Kenneth Lenoir 2013-05-30 11:57:21
FOR GENERATIONS, THE NAME PERRY MASON CONJURED UP THOUGHTS, IDEAS, AND OPINIONS BY LAWERS AND MEMBERS OF THE GENERAL PUBLIC ALIKE. Some might regard him as the epitome of the successful criminal defense lawyer—always believing in his clients, always winning cases against seemingly insurmountable evidence, and always securing dramatic last-minute confessions by the guilty party. Whatever the evidence might be and whatever setbacks Mason had as he investigated a case, he forged ahead and, without fail, exonerated his client of murder charges. Others might find that the Mason stories represent an unrealistic and far-fetched picture of the legal system. Perry Mason was the creation of author and lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner and first appeared 80 years ago in The Case of the Velvet Claws, published by William Morrow and Company in March 1933.1 At the time of Gardner’s death, on March 11, 1970, Perry Mason had appeared in 82 novels, two novelettes, and one short story. Warner Bros. studios made several full-length motion pictures in the 1930s based upon the Mason books, and Mason later became a radio series and a comic strip. Many of the novels were serialized in magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, the Atlantic, and Collier’s. The novels were later published in economical paperback editions, which further increased the sales of Gardner’s creation. The popularity of Perry Mason reached its zenith with the television series that aired from 1957 to 1966, in which actor Raymond Burr portrayed Mason. Burr reprised the role in a successful series of television movies from 1985 until his death in 1993. CBS and Paramount Home Media Distribution have periodically issued the original series on DVD since 2006. On the occasion of Perry Mason’s 80th birthday, it seems appropriate to review the development of the Mason character of Gardner’s books, his thoughts on his role as a lawyer, his general comments on the legal system, and the influence of the character today. Even though we live and practice in an environment far different from the legal landscape of Gardner and his Perry Mason in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps Mason/Gardner can still provide thoughtful reflection on our profession. GARDNER THE LAWYER AND AUTHOR Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Mass., on July 17, 1889. When Erle was 10, the Gardner family moved West, first to Oregon and then California. He graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909.2 With the exception of one month of law school at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, Gardner’s legal education was derived entirely from working and reading law in several law offices in California. In 1911, at the age of 21, Gardner passed the state bar examination. He first practiced in Merced and later in Oxnard, Calif. From 1915 to the 1930s, he practiced with a Ventura, Calif., law firm for which he handled all of the trial work. In 1921, Gardner began writing detective and mystery stories and submitting them to a variety of pulp magazines, so called because of the cheapness of the paper they were printed on. Most of his earliest efforts generated rejection letters. In 1925, Gardner retained Robert Thomas Hardy as his literary agent. In his first letter to Hardy, Gardner sets out his purpose in writing: “What I am working for is to get myself sufficiently established in the literary game so I can quit law entirely. I like the trial of cases, but I DO NOT LIKE OFFICE LAW, and I cannot stand the continued confinement of an office., [sic] I took up writing, not because I felt any interior urge, but because I wanted some way to make a living where I could be out of doors a large portion of the day time, and be master of my own time.”3 Gardner persevered, learned from his mistakes, and in time his literary efforts became successful. In 1932, he felt confident enough to write a novel. Gardner explained to his agent the type of novel he contemplated: “I intend to turn out a series of detective stories in which lawyers will be the heroes, because I believe that it offers a means of development which has been virtually unexploited in the detective field…”4 The Case of the Velvet Claws became the first Perry Mason mystery, and its success allowed Gardner to eventually leave the active practice of law. Through his career, Gardner would produce, on average, two Mason stories a year, plus hundreds of other books, including the Doug Selby D.A. series and the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detective series. He continued contributing mystery stories to magazines and also wrote books and articles on the West and Mexico and law review and bar association articles, two of which appeared in the Texas Bar Journal.5 PERRY MASON Gardner seldom gave detailed character descriptions. In the opening chapter of Velvet Claws, Mason is described as having “the face of a chess player who is studying the board. That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression.”6 In later books, Mason is described as having long legs, keen piercing eyes, and granite-hard