19 March 2018

Perry Mason (Part 3): On Life And Law

by Kirk Woodward

[On 19 and 22 February, I posted “Perry Mason,” a two-part article by Kirk Woodward on the mystery novels of Erle Stanley Gardner on Rick On Theater.  (Before that, Kirk published “Four Actors,” an examination of the acting of four guest stars on the Perry Mason TV series, posted on 30 January.)  While he was composing “Perry Mason,” Kirk collected a number of quotations he found revealing about Gardner’s ideas about life and the law.  He compiled a representative list for ROT and I’m running it here as “Perry Mason (Part 3).”  (A longer version of this list is posted at http://www.perrymasontvseries.com/woodward/.)  I think ROTters will find it amusing—and possibly even informative, as Gardner was, himself, a practicing attorney and had very strong—also practical—feelings about his profession.  ~Rick]

Recently I wrote several pieces for this blog about the Perry Mason books and television series (see “Four Actors,” 30 January, and “Perry Mason,” 19 and 22 February). Erle Stanley Gardner, who wrote the original books, created in Mason a formidable character, made up of equal parts determination and skill.

Gardner himself was for years a practicing lawyer, and one gets a feeling of the kind of lawyer he must have been from the Perry Mason books, which contain comments on the practice of law – sometimes rather extensive comments – and a definite attitude toward life as well.

The quotations that follow are occasionally slightly edited. The most enjoyable way to read all of them, of
course, is to read all the books. Short of that, here is a sampling. All the book titles begin with the words The Case of the . . . . Only the last words of the titles are given here.


Lucky Legs, 1934

“I’m different. I get my business because I fight for it, and because I fight for my clients. Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don’t come to me because they like the looks of my eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they’ve known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I can do.”

Counterfeit Eye, 1935

“I play a no-limit game. When I back my judgment, I back it with everything I have. I try not to be wrong. What the hell can a man lose? He can’t lose his life because he doesn’t own that, anyway. He only has a lease on life. He can lose money, and money doesn’t mean one damn thing as compared with character. All that really counts is a man’s ability to live, to get the most out of it as he goes through it, and he gets the most kick out of it by playing a no-limit game.”

“I hate this office routine. [I want], not necessarily a murder case, but a good fight in front of a jury. I like dramatic murder trials, where the prosecution explodes an unexpected bomb under me, and, while I’m whirling through the air, I try to figure how I’m going to light on my feet when I come down.”

Baited Hook, 1940

“How I love a mystery, Della,” he said. “I hate routine. I hate details. I like the thrill of matching my wits with crooks. I like to have people lie to me and catch them in their lies. I love to listen to people talk and wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is false. I want life, action, shifting conditions. I like to fit facts together, bit by bit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Regardless of what you may think, Mr. Brownley, I’m not merely a paid gladiator fighting for those who have the funds with which to employ me. I’m a fighter, yes, and I like to feel that I fight for those who aren’t able to fight for themselves, but I don’t offer my services indiscriminately. I fight to aid justice.”

“Dammit,” he said to Della Street. “One of those frosty, reserved, human adding-machines gets under my skin worse than a dozen shysters who try browbeating tactics.”

Mischievous Doll, 1963

“I have always been accustomed to controlling events, within reason. I hate like hell to find myself in a position where events are controlling me.”

Postponed Murder, published 1973

“When I start unraveling a mystery, I can’t seem to find a brake. Every time I put my foot down, it hits the throttle.”


Curious Bride, 1934

“What right have I got to sit back with that ‘holier than thou’ attitude and expect [clients] to come clean with a total stranger? They come here when they’re in trouble. They’re worried and frightened. They come to me for consultations. I’m a total stranger to them. They need help. Poor fools, you can’t blame them for resorting to subterfuges.”

Sleepwalker’s Niece, 1934

“Any time I have to depend on perjured evidence to acquit a client, I’ll quit trying cases. If he’s innocent, we’ll get him off.”

