22 February 2018

Perry Mason (Part 2)

by Kirk Woodward

[This is Part 2 of Kirk’s essay on the Perry Mason mystery novels of Erle Stanley Gardner.  (If you haven’t read Part 1, I strongly recommend going back to 19 February—the post just below this one on the Rick On Theater site—to be sure you have all the background to this discussion.)  Here, Kirk picks up where he left off, examining the various approaches to constructing Gardner’s mystery stories that make his novels different from most of the rest of the genre.

[In this part of the post, Kirk touches on the TV series of 1957-1966.  Gardner was still writing the novels while the series was on the air and many of the books were adapted as episodes.  Gardner also allowed the successful TV show to influence some of the ways in which the novels changed over the later years.  I’m sure ROTters will enjoy the conclusion of Kirk Woodward’s “Perry Mason.”]

The practice of law

A collection of Perry Mason’s comments about the practice of law gives a fascinating picture of determination in the service of justice. Here are some remarks found in The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1952. The titles of Mason mysteries all begin with The Case of the . . . ; as I did in Part 1, in referring to Mason books I will use only the parts of the titles that are unique.)
“I make my living by knowing something about law and something about human nature. I stand up in front of juries. I cross-examine witnesses. I have to know a lot more about human nature than the average man.” 

“You don’t get to understand human nature by listening to what people tell you when they’re talking to you. That’s when you see them with their make-up on, with their best foot forward. You learn about human nature by watching people when they don’t know they’re being watched, by listening to conversations that they don’t know are being overheard, by prying into their thoughts whenever you can find what their true thoughts are. You learn about people when you see their souls stripped naked by suffering.”

“I saw no reason to comply with an empty legal formality.” (Della Street replies to this, “I think probably that last remark is a very complete index to your character.”)

“We’re never going to get anywhere by denials and evasions, and being on the defensive. This is a case where we’re going to have to carry the fight to the other man.”

“When a lawyer has to argue with himself to try to talk himself into believing a client’s story, it’s a damn sight better to keep anyone else from ever hearing that story.”

“There’s a difference between retreating until you can fight at the right time and at the right place and just running away.”

“You have to take them as they come, Jim. You can’t skim the cream all the time. Every once in a while Fate hands you something.”

“We advise our clients for their best interests, not ours.”

Mason often describes himself as a fighter. His comments on his own motivations don’t go much farther than these (from Runaway Corpse, 1954) in a conversation with a District Attorney:

Vandling said, “The district attorney in Los Angeles gave me quite a briefing about you. He told me you were tricky, shrewd, diabolically clever, and while he didn’t say in so many words that you were crooked he intimated that you’d cut your grandmother’s throat in order to obtain an advantage for a client.”

“Why not?” Mason asked, grinning. “After all, I’m supposed to represent my clients. Then again you’re not my grandmother.”

Gardner certainly would have approved of the comment by Leslie Charteris (1907-1993, the creator of the series of novels featuring The Saint) that he created his great series character as a protest against “the miserable half-heartedness of the age.” Mason sees the law as a great ideal, and its ambiguities as a testing ground for personality.

I’m a hunter, Della. Some men get their thrills in life out of standing up to a charging lion or tiger. Some like to shoot small birds; some just like to hunt, not for what they kill, but for the thrill of hunting. Well, I hunt murderers. And, Della, I want to bag that murderer. I don’t want Tragg to do it. I’m willing he should have the credit, but I want to be the one to do the hunting, and finding. (Haunted Husband, 1941)

To that end he will sacrifice even the typical human ideal of the happy family life. And it seems to have sacrificed him as well. He never mentions parents, and says he has no brothers or sisters. And of course he is unmarried.

Mason is the classic example of Benjamin Franklin’s precept in his Autobiography (1790): “I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, make the execution of that same plan his sole study and business.”

Mason lives in an apartment; we don’t learn much more about it than that it has curtains and he reads in his chair. He has a good car; he dines out and eats well; he goes camping with cronies and makes what they call Thousand Island Gravy. Otherwise he is a saint to the law. Where does this devotion come from? We aren’t told, but it may remind us of Bible verses like Psalm 119:34: “Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart.”

