On Perry Mason

Perry Mason as I remember him

In the book shop a couple of weeks ago I noticed that we’d had a big donation of Erle Stanley Gardner novels, all battered old copies in their distinctive green and white penguin paperback covers. The name wasn’t familiar to me, but out of curiosity I picked one up and read the back. Perry Mason! I immediately had the opening bars of the theme tune playing in my head. I never saw the original series, but I caught a few of the made for TV movies in the late 80s with a big white-bearded Raymond Barr looking like Santa Claus in a three-piece suit. In my ignorance, I had had no idea that the character was based on a series of novels, and what a series it must have been – there were at least twenty-five books stacked up in the back room.

Well of course I borrowed one to try it out, and it took me a while to get around to it. But in the end I devoured it over the course of an evening and the following morning. This was good stuff, if you like the old Golden Age style (and I really do), all puzzle, all panache, not much gore. The pace was fierce, with twists and turns and liberal scatterings of red herrings, and at the centre was Perry Mason, nominally a lawyer but far closer to a detective, one of the old school heroes who was indefatigable and relentless in his pursuit of the criminal. He reminded me very much of the British Paul Temple from the same era. Forget your Wallanders and your Morses, back in the 1930s and 40s there was enough blackness in the world for these men to distinguish themselves by being clever, brave and tenacious. They didn’t need to bleed their wounded characters over the pages to make themselves interesting, they were there to solve a crime. They could throw an effective punch if necessary, but what they really exercised were their brains.

How they used to be…

I’m now keen to read more of these novels to see what the formula is like, and how quickly it palls – or perhaps it doesn’t. There was sufficient ingenuity in the novel I read, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, to make me optimistic. You may remember the main characters: Della Street, Mason’s faithful secretary, Paul Drake, his hired private eye and the district attorney who disapproves of him but can’t catch him on the wrong side of the law, Hamilton Burger (what a name!). There are over 80 Perry Mason novels, apparently, but they are pretty much out of print. A few have appeared for kindle, quite a lot are available secondhand, and some were recently adapted for radio plays and are available as audio books. It struck me that here was an opportunity for a wily publisher.

Erle Stanley Gardner was one of the most prolific and bestselling authors ever, with several other series to his name beyond Perry Mason and a huge quantity of short stories sold to pulp magazines. He was a self-taught lawyer for twenty years, but gave it up after the publication of the earliest Perry Mason novels when he retreated to a cabin in the woods with a Dictaphone to up his already impressive output. That sounds like a good life to me. During his lifetime, he sold over 100 million copies of his books. In the couple of weeks it’s taken me to get around to reading the novel I brought back from the shop, we sold out all the books we had by him except for two (which came home with me on Friday). I’m not at all surprised if he’s still popular; I’m looking forward to reading more.


31 thoughts on “On Perry Mason

  1. “… all puzzle, all panache, not much gore. ” I long for such styling, esp. in movies. Seems like nowadays we need sensational effects to keep audience (and readers alike?) in their seats. And if you like this kind of classical rendering, you may like to see the recent film adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and other British talents. That’s a film with atomosphere and style w/o gore.

    You know, I did watch some of those original Perry Mason episodes in my childhood days, not understanding much of course. And, I never knew the TV series were based on books. 😉

    • Oh I could not agree more! It’s the violent sensationalism of recent cinema that really puts me off going. Thank you for the tip about TTSS – you know I am always on the look out for good gore-free movies. As for Perry Mason, I think I must have been in my teens so I was old enough to understand it all – apart from the relationship between Perry and Della. Were they together or were they not? It makes me laugh now to think of that!

  2. I recently found a few of the old green and white Penguin Perry Mason novels in Barter Books in Alnwick. I suppose secondhand bookshops are the best source, although libraries may have some copies.My local library has just two! I loved the TV series and these books took me right back in time to those days of black and white TV. I still like the style of crime fiction with its puzzles, clever detective work and lots of red herrings.

    • Margaret, the library is an excellent idea! I will check it out, and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more secondhand copies. I just love the old-fashioned stuff, both in books and on TV. Nowadays it seems we have to have a plot development a minute, rather than a good solid puzzle to figure out.

  3. The original TV series was also pretty great, if you ever get a chance to see it. It was on at lunchtime when I was in grad school in Southern California, and I wasn’t the only person I knew who used it wears a dissertation break.

    • When I was a student, all the scientists came back from the labs at lunchtime to watch Neighbours! I can imagine that Perry Mason would have made a fantastic break in the middle of the day and I’d certainly watch him if he were on TV now!

    • I just love that old-style detective novel, although no, I can’t imagine they were Dark Puss’s thing! 🙂 Thank you for posting the link, Karen. It’s always fascinating to hear what you and your readers have to say about an author.

  4. Gardner was a pen pal of Raymond Chandler, whose collected letters I’ve enjoyed. When Chandler was teaching himself to write he dissected a Gardner story and re-constructed it; in a letter to Gardner he jokingly describes being “kind of sore” he couldn’t use it after all that work. He also kids Gardner on being so prolific. Thanks for the tip, you’re the 2nd blogger to recommend Gardner–wish I had more hours in the day for al the reading I’d like to do!

