Friday, October 18, 2013

Perry Mason, revisited nineteen years later.

I was an Erle Stanley Gardener fan for a long time.

Nineteen years ago, when I (a teenager then) picked my first Perry Mason case, I was fascinated…fascinated enough to pick twenty more Perry Masons, and then venture into other series written by ES Gardener. I read ‘Cool & Lam’ series; loved the cliffhangers, didn’t enjoy the potboilers…then was the district attorney ‘Doug Selby’ series; one that I didn’t like. Perry Mason remained my favorite hero. Give me one of his cases any time, and I’ll devour the delicious mystery zestfully.

I kept on reading Perry Mason for the following five or six years, then I moved on. Frankly, I don’t remember why I stopped looking for more…distraction more or less.

More than a decade passed by without me thinking about revisiting the cool, always feet-apart, lawyer. Last week, however, I came across an article on court room fiction, and suddenly my appetite for Perry Masons rekindled acutely…sort of nostalgic craving.

I left what I was reading aside and hunted for a couple of the old paperbacks. I picked “The case of the velvet claws,” the first of the Perry Mason cases (1933), and an all time favorite for PM’s fans, and “The case of the ice-cold hands” (1962): one of the latter cases.

I read the two novels on two consecutive days…and was shocked how my taste (and consequently opinion) has radically changed.

The Case of the Velvet Claws

Perry Mason is introduced gloriously; his character is lightly and enigmatically sketched, giving the impression of a tough, resilient guy, who wouldn’t budge at all, with quite an expressionless face, except for the occasional glint of the eyes. However, as we’ll see later, this description is totally inaccurate, as we’ll encounter a more robust, rash, quite irresponsible character, who archaically adheres to noble, stone-hard values—especially loyalty to his clients, however corrupt or rotten they are. Meanwhile, he is quite disrespectful of essentially more important personal and social values: he lies throughout, makes trades with outlaws, breaks the law, tampers with evidence, and indulges in disgraceful setups…during which he extorts, blackmails one character, and bribes another. Erle Stanley Gardener claims his protagonist is somber, wise, and honest, while he’s portrayed as nothing of that. He’s an incredibly heterogeneous mishmash. IMHO, ESG hoped to present his hero as a parable of virtues; however, he made him behave as any typical detective hero from a 1930s hardboiled movie. If you replaced Perry Mason’s name with that of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, it’ll fit in smoothly: essentially the archetypical American private eye, who is clever, brave, craves the truth and justice, yet flexible enough to be as villainous as his counterparts if need arises.

In “The case of the velvet claws,” Perry Mason embarks on the first of his 100+ adventures, by meeting the typical ESG client: a beautiful, sexy female who pitches lies all over the place, and throughout the course of the novel. This time, she is an Eva Griffin, a woman married to an extremely wealthy man, yet dating another extremely popular politician. A sensationalist magazine gets wind of one of those dates; they recognize the politician, but yet to recognize the woman. Eva Griffin recruits Mason to bribe the editor of the magazine, so as to abort any further investigation and to avoid publishing the story. Perry Mason agrees and talks the slimy editor, but gets appalled by the incredible high fee. Rash enough, Perry Mason chases after the secret owner of the tabloid, hunts him down in his villa, and challenges him in his own office…only to find out later that he’s the husband of his client, Eva.

Matters grow contentious, and soon spiral out of control. A couple of days later, the gruesome husband is killed. The wife-and client-is as bitchy and treacherous as ever. She summons Perry Mason to her help, and incredulously frames him for the murder.

Descriptions are vivid, action is breath-taking and the characters are lively (though mostly fake and hyperbole), and the novel almost works out at 80% of its length.

However, ES Gardener botched it horrendously in the finale.

*Spoilers* Just to sanctify his protagonist, he committed the utmost blunder. After a tight chase, Perry Mason incredibly succeeds in bluffing his bitchy client and forces her into a rare moment of truth, confessing her murder of her husband…the thriller was finally coming to a conclusion—but ES Gardener, essentially a lawyer himself, is not satisfied to stop here. His lawyer hero has just betrayed his client and delivered her to the gallows. That is the number ‘1’ taboo for lawyers, and seemingly it just won’t work out for ES Gardener and his real life entourage, so he commits the improbable. He jumps on an entirely divergent line and gives his protagonist surreal powers—almost telepathic and prophetic. Out of the blue, he suspects that the daughter of the housemaid, now engaged to the heir of the dead man, was already married. He chases her imbecile husband and in a completely unprofessional (and incredibly unbelievable) way tricks him into selling his wife’s secret.