features. Raymond Burr apparently captured the physical character of Mason, as Gardner said when he saw Burr audition for the part, “That’s Perry Mason.”7 During high school and in his young adult life Gardner boxed, and he drew upon that experience when Mason described himself this way in Velvet Claws: “I’m a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients.”8 Gardner wrote his publisher, “I want to make my hero a fighter…by having him wade into the opposition and battle his way through to victory.”9 His example was the football player, “…smashing through the opposing line and picking off two or three tackles to run through to a touchdown.”10 In addition to Mason, Velvet Claws introduced two continuing characters to the Mason stories: his secretary, Della Street, and detective Paul Drake. Mason relied upon the efficient and reliable Drake to track down witnesses; obtain background information on Mason’s client and his or her friends, family, or associates; and generally search for any evidence that might aid in the defense of Mason’s client. Street was always a source of dependability and loyalty to her boss. Not only was she his secretary, but Mason also relied upon her insight, or feminine intuition, to size up each new client. For instance, Street never liked Eva Griffin, Mason’s Velvet Claws client, and repeatedly warned Mason that Griffin was untrustworthy, spoiled, and opportunistic. At the end of the book, Mason admits to Street that her appraisal was accurate. Velvet Claws introduced the plot formula that Gardner followed in every subsequent Mason story. First, a client comes to see Mason on a particular legal matter that starts the mystery. In Velvet Claws, Eva Griffin came to see him regarding a blackmail scheme involving publication of a story and photographs of her dining with a male companion who was not her husband. Such a story would ruin both her marriage and the political aspirations of the man with whom she was dining. Mason does not like paying blackmail but accepts the case to see if there is an alternative option. Rarely does a murder occur in the beginning chapters of the Mason books. Gardner thought placing the murder in the middle of the book would be a successful plot device: “With this method of telling the story the motivation of the characters is implanted in the reader’s mind before the murder and the murder comes to mean something to the reader.”11 Of course, as Mason begins to work on his client’s initial legal problem, the murder occurs. When it becomes evident his client will be accused, Mason then feverishly tries to gather evidence ahead of the police that he hopes will exonerate his client and allow him to reveal the real culprit. A second aspect of Gardner’s formula is the pace at which the story unfolds. In addition to making his hero a fighter, Gardner wrote to his publisher, “More than that, I want to establish a style of swift motion.”12 Dialogue between Mason, Drake, and Street allows a pause between activities to contemplate earlier events and information before moving to the next course of action, whether it is searching for more evidence, locating witnesses, planning trial strategy, or eventually figuring out the guilty party. Events race along and often blur the passage of time. Perhaps the most important part of the Mason formula is the point at which the mystery is solved. With rare exception—such as Velvet Claws, where the mystery is solved with the police at the murder scene—his cases are resolved in the courtroom or during the course of a trial. Many times the proceeding is a preliminary hearing before a judge prior to presentation to the grand jury, similar to the Texas procedure of an examining trial. Other times a jury trial is the setting for the climactic conclusion. PERRY MASON THE LAWYER Mason is a trial attorney primarily practicing criminal law. He describes himself in Velvet Claws by telling Eva Griffin, “Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage.”13 However, Mason does practice in other areas of the law. In Velvet Claws, Mason drafts various petitions to probate the estate of Eva Griffin’s late husband, which becomes critical to preserving her inheritance; in The Case of the Sulky Girl, Mason is knowledgeable about setting aside a trust; and in The Case of the Silent Partner, he navigates through corporate stock issues on his client’s behalf as the murder mystery progresses. Before the days of television and mass media communication and entertainment, Perry Mason was the public’s window into the judicial system. In The Case of the Howling Dog, Mason summarizes our adversarial legal system: “Remember that I’m a lawyer. I’m not a judge, and I’m not a jury. I only see that people are represented in court. It’s the function of the lawyer for the defense to see that the facts in favor of the defendant are presented to the jury in the strongest possible light. That’s all he’s supposed to do. It’s the function of the district attorney to see that the facts in favor of the prosecution are presented to the jury in the most favorable light. It’s the function of the judge to see that the rights of the parties are properly