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Jerry Dowlen: Erle Stanley Gardner

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Jerry Dowlen on... Erle Stanley Gardner

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives

 

Erle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason crime fiction series

 

A sure way for a bookshop or library to earn a gold star from me is to stock a Perry Mason book by Erle Stanley Gardner!

 

The prolific Gardner (1889 – 1970) wrote more than eighty Perry Mason stories. Alas, there are not many of them in circulation any more. Don’t give up looking: if you can find one, you are in for a treat. Perry Mason and his courtroom confrontations are classic American crime fiction. All right: the stories can be a bit formulaic; the plots can veer dangerously close to hokum on occasions; but those are not serious flaws. Indeed, they are all part of the fun!

 

Gardner, who lived in California, sent out his first Perry Mason story in 1933. The inspiration for inventing the fictional defence lawyer came from his own real life experience of working in court.  The actor Raymond Burr took the title role in a long-running 1950s and 1960s CBS television series.

 

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (1935)

 

 It was my good fortune recently to find a copy of a very early Perry Mason story. The Case of the Counterfeit Eye was written in 1935. The story is now eighty years old but it fizzes with freshness and fun. It is surely one of Gardner’s best. Gardner shines through as a mentally energetic and inventive author displaying full confidence in his power to unleash a bucking bronco of a story but to keep everything under control even though his reader must be continually falling out of the saddle as crazy clues and confusing contrivances keep piling up.

 

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye was the seventh Perry Mason story. We can see in hindsight that it contained early forerunners of all the main hallmarks that made the stories a world famous and best-selling brand.

 

For example, the story started as many of the others did: Perry Mason would be sitting at his desk reluctantly sifting through routine correspondence while pleading to his secretary Della Street that he was pining for a dramatic murder trial and a good fight in front of a jury. Sure enough, right on cue, a highly excitable client would burst in to the consultation room and after listening to a bizarre and dubious-sounding story Mason would agree to be retained even though he instinctively smelt a rat.

 

After you have read a few Mason stories you will know it’s a slam dunk that his client will end up being arrested for murder and that Mason will need every ounce of his cunning and eloquence to save his client from the electric chair. Somewhere along the way you can bet that the client and/or a key witness will disappear – sometimes having been spirited away by Mason himself, to delay and exasperate the police. (When this happens, the glorious phrase always used by Mason is “Let’s take a run-out powder.”) You can expect too that Mason will secretly ferret out a crucial piece of evidence that will confound the opposing attorney when it is dramatically revealed in court. (Cue another glorious slang phrase whenever Mason gets hold of some vital information: “We’ve hit pay dirt.”)

 

Another regular trademark of a Perry Mason story is the need for Gardner to impart snippets of scientific, medical, pharmaceutical or forensic data so that the reader will have a sporting chance to deduce or understand the eventual solution to the mystery. In The Case of the Counterfeit Eye the reader gets a crash-course in learning how false eyes are made and fitted! Gardner is such a skilful writer that all this information is slotted in seamlessly, without disrupting the narrative flow of the action. And the reader certainly appreciates being given the information, for this is a beguiling tale in which an apparent suicide is complicated by the discovery of three different guns lying next to the body! A glass eye is being clutched by the dead man and then when a second man is found dead later on in the story there is a glass eye in his clutch, too!     

 

Paul Drake

 

The lanky and good-humoured Paul Drake is a key character who helps Perry Mason in all the stories. Paul Drake runs his own investigation bureau and his detective agency is headquartered in the same building, just a few doors along the corridor from Mason’s office.

 

Despite the absolute certainty that each new investigation is going to land both of them in hot water with the police and will keep them up all day and night for at least the first 48 hours of investigating the case, Drake always agrees to help his friend. The usual consequence for Drake is that he must immediately detail a large number of his employees, spread across many locations, to start shadowing Mason’s latest new client and “getting the dope” (another lovely phrase) so that Mason can get a full picture of his client’s background.

