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.
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.