MY FIRST DETECTIVE

January turned out to be a month of reminiscence and personal “shtuff” for The Tuesday Night Bloggers, all because of our month’s topic of “firsts.” Oh sure, sometimes we focused on the first appearance of a certain detective or a certain trope of sub-genre of mystery fiction. But as often as not, my fellow bloggers and I found ourselves waxing dreamily about our first encounter with this or that. These, I think were my favorites. Kate over at Cross Examining Crime hosted us this month, so be sure to check out her place where she has links to everyone’s posts.

I wasn’t sure I had the time this week to churn out one final entry. I’m a high school drama teacher, don’t’cha know, and this week I have forty-five cast members, twenty five crew members and both an orchestra and a marching band of kids heading out to River City, Iowa – at least, the River City found on our California stage – for The Music Man. It’s my twenty-fifth year as the school’s director, and considering that I’m only thirty-six years old, I’m pretty proud of my accomplishments. But what the heck, this gig here is too much fun to skip out on, so let’s get personal.

The first sleuth I encountered wasn’t Hercule Poirot. It wasn’t Ellery Queen or Sherlock Holmes, or, considering I was seven or eight years old, the Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown. The sleuth who inducted me into a lifelong loyalty to the whodunit genre appeared on my TV screen each week. For twenty-five or so minutes, he would sit at his desk and brood, or send his white-haired associate out to ferret information, upon which he would brood. Then he would appear in a crowded room and interview various people sitting in a box. I knew he was doing all this to save the life of the person sitting in the room beside him. There was a bug-eyed guy at the other table trying to nail that person . . . for murder!

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I feel like, even if I was a youngster, I basically understood what was going on, but I lived for the ending of each episode! Sometimes the sleuth would approach one of the people in the box and say, “Isn’t it true that you left the Sleepy Oasis motel, drove to Maynard Henderson’s bungalow and stabbed him over and over until he was dead?” And the person would stutter and look about and finally say, “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed that odious lecher, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!”

Except sometimes the person kept saying, “No! I didn’t do it! Yes, I hated him, but I didn’t kill him, I tell you, I didn’t kill him.” At which point the detective would stop, smile grimly and say, “No, Miss Langley, you didn’t kill him. Maynard Henderson’s killer arrived a few moments before you arrived and hid in the hollow grandfather clock. He waited until you had left, and then he crept out of the clock and stabbed the victim. That’s why we found traces of mud on the interior surface – mud that matched the hunting boots of . . . YOU – “ And the sleuth would wheel around, face the large assembly and say, with steely gaze, “ – Jefferson Mandible!” And Mr. Mandible would slowly rise, body shaking, and say, “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed that greedy miser, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!”

I’m talking, of course, about Perry Mason. (Stop now and listen to the theme song here. Better yet, watch an entire episode – the theme is even better at the end!) Oh, not the guy in the eighty-two novels written by some hack named Erle Stanley Gardner, but the real Perry Mason, played by Raymond Burr from 1957 to 1966 in 271 episodes (and then, alas, tried to repeat the formula in thirty overlong TV movies that pretty much only had nostalgia going for them from 1973 until Burr died in 1993. Even after that, four more films were made without Burr. Money makes the world go round.)

Now, we won’t argue here whether the TV series made good on the best-selling novels by Gardner. Years later, I read a bunch of the books, and clearly, we are dealing with two different animals. The series traded on a formula, something that its network, CBS, is famous for doing up to modern day in procedurals like Criminal Minds, CSI and NCIS. Formulaic or not, Perry Mason was basically my training wheels in how to create a mystery:

  1. Person gets involved in tricky situation, usually created by someone Not Very Nice.
  2. Person is made to visit Mr. (or Ms.) Not Very Nice and finds them dead!
  3. Person is arrested for murder and put on trial by Hamilton Burger, the least successful district attorney in the history of mystery.
  4. Person is lucky enough to net Mason as their attorney.
  5. Mason goes to court and runs rings around Burger, but things do not go well for his client!
  6. Mason broods.
  7. Paul Drake, private detective, ferrets out evidence.
  8. Mason broods over it, introduces it in court, but things still do not go well for his client!
  9. Della Street, perky private secretary, comforts Mason.
  10. Mason broods some more and then gets that look on his face – a gleam in his hound dog eyes, a visceral “Aha!” moment! The slimmest of smiles hovers around his mug, and we know everything is in place for the finale.
  11. Mason returns to court. He attacks a witness to the end or (plan B) swivels around to face the court.
  12. “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed that manipulative monster, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!”

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Most of my experience with the series occurred through reruns, although I was old enough to focus my attentions on the last several seasons as first runs. A few years ago, I started buying the series up, season by season, and watching it. The first few years are true destination television for mystery fans: each episode amounts to a mini-noir film with a slimmed down, handsome Burr, fresh from a career playing heavies in the movies (including my favorite, Rear Window) working alongside William Hopper’s Paul Drake and the invaluable Barbara Hale as Della to rescue clients caught up in nightmare schemes.