The family structure

Mention of marriage brings us to the central emotional feature of the books – the nature of Perry Mason’s “family.” Gardner periodically tries to establish a romance between Perry and Della Street, his secretary. (After Gardner’s wife died, very late in his life, Gardner married his secretary.) Perry and Della discuss marriage (for example, in Lame Canary, 1937; Golddigger’s Purse, 1945; and Caretaker’s Cat, 1935), but they never marry; they move toward marriage, and then away from it. Their moments of hugging and kissing don’t feel quite right to the reader.

The reason for this dance of closeness and distance, I believe, is that in a psychological, or even psychic, sense, Mason’s team actually is a family. Mason is the paterfamilias; Della and Paul Drake are his children, and Burger and Tragg are alternately cranky and bearable relatives. (Sergeant Holcomb is an unpleasant neighbor.)

Perry Mason doesn’t marry Della, then, because the relationship would be too weird; it would feel as if he had married his daughter. So the efforts to kindle sparks between Perry and Della are doomed; because of the way the stories are structured, such a pairing would strike us as icky, even if it were not literally so. (When a new Perry Mason series starring Monte Markham appeared on network TV in the 1970s, the producers indicated that Perry and Della would be a sexually active couple. The series was a failure.)

I am not claiming that this interpretation is “true” in terms of the stories – that “Della really is Perry’s daughter” – or that Gardner intended to present the situation this way, but that this is how the situation feels to the reader, and apparently how it felt to Gardner too, since he was not able to overcome the structural resistance between Perry and Della, like trying to bring two magnets together at the same pole.

Readers and audiences love families. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, as created by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) are a family, and readers can hardly get enough information about their relationship. Lord Peter Wimsey, Bunter, and Harriet Vane, as created by Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), are a family. We still want the Beatles to reunite as a family, even though alas that is impossible. The family relationship in the Mason books gives the stories an emotional strength, even if a slightly odd one, that carries them through. (A contemporary example of the same pattern can be found in the Harry Potter book series:  Harry, Ron, and Hermione can be thought of as brothers and sister, Dumbledore as the father, Voldemort as the evil uncle, Draco Malfoy as the mean cousin, and so on.)

Mason says the same things that every other ordinary male of his time might have said about women; but he is a gentleman, and, when actually offered a sexual encounter, he is practically a monk, again illustrating his remarkable single-mindedness – a constant theme of the books, and a quality at the core of his character.

The plot hook

The “engine” of the plots of the Mason books, the “hook” that gives them their distinctive nature, is that Mason invariably does something that puts him in as much trouble as his client is in – he runs the risk of being disgraced, or jailed, or, worst of all, disbarred and forbidden to practice his sacred craft any more. He must then fight as hard to extricate himself from the mess as he fights for his client; and, to make things more difficult, if their interests clash, he must put those of the client ahead of his own.

A typical Mason client looks guilty as sin because someone has deliberately arranged appearances that way. It is not always clear whether Mason sees through the deception from the start, or whether he is merely acting according to the principle that everyone is entitled to an effective defense. He often proclaims that he only defends the innocent; he is not interested in getting scoundrels off. However, appearances damn his clients; how does he know they are innocent?

In any case, each defendant is by definition an underdog in some way. Gardner does not always view the law from the defense’s perspective; he wrote books with a District Attorney, Doug Selby, as the hero. Even in those cases, though, Selby is fighting heavy odds. Gardner was a scrapper in real life – an acquaintance is said to have called him “a contentious son of a bitch” – and the series characters of his stories are scrappers too.

Keeping current

The practice of law in the United States has evolved over the decades, to the point where Perry Mason would find much of it unfamiliar. Pre-trial discovery, in particular, would remove a number of strings from his bow, or make them more difficult to use. However, in the books Mason stays current with the law, just as Gardner stays current with what happens in society.

The writer Penelope Gilliatt(1932-1993) once remarked how interesting it was to watch the hemlines go up and down over the years in Agatha Christie’s long-running mystery play The Mousetrap (which opened in 1952, and is still running). In the same way, one sees both social and legal fashions change in the Mason books. Perry Mason begins as practically a tough-guy detective out of a book by Dashiel Hammett (1894-1961); Gardner, always on the watch for a market for his writing, freely imitated the core concepts of other writers. (His Bertha Cool and Donald Lam bear a remarkable and I would guess not coincidental resemblance to Rex Stout’s characters Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.)

