Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Case of the Prolific Author

When I want to switch off my brain I pick up a mystery novel. I don't have any real favorites, and I've read across a broad spectrum of the mystery field.

For all my mystery reading I'd never read a Perry Mason novel until a couple of years ago when I ran across a used copy of the first Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws. The novel was published in 1933, and at the time author Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific and well-paid writers of pulp magazine stories. He had created several series characters before Perry Mason.

I found a stack of Perry Mason hardcovers in a thrift store, but it was the one with a dust jacket, The Case of the Calendar Girl, that got me started. I'd bought three of the hardbacks, read them, then went looking for more. I picked up several paperbacks in another thrift store.

Perry Mason novels, like the Perry Mason television series starring Raymond Burr, are formulaic. In the novels Mason is a trickster. He sometimes does something illegal to help his client and trick the police (Lt. Tragg) or the D.A. (Hamilton Burger). The courtroom scenes are usually a highlight and appear toward the end of the books, since the murderer is almost also disclosed in the courtroom.

Gardner was a lawyer, although he didn't go to college for a law degree. He studied and passed the bar exam, then practiced for twenty years. The dialogue is right out of law books, with the lawyers trading lines like, "This is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial," and, "Objected to. Not responsive to the question which has already been asked and answered." It's what you expect to see in courtroom scenes in movies and on TV. It gives the scene some realism, especially considering the amount of chicanery Perry Mason pulls off.

Gardner used six secretaries to transcribe his books, which he recorded on Dictaphone, the ancestor of wire and tape recorders. He was said to dictate up to 10,000 words a day, which is a lot. Consider the average page of a book is 250 words. Using simple math you can see Gardner could dictate a whole book in a week or so. Gardner worked out his plots in longhand and had everything carefully planned before doing his dictation

Mason usually doesn't discuss money with the clients and you wonder why he's so successful since his clients often don't appear too well heeled. But in the novel I'm currently reading, The Case of the Counterfeit Eye, published in 1935, Mason asks a client for $1500, which was more than a year's salary at the time. The man produces 1,500 one dollar bills.

Huh! I blinked at that. It stretches credulity past the breaking point.

Another time Perry tells Paul Drake, the private detective, to "put your men on it. Put 100 men out there distributing flyers," as if 100 men were sitting around the office waiting for something to do. As a matter of fact, that's the impression the reader gets anyway, that Paul's men have nothing to do but Perry Mason's business.

The Perry Mason books are popcorn. They are light, fun, fast novels. You don't think about them too much or you'll be like me, picking holes in the plots. Despite having lots of those oddball moments where everything just dovetails perfectly (as if we ever doubted it), the Perry Mason novels are really great entertainment.

Also, there is a story between the lines of a love affair between Della Street, Perry's confidential secretary, and Perry. Gardner never writes of it except in the most oblique terms. During the course of the case Mason and Street are strictly business, but in the last paragraphs we get the idea how they're going to celebrate victory.

From The Case of the Cautious Coquette:
Mason nodded. "I thought," he said, "we could arrange for a congratulatory dinner, in celebration of squeezing out of a trap through a darn narrow opening, Della."

She glanced at him demurely. "Then why get rid of Paul Drake?"

"Because I didn't think we needed a chaperon."

"Sounds interesting," Della Street said.
Or from The Case of the Footloose Doll:
Della Street looked up at him with misty eyes.

"Will you please bend over," she said, "so I can kiss you on the forehead?"

Mason regarded her with eyes that were tender. He said gently, "I'm afraid, Della, I can't bend quite that far. You won't mind if I'm a few inches short, will you?"

"Not at all," she told him.
Della gets the last word. Perry and Della, gettin' it on, but not during office hours. What a great boss!

1 comment:

maur.expertise said...

Thanks for leaving these excerpts from the books. I am an avid fan of the series, and watch the DVDs over and over, enjoying each episode as if it's the first time I've seen it. One of my great questions has been about the nature of the relationship between Perry and Della. During Season One and Two in particular,the two are inseparable, but wonderfully so, with a great chemistry that is always only suggestive. But anyone watching over time would have to conclude that there is something between the two which is saved for "off hours". They travel together way too much for the era of extreme morality which would have forbidden an unmarried duo frequenting one another overnight - remember their being aboard ship, ostensibly returning from a case in Canada? And she always looks so hot... But the subtlety of it is delightful. And of course, the fact of Burr's sexuality has nothing to do with that of the writer's characters... thanks for the info! C.P.