safeguarded, that the evidence is introduced in a proper and orderly manner; and it’s the function of the jury to determine who is entitled to a verdict. I’m a lawyer, that’s all.”14 Street voices many readers’ thoughts when she responds, “I understand how often the ordinary layman gets a false idea of what it’s all about. He doesn’t understand just what an attorney is supposed to do, or just why it’s so necessary that he does it.”15 Mason was not immune from adverse public perception and criticisms of lawyers. During the trial in The Case of the Hesitant Hostess, Mason places the witnesses under “the rule.” During a recess, one witness tells Mason he is a busy man, is losing money every minute he has to be at court, and wants Mason to let him go since he’s already testified. Mason apologizes for the inconvenience but refuses his request, to which the witness says, “You damn long-winded lawyers have to have things your own way. No wonder citizens hate to go to court.”16 In The Case of the Irate Witness, Mason is in a rural county defending a man accused of stealing a company payroll. Mason is irritated that spectators at the hearing view him not as one “trying to safeguard the rights of a client, but as a legal magician with a cloven hoof. The looting of the vault had shocked the community, and there was a tightlipped determination that no legal tricks were going to do Mason any good this time.”17 Mason followed changes in the law. He always admonished his clients to never talk to anyone, especially the police, absent consultation with him. But with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, Gardner incorporated the Miranda warnings in the last novel written and published prior to his death, The Case of the Fabulous Fake. Mason commented that with these warnings the police try to work up a case “by getting the evidence rather than forcing the defendant to incriminate himself. But if anyone is willing to talk they’re always willing to listen and many a person has talked himself right into the penitentiary, and I mean many an innocent person.”18 Justice was the overriding principle of the Perry Mason series. Mason often says he is fighting for justice. But in a broader view of the administration of justice, Mason addresses the responsibility that lawyers have in making the system work when he says, “The machinery of justice is very apt to get out of gear if it isn’t kept oiled and running smoothly. Lawyers are the engineers.”19 Mason further advances this idea: “A lawyer can’t afford to get too big, Della. He always has to remember he’s a part of the machinery by which justice is dispensed. When it comes to a matter of justice or injustice there isn’t such a thing as big or little. Injustice is a social malignancy.”20 And the result in Velvet Claws, as one commentator points out, reminds Della Street and the reader that “justice is for everyone, not only for likable people.”21 INFLUENCE OF PERRY MASON As a result of the success of Perry Mason, and following a three-part biographical article about Gardner in the Saturday Evening Post in October 1946, Gardner began receiving requests to look into cases in which miscarriages of justice had allegedly occurred. In 1948, Gardner, helping to “oil the machinery of justice,” formed the Court of Last Resort, a forerunner to such present-day organizations as the Innocence Project, to investigate and correct such miscarriages of justice. The “court” consisted of Gardner, volunteer attorneys across the country, and experts in criminology and forensic sciences. It was funded by members of the court who contributed their time and the editor and publisher of Argosy, Harry Steeger, in whose magazine each case was described. Gardner wrote about several of these cases in The Court of Last Resort.22 The State Bar of Texas was the first bar association to organize a program devoted to the Court of Last Resort. During the 1952 State Bar convention, Gardner and other members of the “court” presented a program explaining the work of their organization. Afterward, more than 300 Texas attorneys signed pledges expressing their willingness to donate their time and services to help in any cases Argosy might investigate in Texas. The support surprised Gardner, and he believed it would lead to a better public understanding of the bar’s general function and responsibility. 23 Perhaps this effort would have occurred if Perry Mason had never been published, but Mason’s popularity allowed Gardner and others to delve into cases that warranted a fresh look. The influence that Mason had on those who entered the legal profession would be hard to quantify, but U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor is an example of one who was inspired to be an attorney, and eventually a judge, by the Mason television series. In My Beloved World she wrote that as a young person, the prosecutor and the judge impressed her more than Mason. She found the prosecutor, Hamilton Burger, was more interested in finding the truth than winning the case, and she learned that the ultimate authority to dismiss charges and release Mason’s client from jail resided with the judge.24 And Perry Mason has