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Most of these early shows are based Gardner’s novels. They embody L.A. of the 1950’s beautifully in shadowy black and white. William Talman’s Hamilton Burger is a highlight of the show (due to a scandal in his life, he disappeared for a long stretch midway through the series, but thanks to Burr’s championing him, he returned.) It was always fun to watch him puff himself up and sneer, “Looks like your client is going to prison, Perry,” before the inevitable fall. I credit Talman for making each week’s addition to the losing streak look like the first time. Best of all, Burger was assisted in these first seasons by the inimitable character actor Ray Collins, former cohort of Orson Welles and the Mercury Players in films such as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as Lieutenant Arthur Tragg. Collins brought a wry humor to the role, and his calm smirk contrasted nicely with Burger’s bug-eyed desperation as Mason shredded the prosecution’s case.

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The show diminished a bit when Collins passed away. Things got glossier, plots got recycled, but The Formula worked all the way to the final episode where – SPOILER ALERT – the eternal nice guy Dick Clark ended up saying, “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed that vile creep, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!”

Lots and LOTS of great stars appeared on Perry Mason, some of them at the beginning of their careers, like Robert Redford and Barbara Eden, to classic film actors at the end of their star, like Fay Wray and Lurene Tuttle. But the acting from veterans and newcomers alike was always fine, and always in service to The Formula. Oh, there were a few “special” episodes, like the three times Mason loses a case (but not for long, although I will say that “The Case of the Deadly Verdict” is a particularly suspenseful episode) or the one where Burr plays a double role as both the attorney and a suspect. (What fun it is to see Mason interrogate himself, and guess who the killer is!) Burr was occasionally ill, and a big guest star would be called in to fill his shoes (so that the week’s script could be shot, I figure.) Mason might appear at the beginning in pajamas, talking to the guest lawyer on the phone. Some of these scripts were fine, but even someone of the magnitude of Miss Bette Davis (“The Case of Constant Doyle”) could not fill Burr’s shoes in exactly the right way for The Formula to work.

I can’t claim that the series “played fair” with viewers as far as laying out clues that pointed to the correct guilty party. More often than not, Drake or Mason would pull some late evidence out of a hat, or Della would make an offhand comment that caused Mason to stop, consider and then set his eyes a-gleaming. I realized as I watched the series that I had bought that I could very often figure out who the killer was just from a “feeling” based on the way a certain character was portrayed or fit into the plot. Thus, some reveals are much better than others.

My favorite reveal – nay, my favorite episode and one that I assert plays fair with the audience – is from the final season. “The Case of the Candy Queen” is actually a remake of a season one episode called “The Case of the Silent Partner,” which is based on a 1940 Gardner novel. I’m going to spoil it for you here, so get ready: this woman is involved in a big candy manufacturing business and gets arrested. Early in the episode, the defendant’s cousin Wanda (played so well by Patricia Smith) calls Mason gasping that she has been poisoned. When the lawyer rushes to her apartment, she is found at death’s door, and only this rescue allows the doctors to pull her through. A half dozen or so pieces of chocolate are missing from a nearby box, and analysis proves the candy is stuffed with cyanide.

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We all know where this is going, right? At the end, Mason puts Wanda on the stand and hands her a box of chocolates, the very same mixture as the one she had that night!!! He asks her to tell the court the order in which she ate the chocolates, and to eat each chocolate that she named. Sometimes she gets it right, and sometimes she mistakes a vanilla praline for a cherry cordial. The suspense is building! At last, she bites into a piece and makes a face. “Ooh, that one was bitter!” she cries. “Yes,” says Mason, “that’s because I injected it with a tiny bit of cyanide. How could you eat a half dozen pieces and not detect the bitterness? Isn’t it true that you murdered Harry Arnold and then returned to fake your own poisoning, thus establishing an alibi for yourself?”

Poor Wanda hasn’t got the chance to say, “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed the vicious cretin, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!” She’s too overcome by Mason’s cleverness. As was I, for two hundred and seventy-one episodes. Thank you, Perry Mason, TV series, for starting me on my way and arming me with the genre vocabulary I needed to embrace Christie, Carr and the like at such an early age.

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20 thoughts on “MY FIRST DETECTIVE

  1. I’m honestly not sure whether I encountered the books or the TV show first — whichever it was, someone quickly pointed out the existence of the other, anyway — but Burr as Mason is one of those rare occasions where the casting is just so perfectly spot on that you can almost believe Gardner wrote the books just to give Burr a role to play.