Demure Defendant, 1956

“Get this straight. You’re dealing with a murder case. No matter how awkward the truth is, you can’t fabricate a situation that will meet all of the requirements. You can’t get a falsehood that will dovetail with all of the facts. Sooner or later all of the other facts will be known. If your story doesn’t dovetail you’ll have to change it. If you change it under pressure the truth will then be ten times more awkward.”

Beautiful Beggar, 1965

“In the first place, as an officer of the court, I can’t tamper with evidence. In the second place, I’ve always found that truth is the strongest weapon in the arsenal of any attorney. The trouble is lawyers quite frequently don’t know what the truth is. They get half-truths from the evidence or from their clients and try to get by on those half-truths.”


Howling Dog, 1934

“We’re a dramatic people. We’re not like the English. The English want dignity and order. We want the dramatic and the spectacular. It’s a national craving. We’re geared to a rapid rate of thought. We want to have things move in a spectacular manner.”

Caretaker’s Cat, 1935

“A lawyer isn’t like a shopkeeper who can sell his wares or not as he chooses. He holds his talents in trust for the unfortunate.”

“That’s what I like about the practice of law – it’s an adventure. You’re looking behind the scenes at human nature. The audience out front sees only the carefully rehearsed poses assumed by the actors. The lawyer sees human nature with the shutters open.”

“A lawyer has a trust to his client. He can set any fee he pleases. If the client doesn’t pay it, the lawyer doesn’t need to take the business; but if a client pays it, it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s five cents or five million dollars. The lawyer should give the client everything he has.”

Perjured Parrot, 1939

“The prosecuting attorney has at his command all the facilities of organized investigation. He uncovers facts. He selects only those which, in his opinion, are significant. Once he’s come to the conclusion the defendant is guilty, the only facts he considers significant are those which point to the guilt of the defendant. That’s why circumstantial evidence is such a liar. Facts themselves are meaningless. It’s only the interpretation we give those facts which counts.”

Black-Eyed Blonde, 1944

“A lawyer can’t afford to get too big, Della. He always has to remember he’s a part of the machinery by which justice is dispensed. When it comes to a matter of justice or injustice there isn’t such a thing as big or little. Injustice is a social malignancy.”

One-Eyed Witness, 1951

“Many people misunderstand the duty of an attorney. It’s an attorney’s duty to see that a defendant has a fair trial. If the attorney makes up his mind that the defendant is guilty and therefore won’t represent that defendant, that’s asking an attorney to substitute his own prejudices, his own judgment for the judgment of a Court and a jury.”

Amorous Aunt, 1963

“As far as ethics are concerned, don’t overlook the fact that a lawyer is ethically bound to protect his client. That’s the first and foremost of all the rules of legal ethics. The people who formulate the canons of legal ethics take it for granted that an attorney will be protecting his client, so they lay down rules of professional conduct for the purpose of seeing the lawyer doesn’t go too far. But the number one canon of ethics which should dominate all the others is that an attorney should be loyal to his client and should protect his client.”

Bigamous Spouse, 1961

“It’s more than being loyal to your clients. It’s being loyal to the basic principles of justice. And when you’re trying to do that, you have to take it on the chin once in a while – or at least be ready to.”

Moth-Eaten Mink, 1952

“I never disbelieve a client, but whenever I’m listening to a client’s story, I’m constantly wondering how a jury is going to react to that same story.”

“Crying Swallow” [short story], published 1971

“I’ve practiced law long enough to know that a man should never torture clues to make them point in the direction he thinks they should go.”


Careless Cupid, 1968

“I have an idea your client is holding something back.”
Mason said, “You can say that for about ninety percent of the clients who come to a lawyer’s office, Paul. I wonder if patients hold out on their doctors. They come to a professional man to get help and then they almost invariably try to color the facts.”

“Clients do strange things. There are several things you can always depend on a client doing. A client will usually hold out some pertinent fact, will substitute his own judgment for yours, and then make some crazy move which affects his status without asking you about it in advance.
“Aside from that, you can’t tell what a client will do. They’re unpredictable.”

