The Magazine

The Case of the Bestselling Author

Why Perry Mason is an American icon.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By S.T. KARNICK
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OVER THE YEARS, Perry Mason has become an American archetype: the wily lawyer who always gets his client off regardless of the niceties of legal procedure. Yet in the eighty-two books Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about his lawyer detective, published between 1933 and 1973, Mason remains largely an enigma beyond the work he does, and (unlike, say, Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple) he never reveals much of a persona beyond his professional one. Indeed, Gardner's work rarely showed much concern for characterization, writing style, or moral ambiguity--which is probably why he was utterly ignored by the literary establishment and generally slighted even by his fellow mystery writers.

Nonetheless, for many years Erle Stanley Gardner was commonly listed as the bestselling fiction writer of all time (though the perennial Agatha Christie has now surpassed him), his books having sold well over 300 million copies. Nearly all the Mason novels are still in print, and reruns of the 1957-1966 CBS television program "Perry Mason" appear four times daily on the Hallmark Channel. Surely this deserves some serious consideration, if only for sociological reasons. And, in fact, once one starts to examine them, Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason prove to merit a look, all on their own.

The Mason books differ greatly from the television series, even though Gardner personally supervised the show. When the first installments appeared in the early 1930s, mysteries were either hard-boiled (emulating Dashiell Hammett and the other "Black Mask" pulp writers) or relatively urbane (like the puzzle tales of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie). Gardner somehow managed to write both at the same time. Like a Hammett private eye, Perry Mason is tough and relentless, actively investigating the crimes and willing to use his fists when necessary. In the second novel, "The Case of the Sulky Girl," Gardner describes the lawyer as giving "the impression of bigness; not the bigness of fat, but the bigness of strength. He was broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient. Frequently those eyes changed expression, but the face never changed its expression of rugged patience."

Mason's biggest weapon, however, is his mind, and he differs from his hard-boiled contemporaries in using logic to solve the crimes (although the cases are so intricate that it is usually all but impossible to determine whether Mason's arguments actually make sense). After Mason presents his elaborate solution in "The Case of the Counterfeit Eye," District Attorney Hamilton Burger asks how he knew what had happened, and Mason says, "Simply by deductive reasoning." The Mason books further follow the puzzle form in forgoing the cynicism that pervaded the hard-boiled school of mystery story, where money inevitably corrupts and women are nearly always duplicitous.

Incorporating elements from both types of popular crime fiction, the Mason stories follow a strict but highly flexible formula unique to Gardner. First we encounter some strange and puzzling events that will lead to murder, either shown through third-person narration or told in first person as a character (often the one who will eventually be accused of the crime) relates the incidents to Mason in his Los Angeles office. So, for example, in "The Case of the Counterfeit Eye" (one of the very best entries in the series), a man hires Mason to find out who stole one of his custom-made bloodshot glass eyes.

TYPICALLY, this part of the story will introduce an attractive young female in distress. In "The Case of the Vagabond Virgin," a rich businessman hires Mason to bail out a pretty, ingenuous young woman who has been charged with soliciting for prostitution. During these introductory chapters, Mason is highly skeptical, and he never assumes a witness is telling the truth. This proves a wise course, because the motivations and relationships in these sections are extremely complex and most of the characters are hiding various transgressions that prevent them from telling the truth.