    • Wouldn’t it be great if there were enough hours for all the reading? It’s what I’d ask the genie for, I know! And fascinating to think that Chandler, such a mystery snob, was in correspondance with Gardner and must have admired him to some extent. Such interesting things you know, Ben!

  5. I vaguely remember the name but that’s about all. You make it sound like something worth (re)discovering.
    I wouldn’t be surprsied if he was republished sooner or later.

    • If you really like Golden Age crime, he is certainly worth a try. I’ve found that some of his novels are still in print, but they don’t seem to be the best ones and several were published posthumously originally (never a good sign). I do hope some enterprising publisher comes along.

  6. Goodness, this takes me back. I saw the tv series on a regular basis, when I was very, very young of course! Never knew they were books or who the author was – you’ve made me nostalgic now!

    • I’m feeling nostalgic about them too! I’d quite like a look at that old TV series. I’m such a stoneage woman – I’d much rather watch the old things rather than the new!

  7. Dadadaa da DA dadadaaaa da DA…Oh, how I loved watching the old black-and-white reruns of that show (when Raymond Burr was young; I think I had a crush on him). And the books! Wonderful, but it was such fun watching Mason chop the DA into… ; )
    Thanks for the memories!

    • That’s it! That’s it! It’s almost immediate, the theme tune sounding in my head as soon as I hear the name. And I’ll bet Raymond Barr was cute when younger. I really must watch the old series!

  8. What a lucky find. I am familiar with the name but I never did get around to watching any Perry Mason on TV–I didn’t actually realize that Gardner wrote the Perry Mason stories, so I will have to check them out as well. I like panache and good hard detective work! 🙂

    • Danielle, I think you will like these – plus they have a California setting! Some times there is nothing like a good murder mystery of the old, cozy style. I find them so very comforting.

  9. I’ve never seen the TV series though I’ve probably read all the books. That photo isn’t at all as I imagined him to be! I rather thought he’d look like Dick Tracy from the comic strip.

    • How about that – you are an exception here amongst folk who have mostly seen the series but not read the books. I can so see why you might think he’d look like Dick Tracy – a perfectly reasonable fantasy!

  10. I didn’t know Perry Mason was from a book! My mom loved the TV show and would frequently watch it in reruns on TV Saturday afternoons. Black and White TV? Blech! It made my sister and I roll our eyes and sent us running outdoors which is probably what my mom wanted to happen anyway!

    • I never cared for black and white tv when I was younger, but since I’ve watched a few early Hitchcock’s on it, I’m more tolerant. Still, maybe you could try it again, when you have gardening you don’t feel like doing…..? 😉

  11. I asked for light summer reading–here’s another recommendation from you to add to it! I saw a Perry Mason episode (TV series original) just a few months ago for the first time and was intrigued.

    • Oh light summer reading is among my favourite things. Which of course begs the question why I don’t actually spend my summers reading it! Fancy you having caught one of the TV programmes – what a coincidence!

  12. I love Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason. I have nearly all of ESG’s books, mostly in paperback and several about him and his books. His writing is superb. I also have nearly all of Rex Stout’s books, a writer just before and during ESG’s time. Another wonderful writer! Thanks for such a wonderful post!

  13. I’m late to this party, but thought that I’d join in. The A.A. Fair books are especially fine, but the Perry Mason mysteries are great. I’ve read a bunch–not all, but many.

    I still love the TV series. I own several seasons on DVD, and I love popping in a disk and watching Perry at work. (And Della Street was gorgeous.) I’m an attorney myself, and I know the stuff isn’t realistic. But it’s hugely fun.

  14. At age 12 while on vacation, my aunt gave me (with some trepidation about the more lurid parts – they weren’t!) The Case of the Singing Skirt. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m now 57. I love the period styling, the characters, and yes, even the formula, which has a nice kitsch feel to it. (I recently told my business partner that I wanted an assistant like Della, whose “fingers fly over the dial” of a phone.) I love that they are puzzles, not really action-adventure novels, and the formula makes the ending predictable so you can focus on the puzzle and how Perry uses courtroom procedure to solve the. That’s the part I have loved most – the introduction to the law and courtroom procedure (contorted though it was – even at 12 I could tell what was artistic license and what was reality.). As an adult, the basics of that knowledge have been invaluable – an influence which I evidently share with Sonya Sotomayor. Meanwhile, as I exhaust all of the PM library (most recently on kindle but I’m about to go back to books), I’m looking for other sources that give me the same intellectual thrill of courtroom drama and legal “education.” There have been some pretenders, but nobody like PM. Thanks for your post! Any suggestions for me would be appreciated!

  15. I, too, am a fan. I have ALL the Perry Mason novels in hardback. I have been a collector for years. I also have the series published in the 1960’s that have two stories in each book. In order to free up some space, I am now selling all my paperbacks. I have 65 paperbacks and another 20 that are duplicate titles. Any one interested? Email me, brendajutt@gmail.com.

  16. I remember racing thru the Perry Mason books as a teenager growing up in Bombay. Was a fun fast read ! Then I discovered the bw TV shows, which I love. Now I’m fascinated by the various book-covers that were printed over the years in the US and UK. There are some really fantastic ones out there. I have collected quite a few from Google Images. Anyone have any good scans ? We can trade . . .

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