Singing Skirt, 1961

“I know as far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have my hand cut off than betray the interests of a client. If I’m representing a client, I want the representation to be honest, loyal and efficient. I make it a point to believe everything my client tells me and to act accordingly in order to protect the best interests of that client.”

Nervous Accomplice, 1955

“I don’t know why it is, but it’s not once in fifty times that you’ll find a client who tells you the entire truth. Nearly all of them, no matter how innocent they may be and how honest they may be, will try to sugar-coat the facts so that they become more favorable.”

Phantom Murder, 1964

“In a murder case many things are entirely different from what they are in other cases. When a man’s life is at stake he will do almost anything.”


Caretaker’s Cat, 1935

“Suppose he’s really guilty?”
“Then we’ll find out all about the extenuating circumstances and either make him plead guilty and get the lightest sentence we can for him, or else let him get some other lawyer.”
“That’s not an orthodox way of practicing law.”
“Who the hell wants to be orthodox?”

Silent Partner, 1940

“I’ve always tried to represent clients who were innocent. I’ve been lucky. I’ve taken chances. I’ve played hunches, and the hunches have panned out. Circumstantial evidence can be black against a client, and I’ll see something in his demeanor, some little mannerism, the way he answers a question or something, which makes me believe he’s innocent. I’ll take the case, and it will work out . . . . I do know that a lawyer can’t simply sit back and refuse to take any case unless he thinks his client is innocent. A client is entitled to legal representation. It takes the unanimous verdict of twelve jurors to find a person guilty. It isn’t fair for a lawyer to turn himself into a jury, weigh the evidence, and say, ‘No, I won’t handle your case because I think you’re guilty.’ That would deprive an accused person of a fair trial.”


Curious Bride, 1934

“It’s an axiom of criminal law that a man should try everyone except the defendant. You know, sometimes you can try the prosecuting attorney. Very frequently you can try the prosecuting witness. You can start digging around, cross-examining on extraneous matters, trying to show some sort of a motive for murder. Then, if you can get a motive before the jury, you start showing opportunity, and if you can get motive and opportunity, you suddenly switch the accusation and claim there’s just as much ground to suspect the prosecuting witness as there is the defendant. [I’m simply telling you] how criminal lawyers play the game.”

“The way to get to the bottom of a murder,” he said, “is to pick out any pertinent fact which hasn’t been explained, and find the real explanation of that fact.”

Howling Dog, 1934

“There are lots of ways of trying a lawsuit. There’s the slow, tedious way, indulged in by lawyers who haven’t any particular plan of campaign, other than to walk into court and snarl over objections, haggle over technicalities, and drag the facts out so interminably that no one knows just what it’s all about. Then there’s the dramatic method of trying a lawsuit. That’s the method I try to follow.”

“Pick some dominant emotion if you want, but touch on it only for a few moments. Then swing your argument to something else. Then come back to it. The human mind is like a pendulum: you can start it swinging a little at a time and gradually come back with added force, until finally you can close in a burst of dramatic oratory, with the jury inflamed to white rage against the other side. But if you try to talk to a jury for as much as fifteen minutes, and harp continually upon one line, you will find that the jurors have quit listening to you before you finish.”

Substitute Face, 1938

“. . . when you start fighting, never try to hit the other man where he’s expecting the punch. And when you once start a fight, never give up until the other man’s licked. If you can’t do it by hook, do it by crook.”

Black-Eyed Blonde, 1944

“When I find that one theory of a case is hopeless, I squirm around and try to find some other theory. After all, it makes a great deal of difference how you look at a case. It’s what the lawyers call the legal theory on which it is to be tried. . . . A lawyer needs imagination. When you come to one legal road that’s blocked, you back up and try another.”

Empty Tin, 1941

“That is the secret of crime solution. You find the things that are unusual, the things which vary from the normal or average, and, using them as clues, you get away from generalities, and down to specific individual cases.”