probably influenced some attorneys’ clients. How many attorneys have visited a client in jail and surprisingly heard the client say, as this author has, “Well, Perry Mason could get me off.” PERRY MASON TODAY Gardner and his Perry Mason faced the same or similar issues that today’s legal community faces: representing clients and causes that are not popular; a sometimes cynical public opinion of our profession; never-ending education of the public as to how the legal system operates; and correcting miscarriages of justice and exonerating many wrongfully imprisoned, which in recent times has been achieved with advances in DNA and scientific analysis. Mason and Gardner believed that justice is always a work in progress and that we lawyers are primarily responsible to ensure the system serves our clients and our communities. At 80 years of age, Mason continues to be of interest in popular culture.25 Both the books and reruns of the television series offer an entertaining and challenging experience as the audience matches wits with Mason and always offers the hope that our system of justice really works. Gardner created Mason to further his desire to earn a living without practicing law. From that purely economic and professional desire, Gardner developed one of the most popular and iconic literary characters of all time. As long as the Mason books and television episodes exist, Perry Mason will continue to influence beliefs of our legal system and perhaps inspire a future lawyer or Supreme Court justice. NOTES 1. Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate, Secrets of the World’s Best Selling Writer: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1980), 190. 2. Dorothy B. Hughes, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1978), 46. 3. Erle Stanley Gardner to Thomas Hardy, 19 October 1925, Erle Stanley Gardner Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 4. Erle Stanley Gardner to Thomas Hardy, 28 September 1932, Erle Stanley Gardner Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 5. See Texas Bar Journal archives for two articles by Gardner published in the Texas Bar Journal: September, 1952, 455, “Texas Takes the Lead”; February, 1955, 61, “Safeguarding the Public Interest.” 6. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Velvet Claws (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1933; Philadelphia: Triangle Books, The Blakiston Company, 1945), 1. 7. Hughes, 245. 8. Velvet Claws, 19. 9. Erle Stanley Gardner to Thayer Hobson, 9 December 1932, Erle Stanley Gardner Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 10. Ibid. 11. Erle Stanley Gardner to Thomas Hardy, 30 September 1932, Erle Stanley Gardner Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 12. Erle Stanley Gardner to Thayer Hobson, 9 December 1932, Erle Stanley Gardner Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 13. Velvet Claws, 5. 14. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Howling Dog (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1934; New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1984), 127. 15. Ibid. 16. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Hesitant Hostess (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1953; Roslyn, New York: Walter J. Black, Inc.), 20. 17. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Irate Witness (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1972; New York: Pocket Book edition, 1973) 13. 18. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Fabulous Fake (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1969; New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1984), 128. 19. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Silent Partner (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1940; New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1987), 25. 20. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Black-eyed Blonde (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1944; New York: Pocket Books, 1956), 46. 21. Frank Northern Magill, ed., Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction–Authors (Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1988), 2:691. 22. Erle Stanley Gardner, The Court of Last Resort (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1952). 23. Erle Stanley Gardner, “Texas Takes the Lead,” Texas Bar Journal, 15 Tex. B.J. 455, 1952. 24. Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) 80–81. 25. A recent published report indicates that a Perry Mason movie may be produced. See Boris Kit, “Robert Downey Jr.’s ‘Perry Mason’ Reboot Lands Hot Writer (Exclusive),” The Hollywood Reporter, Feb. 17, 2012 12:00 p.m. PST http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/robert-downey-jr-perry-mason-reboot-marc-guggenheim-292400 Last accessed March 5, 2013). KENNETH LENOIR is a graduate of Baylor Law School. He has practiced law in Killeen and Abilene, and for 24 years, served as an attorney with the State of Texas. He is now semiretired and resides in Wylie. To read Erle Stanley Gardner’s articles that appeared in the Texas Bar Journal, go to texasbar.com/gardner.
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