Short Story Saturday: The Case of the Crimson Kiss by Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner was an American author and lawyer best known for his Perry Mason detective stories. Fictional detective Perry Mason appeared in 82 novels and four short stories. Each Perry Mason novel follows the same basic principles: a client is charged with murder, and Perry Mason must defend them at trial while also discovering the actual killer’s identity. Perry Mason was widely popular in print and adapted for movies and a radio series. The most well-known adaptation is the CBS television series Perry Mason, which ran from 1957-1966, with the titular character played by Raymond Burr. With constant new adaptations, the Perry Mason series has never really left public consciousness and is ranked the third best-selling book series. In 2015, Ankerwycke began reissuing Gardner’s Perry Mason books, which had been out of print in the United States.

The Players

  • Fay Allison: Accused of killing Carver L. Clements. Engaged with Dane Grover. Roommates with Anita Bonsal.
  • Anita Bonsal: Poisoned Fay Allison and framed her for the murder of Carver L. Clements murder, which she found dead. Carver L. Clements girlfriend
  • Dane Grover: Fay Allison’s fiance. Anita Bonsal’s ex-boyfriend.
  • Louise Marlow: Fay Allison’s Allison’s aunt who came for Fay’s wedding. From the same hometown as Della Street.
  • Carver L. Clements: Fay Allison and Anita Bonsal’s neighbor that Anita was having an affair with despite knowing he was married and involved in shady money deals.
  • Mrs. Carver L. Clements: Carver L. Clements wife comes to his secret apartment to catch him with a lover so she can speed along their divorce. He suspects him of hiding his money from her so he won’t have to pay her a fair share when they divorce.
  • Perry Mason: Defense lawyer for Fay Allison.
  • Della Street: Perry Mason’s secretary. Friend of Louise Marlow.
  • Paul Drake: Head of the Drake Detective Agency used by Perry Mason to investigate criminals.
  • Lieutenant Tragg: Head of the Homicide Squad.
  • Richard P. Nolin: Carver L. Clements business partner..
  • Manley L. Ogden: Carver L. Clements income tax specialist
  • Don B. Ralston: Dummy partner for Carver L. Clements business ventures.
  • Vera Payson: Girlfriend to Nolin, Ogden, and Ralston.
  • Stewart Linn: Prosecution Lawyer.
  • Dr. Charles Keene: Physician and surgeon.
  • Benjamin Harlan: Fingerprint and identification expert.
  • Judge Jordan: Presiding judge.
  • Shirley Tanner: Carver L. Clements insomniac neighbor.

The Mystery

On the eve of her wedding to Dane Grover, Fay Allison is abuzz with excitement. She fails to notice the blatant jealousy of her roommate Anita Bonsal about her upcoming nuptials to Anita’s ex-lover, Dane Grover. Seething, Anita goes upstairs to her current lover, Carver L. Clements,,, and presses him about when his divorce from his wife will go through. Anita is tired of sneaking around and wants her relationship with Clements on more solid ground. Clements brushes off Anita’s concerns saying that he needs more time to finagle his money into secret accounts so that when he divorces his wife,,, he’ll still have a bulk of his assets. Anita leaves Clements apartment in an angry huff to wait for him in his car so they can go to dinner. Several minutes pass,,, and he never comes outside. Annoyed, Anita Bonsal returns to Clements apartment and finds Clements dead with a whiskey glass on the floor and a crimson kiss mark on his forehead. She knows once the body is discovered she’ll be implicated as the murderer since there are signs all around the apartment that she had been living with him: clothes, cosmetics, and most damning her fingerprints! Just when there’s every cause for Anita to despair, she comes up with a devious plan to implicate her roommate Fay Allison in her stead and steal back Dane Grover in one fell swoop.