But as the years pass, Mason becomes much less obnoxiously tough, and more the sophisticated lawyer, a fact Gardner comments on in his introduction to a reissue of Lucky Legs (1967), originally published in 1934, where he notes that the early Perry Mason was seldom without a set of master keys to use when breaking and entering, but gradually settled down to become a law-abiding member of the bar, shunning his initial cavalier lawbreaking.

The reader of the books in sequence sees the Miranda warning of 1966 (“You have the right to remain silent,” etc.) coming into effect, irritating the police but interestingly not seeming to influence Mason at all – he frequently instructs his clients to stay silent anyway, and he knows all about their need for an attorney.

As legal fashions change, so do social. Gardner keeps Mason’s world as unrestricted by time period as possible (a remarkable bit of foresight); but we see glimpses of speakeasies, of the Depression, of World War II, of beatniks and the turmoil of the 1960’s (Gardner and Mason don’t have much use for it, but Mason treats everyone even-handedly until he reaches the point of exasperation). People lose their fortunes in the Depression, soldiers come home from war shell-shocked, rationing makes it difficult to buy tires. Gardner doesn’t connect his stories to particular dates, but the real world does make shadowy background appearances.

Gardner was an active, participatory sort of man, and his books demonstrate his powerful curiosity. Gorilla includes a great deal of speculation about the possibility of hypnotizing animals – and what would you do with them then? – plus substantial interest in the actual habits of gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys. Typically a Gardner book reflects a lively interest in what’s going on in the world.

Through it all, as noted, Mason continues to get himself in trouble as he tries to get his clients out of it. The major difference between the books and, in particular, the TV movies starring Raymond Burr (1917-1993) that began in 1985, is that on TV Mason is of course a tough cross-examiner, but not particularly a risk-taker, while the Perry Mason of the books can hardly resist an opportunity to throw himself into the fire.

Perry Mason on TV

The original TV series falls somewhere between these two stools, but of course any faults of the years of the series (1957-1966) are redeemed by the extraordinary cast. It is well known that Burr was barely allowed to audition for the role at all; Gardner saw him audition for the antagonist, the role Burr frequently played in movies, and announced, “That’s Mason!” It can be said that Burr did not fit Gardner’s physical description of Mason (not that he ever describes him extensively): his features are not steely or craggy, but soft. But Burr had the extraordinary gift of making the simplest line, like “Then what did you do?” crackle with significance.

He also seemed to contain a deep well of kindliness. When I was a child, my parents took me to hear him speak to the Bar Association, and he gave me his autograph afterwards. I recall him as pleasant and considerate.

The family unit in the series – Barbara Hale (1922-2017) as Della Street, William Hopper (1915-1970) as the private detective Paul Drake, William Talman (1915-1968) as District Attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins (1889-1965) as Lt. Tragg – is also perfectly cast, again not necessarily in keeping with the descriptions in the books. Hopper was tall but not glassy-eyed or bug-eyed. Talman was not “bear-like”. Collins was not Mason’s age, and tall, but older, and short. But surely none could have been equaled.

In the books written after the TV show had begun to take hold, the characters subtly begin at least not to contradict those on TV. (Gardner, as is well known, played a judge in the last episode of the TV series, incidentally one of the best examples of a “final episode” of a TV series.)

Keeping the formula fresh

Since the TV series usually ended up in the same courtroom every week, we may forget that Gardner worked hard to vary the characteristics of his books. By my count about a quarter of the books in the series either do not end in a trial at all, or end in some sort of a hearing other than a trial, or in a county other than Los Angeles, and the District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, does not appear in every Los Angeles trial, although he tends at least to make an appearance toward the end, when he anticipates that Perry is at long last about to lay an egg.

It should go without saying that Gardner is a master plotter, from the initial incident (in Gorilla, Perry purchases a series of diaries at an auction) through the denouement, which may contain a surprise inside the surprise. One of the surest signs of the high quality of Gardner’s plotting, to my mind, is that not all Perry’s schemes pay off. Some backfire, getting him in trouble; some simply don’t amount to anything, a realistic observation – nobody’s perfect, and Mason makes mistakes, and loses his temper, like anyone else.

What’s in a name?

