by Kirk Woodward
[Kirk posted a recent article, “Four Actors” (30 January), concerning the acting of the guest stars in four episodes of the Perry Mason television series. I pointed out then that Kirk’s a devoted fan of the Mason mystery novels (as he is of the entire genre). Back in 2006, he wrote an essay about the novels for a site called Perry Mason TV Series (http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/wiki/); Kirk’s article, “Perry Mason,” is at http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/woodward/. The post below and Part 2 on 22 February is a lightly reedited version of that essay.
[“Perry Mason” isn’t about acting, of course, but mystery writing (and writing in general). I’ve never been a reader of Gardner’s novels, but I found the essay (which I first read when it was originally posted on line) fascinating. I guarantee you all will, too, possibly because the novels are not familiar. (Those of you who have been fans of Gardner’s writing will find interest in seeing if you agree with Kirk’s points or not.) Between Part 1 and Part 2, you’ll find that Kirk covers most of the salient points of the Mason mystery books, and he’s done it with his customary insight and style.]
For years I have read, re-read, and enjoyed the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). Generally speaking, a mystery reader becomes immersed in a series for two reasons: affection for the main character or characters, and an imaginative response to the world of the stories. Those are certainly my reasons for enjoying the Perry Mason series, and my pleasure is increased by my inability to remember the solution to any mystery, which means that I can return to it time after time without being bored.
I’m not sure that books that have sold so well (it is still the third best selling book series of all time) need much of a defense, but I have the impression that the positive qualities of the Mason books are not always sufficiently appreciated. In this essay I want to help correct that situation by addressing both complaints and strengths. I have discovered after years of reading that some of the emotional wellsprings of the books are not exactly what one might expect. Those discoveries are included in the material that follows, which I present according to themes.
There are some eighty Perry Mason novels, plus a novella and a short story. Gardner published his first Mason novel in 1933 and continued to write them until his death in 1970, at the age of eighty. In my opinion the books written in the forties and fifties are probably the strongest as a group, but there is little falling off in quality through the entire series; they are all fun to read.
A “prototypical” Perry Mason mystery should include the main cast of characters, including Sergeant Holcomb, the boorish police sergeant, as well as Lieutenant Tragg; it probably should involve a switch in guns, a Gardner specialty; and it should end in a courtroom. I would propose The Case of the Long Legged Models (1958) as a classic example: a gambler is killed over his IOU’s and Mason defends the gambler’s daughter when she’s charged with the murder of the man who killed her father. For his defense, Mason must sort out three identical guns which he manipulates until no one can follow where each gun was and who had it when.
For illustrations in this essay, however, I will use The Case of the Grinning Gorilla, published in 1952. Gardner was sixty-two years old at that time – he was approximately ten years older than the twentieth century. Guns are not a major feature in Gorilla, in which Mason, at a public administrator’s auction, buys a packet of memorabilia of a woman who drowned herself; after the murder of a man who’d been interested in obtaining the woman’s diary, Mason finds himself facing a hypnotized gorilla. But in other respects it is an excellent representative of the corpus, and a colorful and imaginative story.
(The titles of Mason mystery novels, unlike the television episodes, all begin with The Case of the . . . In referring to Mason books I will use only the parts of the titles that are unique.)
Someone told me once that the Perry Mason books appeal only to men, not to women. I can’t imagine that this is true – I have known women who love the books – but we may begin by recognizing that Gardner displays characteristics in his writing that cry out to be labeled male chauvinism. Numerous times a woman getting out of a car “shows a glimpse of shapely leg,” or nylon. Women are sometimes described in terms of their physical appearance, in a sort of barroom or smoking club tone.