Anita goes back to her apartment where she induces Fay to ossip while drinking lots of hot chocolate that she’s heavily dosed with crushed barbituates. Anita tucks the sleepy Fay into bed and then begins her frame up job. Anita takes the dishes that Fay washed from dinner and replaces them with the identical dishes in Clements apartment. Replacing her nightgown with Fay’s and removing any other incriminating items, Anita feels sure that she’s implicated Faye well. Anita would furnish the last damning evidence against Fay by saying that on the eve of Fay’s wedding to Dane Grover she attempted to break things off with Clements, but he refused so she poisoned him. With Anita’s untimely arrival, Fay couldn’t remove her things from Clements apartment, now trapped, Fay committed suicide by drinking drugged hot chocolate. Anita plants the key to Clements apartment in Fay’s grinds up the six remaining sleeping tablets so that she can also be drugged “from the chocolate” and leaves the scene she’s constructed for the maid to find in the morning.

However, her diabolical plan is interrupted by the arrival of Fay’s Aunt.  Louise Marlow who was coming for the wedding. In the dead of night, Louise Marlow arrives at Fay’s apartment and finds both girls drugged. She attempts to waken Fay, but is unsuccessful, but does manage to get a few words out of Anita about “the chocolate”. Gravely concerned, Louise Marlow dials Perry Mason’s office to talk to her friend, Della Street, about what she should do. Concerned, Della tells Louise Marlow to call the police and then Della Street calls a doctor and Perry Mason.

Upon arriving at the apartment the doctor quickly starts reviving the girls, while Perry Mason and Della Street, start hunting for evidence. Della Street finds the keys to their apartment, in their purses, but in Fay’s she also finds a key stamped 702. Intrigued, Perry Mason and Della Street make their way to apartment 702 where they ring the loud buzzer, but no one comes to the door. Perry Mason and Della Street use the key to let themselves into the apartment and as they do so, Shirley Tanner, a neighbor from across the hall jerks open the door and catches them in the act. 

Inside the apartment, Perry Mason and Della Street the body of Carver L. Clements, an empty glass, and another glass which had fallen onto the carpet spilling it’s contents. They quietly open the door to the hallway and are relieved that the nosy neighbor from across the hall does not hear them leaving. As the door clicks shut behind them an elevator arrives at the seventh floor and the noisy party, of Richard P. Nolan, Manley L. Ogden, Don B. Ralston, and Vera Payston make their way to apartment 702 as Perry Mason and Della Street walk down the corridor. When Clements four friends buzz his door to be let inside, Shirley Tanner angrily opens the door to the hallway and shouts that Clements already has company and can everyone stop buzzing the door since she’s suffering from insomnia and wants to sleep. She slams the door and everyone hurries away from apartment 702 and into the lobby.

Perry Mason rings police headquarters and reports there is a corpse in apartment 702 of the Mandrake arms. Perry then has Louise Marlow insist that the doctor take the two young women to a sanitarium to recover from their poisoning away from the prying questions of Liutenent Tragg. When the police come to investigate the body of Clements, they corner Perry Mason about how he came to be in apartment 702. Perry admits he had a key, but now doesn’t have a key to the apartment. Not impressed with Perry Mason’s verbal gymnastics Leutenant Tragg searches the apartment and finds Fay Allison’s clothes. As they leave Clements apartment to question Fay Allison, they are interrupted by the arrival of Clements wife who had been telephoned that her husband was secretly maintaining an apartment at the Mandrake Arms.

With the stage set and all the suspects revealed, it’s now up to Perry Mason to solve two cases- who poisoned Fay Allson and who killed Carver L. Clements and left the garish crimson kiss calling card?

It’s revealed that Clements was poisoned and since “Fay Allison” has a penchant for poisoning things look very blak against her even though she repeatedly denies knowing Clements or being in his apartment which Perry Mason and Fay Allison’s fiance Dane Grover believe.

