The Case of the Cunning Counsellor: The Complete Cases of Perry Mason
The Case of the Bored Barrister
Erle Stanley Gardner was a restless man. His interests were varied, his talents prodigious. He had no time for ritualistic rigmaroles nor for routine and the rigid. When he attended law school in Indiana, he was expelled after a month for spending too long in the boxing ring. A lesser man would have flinched and gone into despair. Not Gardner. He moved to California, taught himself law and passed the state bar exam in 1911.
Twenty years of law practice in California gave him plenty of insight into the criminal world and the shenanigans of many shysters who worked equally at upholding the law and at twisting it to their own and their clients ends. Gardner put this insight into good use.
While enjoying the trials and his preparation towards them, he hated the rest of the red tape associated with law. To distract himself from the mundane, he started to write stories for the pulp magazine of the moment 'The Black Mask'. The same magazine that nurtured the talents of other superstar pulp writers such as Raymond Chandler, Cornel Woolrich and Dashiel Hammett.
Gardner, in the course of his legal career, created a project called 'The Court of Last Resort'. Using his many contacts in the police, forensic and legal communities, he undertook to review cases of likely legal injustice where innocent people could have been convicted due to lazy representation from their lawyer, victimization by the police and misrepresentation of evidence.
With all these experiences under his belt, it wasn't long before his most famous creation, the one for which he will be known the world over, the one that helped him sell over 135 million books at the time of his death in 1970, the one that graced radio, television and film screens, the one who inspired the creation of court room drama as a way of entertaining millions that has since been ruthlessly copied by millions... was born.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I give you, without further ado, Perry Mason, Attorney at Law.
Gardner in Pulp MagazinesClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Case of the Prolific Pulpster
Gardner honed his craft in the pulp magazines. This was where writers, who got paid by the word, rattled out story after story infused with 'hard boiled noir' of the time. The action was slick and quick, the characters drawn with broad brush strokes with little intricacy, the pace breathless and plot populistic.
He had already created a character called Kit Cornish, a crusading lawyer much in the vein of Gardner's own practice. While he enjoyed the publications in pulp magazine, ambitious Gardner soon wanted to expand beyond the mere confines of dime store fiction. He wanted a character after his own heart, someone who is led more by curiosity than by chore, a man who is not afraid to take risks, one who takes leaps of faith based on intuition.
Perry Mason was born. When Erle wanted a name for his new creation, he harked back to his own reading. As a child in Massachusetts, he had devoured magazines such as 'Youth's Companion'. This precursor of modern day Young Adult writing was published by a 'Perry Mason & Co.' which was prominently featured in its masthead. Gardner remembered this name and gave this to his own creation.
Gardner's Californian Haunts
From 'The Case of the Velvet Claws'
Perry Mason smiled at her. " I know. Most of the attorney's you've consulted have had expensive suites of offices and a lot of clerks running in and out... I'm different. I get my business because I fight for it...People that come to me don't come to me because they like the look of my eyes, r the way my office is furnished, or because they've known me at the club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I do."
She looked up at him then."Just what is it that you do , Mr Mason?"
He snapped out two words at her." I fight!"
The Case of the Daring Defender
Perry Mason is first introduced in 'The Case of the Velvet Claws'. In the early novels he is more of a Detective than a lawyer, giving away his pulp origins. While still crusading for the innocent, he is not shy of hiding evidence, breaking in, or brawling with the brutes. Yet there is something refreshingly different about the character being an 'attorney-at-law'.
Gardner introduces his new character with brutal efficiency. There is little in the way of backstory. The plot unravels right from the first paragraph. We are giving very little about Perry Mason apart from the fact that he operates out of a spartan office, lives in an apartment and works all sorts of hours when solving a case. He has no family and no known friends. His confidantes are the ever faithful secretary, Della Street and his detective friend, Paul Drake.
Mason enjoys pursuing the impossible. The hopeless case and the hapless client attract his attention. His instinct draws him to cases that may look open and shut on first pass but show deeper deviousness at play.
Gardner may not be a literary craftsmen, but boy he knew how to plot. The books always had two solutions: the one which looked obvious to the prosecution and the second more ingenious alternative that not only proved the innocence of Mason's client but also helped to unveil the real criminal.Most of the Perry Mason mysteries featured murders and victims that Mason and Drake stumble upon.
Soon Mason will be asked to represent the suspect in what sounds like a straightforward case to the prosecuting attorney. The long suffering Hamilton Burger, who pretty much loses every case against Mason, yet holds a begrudging appreciation for the latter's ingenious mind. Put into the mix is the series regular Lieutenant Tragg, the policeman who while wary of Mason's tactics, is another unwittign assistant in Mason's investigation.