Drowning Duck, 1942

“It’s a question of doing justice to a client. Once you become convinced your client is guilty, you interpret all of the evidence in a false light and weigh it by false standards. When you once get the correct master pattern, every single event fits into that pattern. It dovetails with every other event which impinges upon it. When you get a master pattern which seems to accommodate all of the events except one, and you can’t make that event fit in, it’s pretty apt to mean that your master pattern is wrong.”

Half-Wakened Wife, 1945

“The theory on which you want to work is always the theory on which the other man doesn’t want to work.”

Hesitant Hostess, 1953

“A lawyer who does much trial work has to make snap judgments. The clerk calls out the names of a prospective juror. That person gets up from his seat in the courtroom, walks up to take his place in the jury box. You have an opportunity to watch him for six or seven seconds. In those six or seven seconds you have to reach a snap judgment as to his character, how he’s apt to react to testimony and argument, what kind of a person he is, whether he’s broad-minded or liberal minded, whether he’s bigoted, good-natured or antagonistic.

Vagabond Virgin, 1948

“Of course, you have an opportunity to supplement that first impression by asking him a few questions, but as a rule a man has steeled himself by the time you start questioning him so his appearance is more or less of a mask. He’s trying to convince you that he’s intelligent and important. He knows that he’s in the limelight and he has that natural tendency to put his best foot forward. He’s trying to convince himself he’s something of a judge.
“The first basic principle of cross-examination is to start asking a witness conversationally, affably and in a friendly way about some of the minor points that the witness hasn’t thought over quite so much, and on which he doesn’t expect cross-examination. As long as you’re friendly and affable, if you get adverse answers it doesn’t hurt your case in the least, but if you do uncover a weak point then you can move in on it swiftly and capitalize on the advantage.”

Fugitive Nurse, 1954

“Identification evidence is given the greatest weight in a court, and it’s likely to be the poorest evidence. The person who is really trying to be fair says, ‘I think that was the person whom I saw.’ They riddle him with cross-examination and ridicule. Jurors dismiss his testimony. He’s apt to be telling the truth.’
“You have to hold the interest of a jury. You can’t do it by fumbling around with papers. Any time you make a pass at a witness and then quit and start fumbling around with papers you make it appear that you don’t know what you’re doing, that the witness has the best of you. You’re going to keep throwing questions at the witness. Rapid-fire questions. You aren’t going to pause for anything. You’re just going to keep slamming questions at him. . . . Furthermore, you mustn’t, under any circumstances, keep going over the same things he’s testified to in the same order. . . . Go at him from a different angle. . . . Bore into him. Give it to him hammer and tongs. Don’t let him have any time to think in between questions. The minute he answers one question, fire another one at him.
“Don’t let your mind go blank. Keep throwing questions at him, any questions. Ask him what the weather was. Ask him what kind of tires were on the automobile. Whether they were white sidewalls or not. Ask him exactly where the car was parked. How many feet from the corner. How many inches from the curb. Ask him how he happened to be there. Ask him if he was walking, or ask him if he stopped walking. If he had stopped walking to watch the girl, find out when he stopped walking and why. How long he stood there. Ask him how he happened to be there, where he’d been, how long he’d been there, where he was going, what stopped him, when he started walking again. Just keep throwing questions at him and all the time keep watching him like a hawk, using your powers of concentration to remember everything he says and to correlate every answer, looking for a weak spot.
“If you’re going to be a trial lawyer, you not only have to think of all those things but in addition you’ve got to keep watching the jurors out of the corner of your eye. You’ve got to see what impresses them and what doesn’t. You’ve got to see when they’re getting bored, and when they’re getting bored you’ve got to do something spectacular that will arouse their interest. You’ve got to keep thinking about the record. You’ve got to keep watching for errors. You’ve got to keep an eye on the court. You’ve got to frame your questions so they’re calling for evidence that is legally admissible and not have your questions couched in such phraseology that the other side can object and have the objection sustained. That makes the jury feel you don’t know what you’re doing. . . .
“You’ll get so they’re automatic. You’ll be able to stand on your feet, throw out a steady stream of questions, and keep thinking of all those things and half a dozen others.”
“Object to anything, just so it isn’t important. Let them get in all the important facts whether they hurt us or not. Save your objections for the facts we already know. Throw a little variety into the case and give him something to think about.”
“In a preliminary never object to any questions calling for new evidence. Only object to the form of questions so you keep the prosecutors off balance and keep them from letting a witness have things too easy. Otherwise let them drag in everything they want. You can never tell when something will do some good. The more a witness says the first time he’s on the stand the more he’s apt to contradict himself the second time he gets on the stand.”