But in contradiction to this somewhat sniggering masculine attitude is the redoubtable Della Street, Perry’s secretary, treated by him almost always as an equal – consulted and relied on, not just for her looks (there we go again), but for her brain. In Stuttering Bishop, published in 1938, Gardner makes a deliberate point about women’s capabilities when Della makes several deductions that would not have occurred to Paul Drake. After Paul says that women simply aren’t cut out for detective work, for example, she notices blood stains in a car, upon which Paul says: “You’ve got a good eye, Della.” And lined up with her are a number of smart, self-sufficient, self-motivating women (as well as Bertha Cool, the detective, who with her sidekick Donald Lam has her own series of books, written under the name A. A. Fair). Consider the following, from Sleepwalker’s Niece, published in 1936. Mason is talking with a golddigger:
“I understand the woman is a nurse. Think of it, Peter Kent marrying a nurse!”
“What’s wrong with a nurse?” Mason asked.
“Everything,” she replied, “so far as Peter Kent is concerned. She has to work for a living.”
“And a mighty fine thing,” Mason said. “I like women who work for a living.”
In Velvet Claws, the first Mason novel, published in 1933, Mason mentions that Della’s family was rich and lost its money (the Great Depression, which began in 1929, was a recent event), so Della had to work.
Gorilla is mostly a book about men – perhaps appropriately, considering the gorilla theme! But Helen Cadmus, the beautiful stenographer who hoped for a movie career before disappearing from a ship, is shown in her diaries as sensitive and intelligent, and Fern Blevins, although no rocket scientist, has a lot of what used to be described as moxie. We can say that even the women in the stories who define themselves in relation to men, also have their own lives to lead.
The same can be said about Gardner’s attitudes toward race. As a practicing attorney Gardner specialized in representing Chinese immigrants, so he had experience with treating members of minorities as individuals rather than as stereotypes. The early books do contain portraits of grinning Negroes, devious Asians, and shiftless Hispanics (for example, in 1940 in Baited Hook); but quite soon these are replaced by a different attitude: “minorities” are people, with feelings, ideas, and experiences of their own. In the late novel Fabulous Fake (1969) Mason defends a young black man pro bono; the man has been accused of theft because he is walking through a white neighborhood carrying a paper bag (his lunch) when a robbery takes place, and is only exonerated when someone else is arrested for the crime.
Gorilla handles race in a particularly interesting way, by using Chinese culture as a recurrent theme. The restaurant staff behaves in what could be considered a stereotypical way, with the waiter portrayed as stolid and imperturbable. Perry and Della discuss their “fortunes” seriously, speculating on the roles of fate and chance. Later, when a client is upset, Perry quotes the fortune he received, “Courage is the only antidote for danger” – particularly appropriate for his life – and recommends familiarity with Asian proverbs. At the end of the book, another “fortune” provides the book’s emotional conclusion.
Gardner’s treatment of an ethnic group, then, shows nuance and creativity. Whatever his prejudices and inherited limitations may have been, he ordinarily treats people as people.
Could Gardner “write well” – was he a “good writer” – and are not the Perry Mason books in fact badly written? Gardner built his career by producing on demand: he wrote what he needed to in order to make a living. But when style was required, he was excellent, as many of his short stories attest. Consider the following, the opening of the short story “The Valley of Little Fears” (published 1948, possibly written earlier). I love the rhythms of this passage, and how much it accomplishes in a short space:
This thing is true of the desert, the first time you feel its spell you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. If you hate it, your hatred will be founded on fear.
Those who know the desert claim you never change that original reaction, no matter how long you live in the sandy wastes. In that they’re wrong. I know of one case where the rules didn’t work. The desert is hard to figure, and you can’t make rules about it.
The Perry Mason books put a premium on dialogue and on speedy narrative. The jacket cover notes (author unattributed) to Seven Complete Novels (Avenel Books, 1979), in an excellent critical evaluation of Gardner’s writing style in the Mason books, points out that
Each of these stories is a murder mystery written with stunning economy of characterization and dialogue, moving from an intriguing beginning, through intricate plots and subplots, to the crescendo of a battle of wits and expertise in the courtroom to a climax that is always unexpected.