The First 20 booksClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Case of the Restless Writer
Gardner was a literary agents dream. He was popular and prolific. He was so productive that he had to hire a bevy of typists and was one of the first writers to use a dictaphone. He is said to have paced up and down in his office, dictating the new novel while his secretaries were typing up drafts of his previous. He was so prolific he was dictating two to three books at various stages of gestation at the same time. He churned out three or four novels a year while still submitting short fiction to the magazines. The Man was a writing machine!
Apart from Writing Perry Mason mysteries, he also created the Doug Selby series in which the protagonist was a DA in a perfect antithesis to Mason. He also wrote stories featuring the unlikely duo of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, under the pen name AA Fair.
It was for the Perry Mason mysteries that he was known worldwide.The books sold millions in hardback and paperback and were an international hit. In all, 82 Perry Mason books were released - 80 in his lifetime and two posthumously. There were also three short story collections featuring Perry.
The Perry Mason Bibliography: The Case of The....
1: Velvet Claws (1933)
31: Lonely Heiress (1948)
61: Waylaid Wolf (1960)
2: Sulky Girl (1933)
32: Vagabond Virgin (1948)
62: Duplicate Daughter (1960)
3: Lucky Legs (1934)
33: Dubious Bridegroom (1949)
63: Shapely Shadow (1960)
4: Howling Dog (1934)
34: Cautious Coquette (1949)
64: Spurious Spinster (1961)
5: Curious Bride (1935)
35: Negligent Nymph (1950)
65: Bigamous Spouse (1961)
6: Counterfeit Eye (1935)
36: One-Eyed Witness (1950)
66: Reluctant Model (1962)
7: Caretaker's Cat (1935)
37: Fiery Fingers (1951)
67: Blonde Bonanza (1962)
8: Sleepwalker's Niece (1936)
38: Angry Mourner (1951)
68: Ice-Cold Hands (1962)
9: Stuttering Bishop (1936)
39: Moth-Eaten Mink (1952)
69: Amorous Aunt (1963)
10: Dangerous Dowager (1937)
40: Grinning Gorilla (1952)
70: Stepdaughter's Secret (1963)
11: Lame Canary (1937)
41: Hesitant Hostess (1953)
71: Mischievous Doll (1963)
12: Substitute Face (1938)
42: Green-Eyed Sister (1953)
72: Phantom Fortune (1964)
13: Shoplifter's Shoe (1938)
43: Fugitive Nurse (1954)
73: Horrified Heirs (1964)
14: Perjured Parrot (1939)
44: Runaway Corpse (1954)
74: Daring Divorcee (1964)
15: Rolling Bones (1939)
45: Restless Redhead (1954)
75: Troubled Trustee (1965)
16: Baited Hook (1940)
46: Sun Bather's Diary (1955)
76: Beautiful Beggar (1965)
17: Silent Partner (1940)
47: Glamorous Ghost (1955)
77: Worried Waitress (1966)
18: Haunted Husband (1941)
48: Nervous Accomplice (1955)
78: Queenly Contestant (1967)
19: Empty Tin (1941)
49: Terrified Typist (1956)
79: Careless Cupid (1968)
20: Drowning Duck (1942)
50: Gilded Lily (1956)
80: Fabulous Fake (1969)
21: Careless Kitten (1942)
51: Demure Defendant (1956)
81: Fenced-In Woman (1972)p*
22: Buried Clock (1943)
52: Screaming Woman (1957)
82: Postponed Murder (1973)p*
23: Drowsy Mosquito (1943)
53: Lucky Loser (1957)
83:Crying Swallow (1947) ss*
24: Crooked Candle (1944)
54: Daring Decoy (1957)
84: Crimson Kiss (1948) ss*
25: Black-Eyed Blonde (1944)
55: Foot-Loose Doll (1958)
85: Irate Witness (1953) ss*
26: Golddigger's Purse (1945)
56: Long-legged Models (1958)
27: Half-Wakened Wife (1945)
57: Calendar Girl (1958)
p* published posthumously
28: Borrowed Brunette (1946)
58: Singing Skirt (1959)
29: Fan Dancer's Horse (1947)
59: Mythical Monkeys (1959)
ss* short story collections
30: Lazy Lover (1947)
60: Deadly Toy (1959)
Books 21- 40Click thumbnail to view full-size
By the time I left high school I had read pretty much every Perry Mason going. I often challenged my classmates during any heated debate with those magical words 'That is incompetent, irrelevant and calling to the conclusion of the witness'. I thought I knew every nuance of California law. Thanks to Perry, my friends thought I had gone cuckoo.