The mention of Burger brings up the topic of Gardner and names. He loves triple-names and middle initials, although none of the core team has them. Names of peripheral characters can be exotic, as though they had been assembled by a quick visit to the phone book (although there are plenty of ordinary names as well). Those in Gorilla are not as bizarre as, say, Eduardo Marcus Deering, the District Attorney in Duplicate Daughter (1960), or Dr. Herkimer Corrison Renault in Runaway Corpse (1954), but neither are they ordinary:

Helen Cadmus
Benjamin Addicks
Josephine Kempton
Nathan Fallon
James Etna
Mortimer Hershey
Sidney Hardwick
Fern Blevins
Herman Barnwell

And was Gardner aware from the start that his DA’s name was Ham Burger? 


There is little about religion in the Mason books. In Caretaker’s Cat (1935) a clergyman is suspicious and afraid to open the door of his house, an attitude that bemuses Mason and Drake. The title character of the Stuttering Bishop (1936) is evaluated primarily in terms of his professional responsibilities, but it is also reported that in Australia he was “one of the most human ministers I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have the smug, self-righteous attitude so many preachers have. He was a man who wanted to help people – and he helped me.”

Then there’s the following interesting conversation from Stepdaughter’s Secret (1963). A client is speaking:

“There was a chaplain in that prison who took an interest in me. I won’t say that he gave me religion, because, in a way, he didn’t. He simply gave me confidence in myself and my fellow man, and in a divine scheme of the universe.

“He pointed out that life was too complicated to be accidental, that it took a master plan to account for life, as we knew it; that fledglings emerged from the egg, grew feathers and poised on the edge of the nest with the desire to fly because of what we call instinct; that instinct was merely a divine plan and a means by which the architect of that divine plan communicated with the living units.

“He asked me to consult my own instincts, not my selfish inclinations but the feelings that came to me when I could deliberately disregard my environment and put myself in harmony with the universe. He dared me to surrender myself in the solitude of night to the great heart of the universe.”

“And you did?” Mason asked.

“I did it because he told me I was afraid to do it, and I wanted to show him I wasn’t. I wanted to prove he was wrong.”

“And he wasn’t wrong?”

“Something came to me – I don’t know what it was. A feeling of awareness, a desire to make something of myself. I started to read, study and think.” 

And in Haunted Husband (1941), Mason tells a woman a parable of life and death that I have not seen elsewhere, and that would stand out in any discussion of death and immortality. If the reader is not familiar with it, I highly recommend it. It begins, “If only we had the vision to see the whole pattern of life . . . .” Needless to say, the passage is integrated with the plot.

Looking for a savior

I described above the “hook” to the plots of the Perry Mason books, in which Mason immerses himself in his client’s case to the extent that he is in almost as much trouble as the client is. I have saved to the end a comment on the “myth” underlying this device. (By “myth,” of course, I do not mean something fictional, but rather a significant underlying story.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, Perry Mason is a Savior. He enters a world not his own, participates in it, and saves his devotee from death. In other words, Mason is a Christ figure. Jesus as he appears in the gospels is not merely someone, even a loving someone, who looks at us, possibly sees the best in us, and pleads our case with God. That would be fine, of course (and would correspond to the TV Mason movies), but that’s not the Jesus story. Instead, as the author of Hebrews 5:2 writes, “He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.”

I am not claiming that Gardner was a Christian – I have no idea. (He requested that the only religious event at his graveside be a reading of the Twenty-Third Psalm.) I definitely am claiming that the Mason books resonate because of their mythic structure, because they dramatize the situation of all of us who get ourselves deep in life’s messes, and pray – whatever that may mean for us – for help. In the Mason books, that help is provided – which is also the upshot of the Christian story.

The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973), in The Dyer’s Hand (1962), writes in a famous essay called “The Guilty Vicarage” that murder mysteries end in “a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt.” That, perhaps, is the root of the appeal of the Perry Mason books, and why many people like me still read them.

[Well, that’s Part 2 of the Perry Mason two-fer.  I called it the conclusion . . . but is it?  Kirk’s working on reediting a possible addendum, a sort of coda to “Perry Mason.”  I won’t provide any details—in case he decides not to include it—but if he does, it’ll be a little lagniappe for ROT readers.  Keep an eye out for “Perry Mason (Part 3)”—it could appear at any time.]

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