Dane Grover is adamant that Fay Allison is not the murderer and pays for her defense, even with mounting pressure from his family to “throw her over” as the case is covered in the press. Dane Grover admits that it would be possible for Fay Allison to have obtained poison from his gardener Barney Sheff, an ex-con. To protect Fay Allison, Perry Mason suggests that Barney Sheff go somewhere to “learn about growing orchids” far away from the trial and not be available to give evidence that Fay Allison once asked him about the poisons that he uses in gardening.

Paul Drake, tasked with investigating the noisy party of four that visited Clements the night he died, returns with some slim clues. They are all heavily involved with shell corporations, shady deals, and money lending. Any one of them would kill to get some or all of Clements fortune.

However, Perry is fascinated by two main points: who had a key to Clements apartment and could have left the kiss of death on his forehead. Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake half-heartedly discuss whether the kiss is a double bluff, planted by a wiley male killer, but this is quickly dismissed as absurd. They are looking for a woman.

As Perry Mason prepares for the trial against the steel trap mind of Stewart Linn, he knows he’s in trouble. Dr, Charles Keene testifies that that Carver L. Clements was killed by ingesting cyanide of potassium and that he noted the lipstick mark on his forehead. After Dr. Keene is done testifying, fingerprint expert Benjamin Harlan is called to the stand where he explains that fingerprints are unique to the individual, and Fay Allison’s fingerprints were found on the glass that contained the poison. This leads to a very interesting forensic question: are lip-prints, like fingerprints, unique to the individual. Harlan admits that they are and Perry Mason asks Harlan, if he took Fay Allison’s lip-print to compare to the kiss mark on Clements. Harlan says that he did not, and so before Judge Jordan and the jury, Faye Allison applies a heavy coat of lipstick and kisses a piece of paper. Harlan examines the lip-prints and concludes they are not a match. So, who kissed Carver L. Clements, if not Fay Allison?

Perry Mason then calls the party of four that tried to visit Carver L. Clements on the night of his death to determine who had let them in the building since they did not have a key to apartment 702. It’s determined that they did not let themselves in, nor did Clements, nor did Perry Mason, or Fay Allison. It’s on this tiny point, that the killer is trapped and when they are called to the stand crumble under the unrelenting questions of Perry Mason. They are further implicated by a one of a kind calling card: the crimson kiss. 

The Motives

Since the reader knows who poisoned the hot chocolate and framed Fay Allison there’s a lot of tension and built into the story as Perry Mason unravels the jealous rivalry Anita Bonsal feels toward Fay Allison. It leads to a shocking courtroom reveal that I won’t spoil so you can savour her downfall. Safe to say, Anita Bonsal, a violent vixen, gets her just desserts,

The second mystery, of who killed Clements is a slower burn. Was he killed by his angry wife, his unscrupulous friends, did Anita Bonsal commit another murder that we as the reader aren’t privy to knowing? A jealous, rich, philandering man like Clements invites the motives of jealousy, greed, and vice to the table. In the end it’s a heady mixture of all three that does him. Clements is done in by his greatest vice–he strung the wrong woman along and got the kiss of death.

The Verdict

This is one of my favorite Perry Mason stories because it includes an inverted mystery or “howcatchem” that leades directly into a “whodunit” This short novella packs two exciting courtroom reveals, a fun lesson on how like fingerprints, lip-prints are unique to the individual, and lots of dramatic grandstanding. As the story goes on the killer becomes clearer, but the motive stayed murky for me until it was revealed. The solution dastardly simple: a man who cheats on his wife with one woman will cheat on his wife with two women. A maxim that rings true today. So if you like a story with jealousy, drama, poisoning, and a little romance, then this short story is for you. 


If you want to watch a faithful adaptation to the novella then I suggest watching The Case of the Crimson Kiss, season 1, episode 8, for free on Amazon Prime. If you’re a super fan of Perry Mason you can buy the whole series.

Still want more Perry Mason? I recommend: The Case of the Crooked Candle is another case where Perry Mason uses physical clues to solve a crime.

Let me know which Perry Mason case is your favorite in the comments below. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s