believes her patient’s husband, Mr. Nathan Bain, is trying to kill his wife.
She has brought a vial containing four tablets that she said her employer paid her to give to Elizabeth Bain. Nellie believes they are poison. She has gone to the police. Sargeant Holcomb scorned her and sent her away.
Mason dislikes Nellie immediately. Her story stinks. Nevertheless, he withholds one tablet from her and returns the vial, sealing it in an envelope, and signing the back of the envelope. He asks her to sign it as well.
He is not surprised when the lab tests show the tablet is aspirin. He is surprised when Mrs. Bain dies suddenly of arsenic poisoning.
Author Gardner throws down a whole truckload of red herrings in this one. When Bain mentions that some of his wife’s jewelry has gone missing, he lays a trap with phosphorescent powder and ultraviolet light, thus the fiery fingers of the title. Unfortunately, he puts his wife’s jewelry chest where any number of people could have seen it or handled it, not just the one points to as a thief.
Just before she dies, Elizabeth Bain receives a visit from her family. She cuts her husband out of the will, so he does not seem to have a motive for killing her. At least, not that motive. By now the reader is sure he is a complete scumbag, a philanderer and he has to be the bad guy. After all, Mason thinks he is. Especially when Elizabeth’s sister-in-law starts talking about the death of Nathan’s first wife.
This is a convoluted tale, with breaking and entering, illegal recordings, and Mason earning a warrant for vagrancy in New Orleans, and witnesses spilling their guts—except Nellie. She is happy to tell Mason, “That’s not any of your business” at certain points. Poker face.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It is not realistic, but it is entertaining.
This was made into an episode of the old Perry Mason TV series with Raymond Burr, but with a simplified plot, and originally broadcast May 3, 1958.
Title: The Case of the Fiery Fingers (Perry Mason Mystery #39)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)
First published: 1951