Arguments about “good writing” tend to point toward a generalized notion of “beautiful style”, and often to forget that to be “good,” writing must succeed at the purpose for which it is intended. Gardner’s purpose is fast-moving narrative and dialogue. This purpose lends itself to dictation – a method of writing suited to a dialogue-centric style – and Gardner did frequently dictate his books. This practice may not be a flaw, though; perhaps partly as a result, the speeches in the books are varied, well characterized, lively with slang and idiom, and, needless to say, fast-paced.
While Gardner’s dictating his books may have contributed to their lack of “literary” style, it also surely contributed to the quality of the dialogue, which is colloquial, character-based, and flexible.
It is true that Gardner has his favorite expressions – many times someone is said to “take a button and sew a vest on it” – but for this reader at least, such affection for particular phrases is part of the charm of the series.
Subjects of particular interest
But there are two subjects in the Mason books (in addition to crime and the law, of course) on which Gardner writes with particular eloquence, two subjects dear to his heart: the undeveloped American West and wilderness, and dogs. In particular, as a writer he seems almost to relax (as do Perry and Della) when his stories leave the cities and head for the mountains and the deserts, as in Drowsy Mosquito (1943), Rolling Bones (1939), and many short stories. He seldom bothers to describe the physical properties of a scene unless it involves the desert or the mountains:
Down below the desert stretched interminably. The tall, weird shapes of the Joshua palms cast long, angular shadows. Over on the right snow-capped mountains turned to a rosy glow in the rays of the setting sun. Then the desert gave way to mountains, piling up in jagged, tumbled peaks until the crests became covered with dark green pines. A lake flashed into view. (Runaway Corpse, 1954)
As for dogs, Gardner loved them; they play a role in the plots of several books, and Mason displays deep familiarity with their behavior, as for example in this passage from Drowning Duck (1942):
“They’re nice dogs,” Mason said. “Peculiar thing about canine psychology. They hurl a challenge at you, and you stand still and look at them, and, as we lawyers say, ‘the issue is joined.’ You keep right on going about your business, and show absolutely no fear, and almost any dog is inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
Gardner was not anti-cat, however; the behavior of Careless Kitten (1942) is crucial to the solution of the plot, and it is one of two books named for cats, as well as for birds and other animal life.
Aside from his interest in the west and in animals, Gardner is consistently interested in what goes on in life. Subjects as varied as racetracks, modern art, corporate management, beauty contests, real estate, ducks, photography, detergents, casinos, waiting on tables, farm-bred trout, Hollywood, motel management, prospecting all are grist for his mill.
The Perry Mason books have both internal and external climaxes. The external is the moment when the case swings Perry’s way. As with classical Greek tragedy, this is followed by a denouement, in which the situation is resolved, sometimes (though by no means always, as it sometimes seemed on TV) with the public confession of the guilty party. The internal climax is the moment when Mason suddenly sees the true configuration of the events of the mystery. (This is equivalent to Nero Wolfe’s pushing his lips in and out, in the Rex Stout mystery novels, but for Mason it happens in various ways.) This moment is always at least implied in a Mason book; sometimes it is not described, but we know it must have occurred. The false connections melt away, and Perry understands what must have really happened.
The structure of the Mason novels is in fact highly Aristotelian, typically including an exposition, a rising action, an inciting incident (almost always the murder), a climax, and an unraveling. However, Mason is not a tragic hero; instead, he is both the protagonist and the one who restores order to a society torn apart by the worst of all crimes, murder. His client is innocent too (with a qualified exception or two), at least of murder – not always of wrong behavior. Frequently clients get themselves in trouble by making dubious decisions (for example, in Screaming Woman of 1957, Perry’s client, a salesman, tries to talk his way out of being arrested by the police, with the opposite result). Many of the books provide examples, and very often the clients lie to their attorney as well as to the police.
Perry Mason is a lawyer. To Gardner, who was himself a resourceful and capable attorney, this is explanation enough for Mason’s actions. A lawyer’s duty is to fight for the client. On the other hand, it is worth noting that although Gardner holds in the highest esteem the ideals of the legal profession, he does not idolize lawyers as such. The Mason books are full of inept or crooked ones, like Nathaniel Shuster in The Caretaker’s Cat (1935), Banner Boles (not a practicing attorney, but trained in the law and all the more dangerous on that account) in Lucky Loser (1957), or the excellently named “Old Attica, the shyster” in Half-Wakened Wife (1945).
