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Bring Back Perry!

By tomsoterwriting - Posted on 08 October 2010

As a teenager aged 13 or 14, I started reading Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. He was a childhood favorite and I quickly went through about 60 or so Mason novels over a two-year period.  A few months ago, I read a Mason novel I had never read before – the last one to be published in Gardner's lifetime, The Case of the Fabulous Fake (1969) – and found it to be a real page-turner. I then went back and re-read the first Mason mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), and found that it was just as gripping, if not more so. I subsequently began a project that only an obsessive compulsive person like me would attempt: re-reading (or reading, since there were about 20 Masons I had never read) the entire series in chronological order (for the record, I just finished Mason No. 22, The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito, form the 1940s).

I remember being irritated when Erle Stanley Gardner died in 1970 and one of the obituary writers – I think it was a guy in Newsweek – sneerlingly said that "Gardner never learned to write worth beans." What the hell did that mean? He was certainly not a fancy stylist like Henry James or William Faulkner – but if writing is about fast pacing, clever plotting, and compelling characters then ESG was aces in my book, condescending critic be damned.

He was certainly embraced by the public. Gardner was a best-selling writer of his period (a long one, from 1933 to 1970) but is largely unknown by the general public today, thanks to the indifference of his life-long publisher, William Morrow & Co., which long ago let Gardner's 82 Mason books fall out of print. It's a crime almost as bad as any of the murders perpetrated by the characters Mason encounters. For the Perry Mason novels bear only a superficial resemblance to the long-running (nine years on CBS, starting in 1957) Mason TV show, in which Raymond Burr gave a stolid, effective performance as the ace criminal lawyer.

But the Mason TV show was more formulaic than the books (at least, the earlier ones) The first 10 minutes would set up the suspects and murder, the next 15 minutes would bring Mason into the case, and the final 25 minutes would involve a courtroom sequence in which Perry would invariably browbeat a confession out of someone, usually only with circumstantial evidence that a clever lawyer could beat on appeal. Few lawyers who knew of and/or watched Perry Mason took it seriously as law (in fact, a recording shown to jurors in New York City even presents a clip from the series, showing a witness saying, "I did it, I'm glad I killed him!" and warning viewers not to expect that to happen in court).

Most attorneys do not realize that Mason was created by a real-life attorney, Gardner, and that his character regularly used real points of law to win his cases. The books are fast-paced entertainments, usually opening in Mason's office with some client appearing with a bizarre case that appeals to Mason's sense of intrigue and they keep going at a crackerjack speed from then on, as Mason uses every legal trck in the book to stay ahead of disbarment or out of jail as he tries to clear an often-deceptive client from murder charges. They are great reads for the subway (you'll often miss your stop). But don't trust me. Go to Amazon and find a secondhand Mason novel for sale (priced anywhere from a penny to $140). And then write William Morrow & Co. and say, "We want Mason back!" What are they thinking?

October 9, 2010