Perry Mason then stages a stupid setup, during which he confronts the housemaid and the daughter…the clumsy daughter confesses. It so appears that Mason’s client, the worthless piece of shit, didn’t commit the crime after all. Her bullet had missed her husband before she’d run away in fear. Then his nephew-and legitimate heir-came afterwards and killed him, and let the stupid wife think that she did it. The housemaid and her daughter knew the truth and extorted the murderous heir to marry the daughter, so as to keep his secret.

Of course, this is one of the lamest ending ever crafted—especially when you had one that actually worked. This is the most typical example of an author tampering with his own work, just to justify his own values. ES Gardener, apparently at the start of his career, aimed for the combo effect: the aesthetic, along with the thriller, and morals. However, this was too big a job for one of his stature. One has to know his strong points and acknowledge his own capacity. It’s no shame writing just the amazing thriller or the pretty prose; so long it works fine in the end. Jack of all trades never actually makes it through (though there are rare examples of course).

ES Gardener seemingly realized that later in his career. He matured into suspense and thriller, and of course emphasized his stronger talents, of court room rhetoric, in subsequent novels.


The Case of the Ice-cold Hands

 “The case of the ice-cold hands”, number 68 of the Perry Mason odyssey, is written by an altogether different author. Here, older, and busier ES Gardener cuts the crap and shoots precisely. People read his works for the thrilling, suspenseful, yet elusive crime; so he gives it direct and formulaic. Fans of the series already know who Perry Mason is, as well as his fiery competent secretary Della Street, and his dependable fellow, Paul Drake, the private detective. ESG wastes no time on introductions or characterization of his heroes, and jumps directly into the drama.

…only to find himself short of the mandated word count! Sorrowfully, he improvises throughout, just to fill the pages: repetitive text and lots of gibberish, needless situations, and soap opera clichés and aimless dialogues. Guess what? That leads to exactly the opposite of the novel’s intended goal of inducing suspense and thrill: it goes slack, tension deflates and many-a-time the prose seems lackluster.

The case of the ice-cold hands starts with the typical enigmatic female whose sultry attitude and lies would rebel the most patient of lawyers—but not Perry Mason. She hands the lawyer five one hundred dollars tickets she’d bet on a lame horse whose odds of winning the race are fifty to one; however, the horse is supposedly to win the day’s race anyway. She asks P Mason to cash the bet money on her behalf the following day. Of course, she doesn’t offer any explanation on why she wouldn’t cash them herself, or why in the first place she’s absolutely sure she’d win the bet money.

When Perry Mason cashes the money, of course after some implausible action, he hands it to his client, who now asks him yet another favor: to bail out her brother, who turns out to have embezzled his employer, who is a tax evader himself. The heinous employer hunts down after the brother, the sister, and of course Perry Mason. He believes that the money with which the winning tickets were bought was his, and thus he’s entitled to have all the winnings for himself—and yes, he’s hitting on the sister as well.

The rest is formulaic as hell: the flagrant employer is killed in the motel room of Mason’s client, and of course, she’s charged with his murder…and hell she looks like it, and really does deserve hanging from the rope.

Follows the routine confrontation with L.A. district attorney, Hamilton Burger, who’s more confident than ever of his victory. He’s got an ace up his sleeve, and is ready to give Perry Mason a run for his money. Of course, he doesn’t: Perry Mason’s wit, and an incredulous luck turns the table down on the devastated district attorney, and Perry Mason saves his client neck as usual.

*Spoilers* The novel has faults beyond count, but the worst of them was one I hardly expected. I’ve read loads of court room thrillers-many of them Perry Masons by the way-still I’m yet to read worse court room squabble. How Hamilton Burger argues is lame, and even worse is his reaction in court to the failure of his scheme. His reactions are altogether childish, unprofessional, and utterly unbelievable on account of a veteran counsel.

Other implausibilities include the weak reasoning behind the district attorney’s intention of forcing the brother to testify against his sister. The man was had nothing to gain should he really incriminate his sister, who by the way, had saved and helped him throughout the novel. Then the most ridiculous thing: just for the lame reason that he’s given immunity, the brother surprisingly declares himself the murderer…while his own counselor is nodding and approving readily! Even though he didn’t commit the crime, neither did his sister!

Then just how Perry Mason guesses out the real murderer is plain absurdity. Yet, the real shock was the proof: the villain holds the incriminating hundred dollar banknotes in his own wallet while testifying in court. How convenient of him!

I really can’t believe how I enjoyed reading and believing this-almost fantasy-fiction twenty years ago. How naïve!

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