In Gorilla Mason finds himself teamed with the young attorney James Etna. The two attorneys exercise considerable professional caution before they join on the case, and collegiality once they do. Mason always observes legal etiquette, and makes sure his young associate gets to take part in cross-examination at the trial, although he also keeps him in line – explaining why, so his junior associate will be able to grow. Sidney Hardwick, a lawyer for another group of characters in the story, is resourceful and willing to use the status of his client to manipulate the district attorney’s office for his own purposes. He gives the impression that he works the margins of the law as Mason does; one also gets the impression that his faith in justice is as not as high.
As an attorney, surely Mason appeals to readers everywhere because he returns his phone calls. Anyone who has tried to get a lawyer – or anyone else – to call back knows how glorious this is. Mason may not answer his mail (he hates to), but when a client needs him, he is there. No wonder he doesn’t like unimportant cases.
Gardner periodically mentions that Mason has multiple clients, and occasionally introduces one; on the TV show it generally seems as though he has only one client at a time, and devotes all his attention to that one person. In the books we see Mason accepting pro bono work (Hesitant Hostess, 1953), and shifting appointments so he can concentrate on the most important case of the moment. The man can prioritize. His clients are of all sorts – young and old, rich and poor, attractive and unattractive, cooperative and uncooperative, sympathetic and unlikable, naive and manipulative, sometimes pure as the driven snow, sometimes so shifty that they ought to be guilty, even if in fact they’re not.
Gardner, like Abraham Lincoln in his days as a trial lawyer, enjoyed tricky defense strategies – not dishonest ones, but strategies that take advantage of every nook and cranny of the law. We see Mason home late at night, reading the advance decisions (Hesitant Hostess). He keeps a file of unusual decisions (Singing Skirt, 1959), as did my father, also a lawyer. [Kirk’s grandfather, also a lawyer, founded the firm in which his father practiced and wrote a chronicle of his life as an attorney over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Kirk composed “A Lawyer and a Life” (11 November 2010) for ROT based on that memoir. –ed.] The fact is that Mason stretches the limits of the law in order to carry out what he considers (to borrow Star Trek terminology) its Prime Directive: to represent and defend his client to the best of his ability. This principle often leads him to the edge of both trouble and the law. One sympathizes with the police.
Gardner doesn’t spend a lot of time personalizing judges; they almost certainly appear as they would to a lawyer – fairly remote figures with individual traits worth noting primarily for strategic reasons. Mason is on personal terms with some (1954’s Restless Redhead, the posthumously published Fenced In Woman of 1972, 1965’s Beautiful Beggar), and he does his best to gain an advantage from what he knows of a judge’s personality (Careless Cupid, 1968).
Some judges in the series are tougher than others. None are visibly corrupt or unable at least to listen to Perry’s arguments, although many express strong reservations about Perry’s tricks, especially his habit of turning preliminary hearings into conclusive trials. But the ethos of the books requires that Mason have at least a fair chance before the Court, something he seldom gets from the police or the District Attorney.
In another installment of this article we will look at how the practice of law is presented in the Perry Mason books, and at the interesting “family” structure that Gardner develops as the series of novels progresses.
[Kirk notes above that the Mason books are still popular and selling well even after over half a century in print. Apparently that wasn’t always the case. Kirk told me that the Mason novels were out of print for some years at one point, but are now being reissued by Ankerwycke, which is the publishing arm of . . . the American Bar Association! (I never knew that the ABA had a “publishing arm”! I imagine Gardner was an ABA member, but they must feel Perry Mason is a good ambassador for the profession.)
[I hope readers enjoyed the first part of Kirk’s “Perry Mason.” Log back on to Rick On Theater in three days to pick up Part 2 of Kirk’s discussion of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. There’s plenty more yet to be said (including a brief look at the popular TV series as it relates to the books), as I’m sure you’ll discover.]