Restless Redhead, 1954

“A defendant in a criminal case very seldom has anything to lose by letting the issues become confused.”

Amorous Aunt, 1963

“Don’t object to those things [being introduced into evidence]. That’s the mark of an amateur. Let the evidence go in and then get the guy all flustered on cross-examination.”

Queenly Contestant, 1967

“Razzle-dazzle is not good cross-examination. The purpose of cross-examination is to find out whether a witness is telling the truth.”


Lame Canary, 1937

“Virtually every man has enemies. Sometimes they’re business enemies. More often they’re personal enemies, people who hate him, people who will look down their noses and say it’s too bad when they hear he’s bumped off, but who will be tickled to death just the same; but it takes a peculiar psychological build-up to perpetrate a murder. A man must have a certain innate ferocity, a certain lack of consideration, and, usually, a lack of imagination.”
“Why a lack of imagination?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “except that it’s nearly always true. I think imaginative people sympathize with the sufferings of others because they’re able to visualize those sufferings more keenly in their own minds. An unimaginative person, on the other hand, can’t visualize himself in the shoes of another. Therefore, he sees life only from his own selfish angle. Killers are frequently cunning, but they’re rarely original. They’re selfish, and usually determined. Of course, I’m not talking now about a murder which is the result of some sudden overpowering emotion.”

“A solution of any crime which doesn’t account for all of the various factors involved is no solution at all. In the long run, Della, the essence of all successful detective work lies in reconstructing the life of the victim. That gives motivation, and motivation makes murders.”


Sulky Girl, 1933

“A man can nearly always think his way out of any situation in which he finds himself. It’s merely a paraphrase of the old saying that where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Baited Hook, 1940

“Whoever got anything in life by being careful? Every time you stop to figure what the other fellow’s going to do, you unconsciously figure what you’d do in his place. The result is that you’re not fighting him, but yourself. You always come to a stalemate. Every time you think of a move, you think of a perfect defense. The best fighters don’t worry about what the other man may do. And if they keep things moving fast enough, the other man is too busy to do much thinking.”

Lonely Heiress, 1948

“I like to watch people around a depot. It’s fascinating. You can see so much of human nature that way. People aren’t on their guard when they’re dead-weary or when they’re completely removed from their usual environment. A person who lives here in the city feels he’s on his own home ground, no matter what part of the city he’s in, unless it’s the depot. But the minute he walks into the depot he’s started, so to speak, on a complete change of environment and he lets his guard down.”

Phantom Fortune, 1964

“Make up your mind to one thing, Mrs. Warren. After water has run downstream and over the dam, you can’t find any way on earth of getting it back upstream and over the dam a second time. Take things as they come. Concentrate on the present, forget the past.”

Bigamous Spouse, 1961

“Money was made round so it can be kept in circulation. Did you ever realize, Della, that if I take a dollar and pay it to Paul Drake, and Drake pays it to his landlady, and the landlady pays it to the grocer, that dollar is doing a man-sized job in the economy? Whereas, if I put the dollar in my pocket and sit on it – “

Perjured Parrot, 1936

“Let’s cheer up; let’s get this feeling of hopelessness completely licked.”


  1. Hello just trying to find your contact information. I'm putting up a piece that will interest you. RE: Robert Romeo Diamond Coates.

    1. Sorry, Rory: I don't publish my private contact info. You may leave information about your upcoming post here on the blog (though it would be more appropriate to leave it on one of the "Romeo Coates" posts). I'll look for your post.