    If you’re thirty-six then I, being five or six years younger at Hollywood Twenty-One, would definitely have caught these as weekday reruns on BBC1 in my youth, and you’ve got me wondering if this was my first encounter with “proper” detective fiction, too. Hmmm…

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    1. I’m Broadway Thirty-Six, which requires a different kind of lighting. It doesn’t last quite as long as Hollywood Twenty-One, but from the balcony it can pass for Twenty-Nine . . .

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    1. The other long-running CBS formula mystery hit was Murder She Wrote. I love Angela Lansbury more than I can say, and she never disappointed, but that was a case of The Formula tiring itself out rather quickly for me, Margot. As the seasons rolled by, the guests diminished in star power, and Lansbury relied more on comic tricks, playing two characters, and so forth, to keep it rolling. But the idea that a production team would attempt to craft a classic-style whodunit every week for 24 weeks was gratifying. I’m sorry that even on TV this seems to be a lost or abandoned art. Perry Mason got it right every week.

      NBC’s mystery wheel was inventive, too: several different styled mysteries rotating amongst, I imagine, different production teams to produce quality 90-minute mysteries. Everyone loved Columbo, although I felt cheated by the inverted form. I paid little attention to Banacek or McCloud, but I sure loved me some McMillan and Wife! Ah, the olden days . . . 🙂

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    1. Me, too, but more for the chance to see Hale and Burr together again. The Formula wasn’t quite as riveting stretched out to an hour and forty minutes, and I missed Hopper, Talman and Collins.

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      1. I didn’t find them too long, but I certainly missed Talman and Collins — and, although I wasn’t a fan of Hopper, they never got the Paul Drake Substitute role right. I think they’d have been better to have that character being aged alongside Perry and Della.

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  2. Ah Perry Mason. I know you remember what a massive fan my mother was. In her declining years (well, actually a declining year and a half) one of our great pleasures was watching Perry Mason reruns in the afternoon. This was waaaay pre-Netflix or what-have-you. But some local station showed Perry Mason on weekday afternoons. This would have been in the mid-90’s.

    At this same time I started collecting any Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks I could find and most of those covers…. fabulous! I believe they all eventually disintegrated.

    And speaking of Columbo…. the lead detective in the Fred Vargas series that YOU got me started on with “The Chalk Circle Man” is a sort of French Columbo – Chief Inspector Adamsberg. Absent-minded, disheveled, brilliant.

    By the way, you don’t look a day older than 34!

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    1. Your mom and I talked about Perry Mason a lot . . . and it was on account of her that I began reading the books! I recall enjoying them, although I don’t remember a thing about them, not like I remember the show. There’s a used book store in downtown San Mateo that often has a lot of old Gardner paperbacks, even some of the A.A. Fairs that my friend Noah loves, and the Burlingame library has dozens of titles. I should buy up or check out a few and read them. And others have echoed what you say about the Fred Vargas series. It was a total fluke that I got that for you, so I’m glad it has paid off so well! 🙂

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  3. The producers had to clean Mason up quite a bit for TV audiences — the book Mason engaged in the kind of shenanigans that would have gotten a real lawyer disbarred.

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  4. Perry is my guy! When I’m enjoying one of Gardner’s page turners I never get over the many pickles Perry will get himself into. But the series, ah the series, is my desert island show (next to Gunsmoke). That little sly smile on Burr’s face. The smoke coming out of Burger’s ears. Paul greeting Della with “Hello, Beautiful”. This is comfort.

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  5. I loved Gardner’s books; Perry Mason, Doug Selby, Terry Claine, Gramps Wiggins and the incomparable Cool and Lam. Pity these books are time-stamped and dated; to do them justice would require a complete suspension of disbelief and the understanding that things really were different in the old days. For instance, Donald Lam’s famous “perfect” murder would have been possible once upon a time, but not now. Life was simpler even if a bit grittier; characters were clear cut and mysteries tight and well-planned. I never found myself scratching my head at the end, even if I didn’t guess it correctly.

    I thought the Perry Mason TV show was great for the first two seasons when Gardner’s actual stories were televised; some of the later non-Gardner stories were OK but never really captured his slick style. Between the books and the series, the books always had more depth; one of my favorite books (the Case of the Bigamous Spouse) was also a teleplay, but lacked the atmosphere and the charm (Mason’s visit to the mountain town is hilarious) of ESG’s original work.

    I loved the series though and used to watch it secretly (past my bedtime) by watching out my bedroom window where my neighbors were watching the show, and straining to hear the audio playing downstairs as my parents also watched Perry Mason.

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    1. That’s a neat trick! My parents encouraged my watching the show, especially after I told them I wanted to grow up and become an actor. They suggested I be an actor like Perry Mason . . . in other words, a lawyer! Fortunately, that didn’t happen! 🙂

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  6. I loved the series though and used to watch it secretly (past my bedtime) by watching out my bedroom window where my neighbors were watching the show, and straining to hear the audio playing downstairs as my parents also watched Perry Mason

    That’s the funniest thing I’ve read all week! Thanks for enlivening my morning.

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