 

It is one of the joys of a Perry Mason story, I contend, that the reader sometimes has to suspend normal belief and accept instead some preposterous hokum! Never is this truer, I contend, than in the frequent instances when Paul Drake performs improbable miracles of conquering time and space to fulfil Mason’s demanding requirements for information. Whenever Mason has a hunch that somebody is about to make a phone call or visit a certain place, Drake always somehow conjures it that one of his operatives happens to be in exactly the right spot at the right time to overhear the conversation or to tail the suspect and watch him or her go into or come out from a doorway. Let’s remember that there were no mobile phones or fax machines in 1935! – so it does seem to be rather staggering in The Case of the Counterfeit Eye that barely a day and a night has elapsed since Mason first took the case, but already Drake has had twenty operatives at work, chasing down different angles. Next thing we know, Drake is supplying to Mason a comprehensively documented and photographic account of the client’s family history and love-life.

 

Della Street

 

Della Street is Mason’s loyal, efficient and attractive secretary. She is another key member of the cast. Critics have pondered Gardner’s depiction of their relationship. The balance of probability seems to be that Mason is too much a workaholic to have time for a girl friend or wife, while Della is the archetype single gal who prizes her independence. And so they have a perfect understanding: a boss to secretary relationship that is strictly platonic even though they share moments of intimacy such as after-dinner dancing or Della massaging Mason’s neck and back when he complains of stress while sitting in his office chair.

 

Sometimes a story will plunge Della into personal danger: for example when Mason instructs her to disguise herself and lead the police on a wild-goose chase; or when Mason asks her to accompany him to a house where he hopes that a key clue might be found, but the two of them have to masquerade as husband and wife in order to gain the confidence of the owner.

 

Della’s dignity can sometimes be compromised.  In The Case of the Counterfeit Eye Mason phones her flat in the middle of the night and summons her the office in such a hurry that she barely has time to dress before the cab is ready outside. Mason thus finds her sitting at her desk wearing a fur coat that is buttoned tightly about her, with a length of long stockinged leg visible beneath. By dawn, with their urgent work completed, a repentant Mason offers Della a look-in at one of the late-night clubs before she goes home. She replies: “If I took this fur coat off I’d be arrested. This coat covers a multitude of sins.”

 

Della is always deferential to her boss (she often calls him ‘Chief’) but her feminine intuition can be most valuable when Mason’s client is a dangerous dame. When a blond or brunette bombshell sits down in Mason’s office, crosses her long legs and flutters her eyelashes before telling him a sob-story, Della’s appraising eagle- eye will usually spot all the warning signs that she must explain to Mason afterwards.

 

The names of some of the books spell it out: Mason encounters dangerous dames in stories such as The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece, The Case of the Vagabond Virgin, The Case of the Gold-Digger’s Purse, The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Case of the Footloose Doll – to name only a few!

 

The Case of the Postponed Murder (1970)

 

The Case of the Postponed Murder was the very last of the Perry Mason stories and was published posthumously in 1973. The maestro of mystery Erle Stanley Gardner was still going strong and his key characters Perry Mason, Paul Drake and Della Street were still doing all the familiar things that had millions of readers compulsively  turning the pages to grapple with Gardner’s intricate and inventive plots.

 

Mason by now had presumably learned a few things from Della with regard to feminine wiles, because in this new case involving an apparent murder on a yacht he could work out for himself that a young lady client was too expensively dressed and manicured to be the small town country girl that she had purported.

 

Paul Drake would again always slide his lanky body into his customary sideways-sitting position in Perry Mason’s armchair and he would again achieve prodigious feats of investigating and tailing key suspects in the mystery so that Mason would get the lowdown at breakneck speed. He would again worry that Mason’s unorthodox conduct would result in the pair of them having their licences confiscated by the state authorities. But in some forty years of being a fictional lawyer who never resists a challenge, Perry Mason knows no other way of running a case. Early in the story The Case of the Postponed Murder he confesses:

 

                “I am a natural born grandstander. My friends call it a flair for the dramatic. Curiosity about          people and an interest in anything that looks like a mystery is always getting me into    trouble.”

 

When it comes to unmasking villains – always with a dramatic denouement that draws loud gasps when he turns the tables in the courtroom – Perry Mason is up there with all the very best of the master sleuths who are established legends of crime fiction.

 

Jerry Dowlen

August 2015

 

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:

 

John Masefield

Bailouts

Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...

 


 

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