The Case of the Predictable Plotlines
Gardner knew his audience and stuck to his templates. He rarely varied the plot dynamics although the clues and the courtroom twists did vary.
They followed a cosy pattern that the readers loved.
Perry Mason usually meets a client and takes on a case. The client may or may not tell him the whole truth. A murder occurs implicating Perry's client. The Authorities led by Lt Tragg think they have an open and shut case. The DA Hamilton Burger gets involved ( does he ever learn?) Perry investigates with the assistance of his lovely secretary Della Street ( unrequited love!) and crusty sidekick Paul Drake ( wisecracking, donut munching private dick), The case goes to trial. Perry juggles evidence and using curious methods to tantalise the Jury. Paul sometimes arrives at the last minute clutching some vital evidence that Perry needs (Thanks Paul!). Perry questions a key witness who then confesses to the crime or is exposed as the true culprit. Perry and crew retire o discuss how the legal eagle spotted the true villain using clues within. What's not to like?
With its titillating cover images, sensational titles and the sure knowledge that Perry will always bring the culprit in, the readers thronged to the titles worldwide. The mysteries have been translated all over the world and still enjoy a loyal following. I read them when I was at school and went into a 'collection' mania where I had to track down each title and read it. By the time I left high school I had read pretty much every Perry Mason going. I often challenged by classmates during debate with those magical words 'That is incompetent, irrelevant and calling to the conclusion of the witness'. I thought I knew every nuance of California law. Thanks to Perry.
Books 41 - 60Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Case of the Media Mania
It wasn't long after the first publication of Velvet Claws that Hollywood came calling. Living in California, Gardner was able to work closely with the studios. The first film to be made was 'The Case of the Howling Dog' in 1934. It featured Warren William as Perry Mason and Helen Trenholme as Della Street. With good production values and pretty good screenplay, the film was a moderate success and spawned six more between 1934 and 1940. The Studios opted for cheaper productions and the films soon went from an A grade thriller to a B grade tone. It was a law of diminishing returns and the films fizzled out.
There was also a 15 minute Radio serial of the Perry Mason stories that Gardner was initially enthusiastic about. As it was vogue those days, the serial interspersed Mason story lines with soapy drama, that Gardner was soon frustrated and withdrew his support. Despite this the producers continued in the same vein with different characters and different storylines and was became a long running Radio serial called 'Edge of the Night'.
It was in 1957 that Perry moved to the Magic Box under the careful guidance of Gardner and the CBS studios. The Perry Mason TV series made a star out of Raymond Burr and ran for nine seasons with excellent ratings and mass popularity.
Books 61- 80Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Case of the Lasting Legacy
Perry Mason soon became a cultural icon. A template for all legal series to come. The TV versions, like other book adaptations, used but Gardner's own stories but also created their own storylines.
With its memorable title theme ( Park Avenue Beat by Fred Steiner), ensemble casting led by Raymond Burr and featuring Barbara Hale ( Della) , William Hopper ( Paul Drake) William Tallman (Hamilton Burger) and Ray Collins ( Lt. Tragg) Perry was TV comfort food. Mason always won his cases ( all apart from three out of three hundred- even those were apparently declared mistrials off screen!).
Among all the offspring of the hard boiled noir of the thirties, Erle Stanley Gardner's creation still rules the roost. Philip Marlowe may be cool and stoic, Lew Archer may have vanished in the mists of time, Sam Spade may be memorable to the cult fans but it is the enduring everyman Perry Mason who is still in print all over the world, gathering new fans and making old ones smile.
Posthumous books and collections 81-85Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Case of the Downey Dream
It is not surprising that the Perry Mason books are ripe for re-mining. The latest news is that Robert Downey Jr. has acquired the rights to the Mason novels and the script is in works by screenwriter Mark Guggenheim ( Ex attorney and Popular scriptwriter ( Green Lantern) and TV scribe Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Eli Stone, and FlashForward)
The Internet is buzz with rumours on whether it is will a new story conceived by Downey and his team to launch Perry Mason to a new generation. One wonders whether the setting will be period 1930s and 40s or whether Downey intends to bring Mason into the 21st century. IT is no doubt with his easy charm, wisecracking demeanor and recent pedigree of alluring characters ( Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes) Robert Downey Jr is ideally placed to bring back the crusading counsellor for another successful franchise.