Thursday, August 21, 2008

Case of the Misunderstood Mason

Ask anyone what they know about Perry Mason, and they'll probably respond "Raymond Burr." And in a way, that's a shame. Because the Perry Mason of TV fame (and later made-for-TV movies) is only a shadow of Erle Stanley Gardner's original creation.

Over the years, I've been able to find about two-thirds of the 82 novels Gardner wrote. And of all the people I know that read mysteries, not one has read Gardner, nor has any desire to do so. That's a shame, because there's a lot of enjoyment in these books.

First off, forget the cliches of the TV show. The 40-minute four-act structure of TV meant shortcuts had to be taken. The Perry Mason stories adapted to TV usually had their cast of suspects stripped down. The investigation took fewer turns and twists, involved fewer clues, and the guilty party always, always, always confessed on the stand after some goofy trial shenanigans.

Now the Perry Mason novels are not great literature. Erle Stanley Gardner was a practicing attorney, who in the 1930's began cranking out stories for pulp magazines. As his output (and subsequent income) increased, he transitioned out of law into full-time writing, sometimes dictating two novels simultaneously.

So what makes the Perry Mason books worth reading?

1) Authenticity -- Gardner was an imaginative attorney, and many of the tricks Mason plays in court were used by Gardner himself. And his first-hand knowledge of trial procedures makes Mason's courtroom scenes read like actual transcripts. Anyone who likes the courtroom part of "Law and Order" should enjoy a Perry Mason novel.

2) Forensics -- Gardner was fascinated by the evolving field of forensics, and often worked the latest developments into his novels. The criminal science is rooted in reality. The tests that Gardner describes and what they can (and can't) prove are factual, even if used to solve fanciful crimes.

3) A large cast of characters -- The TV series was limited to a few characters. Perry Mason, along with his secretary Della Street, and private investigator Paul Drake matched wits against police Lieutenant Tragg and district attorney Hamilton Burger. But the books were much more interesting. In addition to Della Street, Mason's law offices also employed Gertie, the receptionist who was a character in her own right. And for a time Mason had Jackson as a law partner -- a man completely different than Mason. While Mason was daring and resourceful, Jackson was straight-laced and traditional, relying exclusively on precedent.

And on the other side, there was Sergeant Holcomb, who like to ensure the person he arrested was the culprit by planting evidence and trying the case in the papers. Lieutenant Tragg was more perceptive and methodical -- and someone who Perry Mason both respected and was a little afraid of.

There were also a number of judges who made recurring appearances. Any lawyer will tell you that the judge trying the case can be a major factor in its outcome. Gardiner had a rotated cast of judges, some who liked Mason, some who didn't. A few were out to get Mason and continually put up obstructions. Whoever presided over the trial often affected the direction it took -- and the tactics Mason used.

4) A look into the past -- One could almost read the Perry Mason novels as historical fiction. Most were written before Miranda, and no one's read their rights. And that's just for starters. Perry Mason often has to race against the police to save evidence before its destroyed, interview witnesses before they disappear, and sequester his client before the police have a chance to force out a confession.

5) Variety -- On TV, the murderer always confesses on the stand. Not so in the novels. It does happen occasionally, but not every case even makes it to trial. Sometimes Perry Mason is able to prove his clients innocent at the preliminary hearing. Sometimes it happens between trials. And not all of Mason's clients are innocent. There's one book (I won't spoil it by revealing the title) where the client's guilty!

Gardner's writing style is as direct as Hemingway (without the artistic part). The stories move along briskly, and never fail to provide plenty of twist and turns.

To say you know all about Perry Mason because you've seen Raymond Burr's portrayal is like saying you know about the Saint because you've seen the movie, or that you know all about Oz because you've seen the movie (I'm thinking I've just given myself some more post ideas).

Forget the TV show. If you're into mysteries, just pick up a novel and judge for yourself.

- Ralph

Day 68 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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