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!
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:
- Person gets involved in tricky situation, usually created by someone Not Very Nice.
- Person is made to visit Mr. (or Ms.) Not Very Nice and finds them dead!
- Person is arrested for murder and put on trial by Hamilton Burger, the least successful district attorney in the history of mystery.
- Person is lucky enough to net Mason as their attorney.
- Mason goes to court and runs rings around Burger, but things do not go well for his client!
- Mason broods.
- Paul Drake, private detective, ferrets out evidence.
- Mason broods over it, introduces it in court, but things still do not go well for his client!
- Della Street, perky private secretary, comforts Mason.
- 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.
- Mason returns to court. He attacks a witness to the end or (plan B) swivels around to face the court.
- “Yes! YES!! I killed him! I killed that manipulative monster, and I’m glad! Do you hear me? I’M GLAD I DID IT!!”
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.
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.
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.
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.