The Hero has to wend his way through the snares and traps of untruthful witnesses, past clients who would throw him to the Wolves, and find the path that leads to Truth and Justice. With him is the Heroine, always calm and capable, ready to do battle beside the Hero at a moment’s notice. They are accompanied by the Sidekick, never as brave as the Hero but competent and completely honest. Cornered by the bear-like Adversary, the Hero triumphs at the last minute, finding truth and saving the Beautiful Maiden from disgrace and death.
It sounds like something Joseph Campbell might have written, but of course it’s only a description of the typical Perry Mason novel. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote 85 books featuring the amazing attorney, his saucy secretary Della Street, and the dogged detective Paul Drake. The books are potboilers so devoid of literary merit that they are unlikely to ever be assigned in a high school English class. Yet millions of copies have been sold, starting with the first book in 1933 and continuing to the present day.
Two days ago, I went down to the Harvard Book Store to browse through their used book section in the basement, and I found a paperback copy of The Case of the Crooked Candle first published in 1944. At the cash register, the young woman checking me out looked like the typical bookish person who works at the Harvard Book Store. But she didn’t comment on the Daniel Pinkwater young adult novel I purchased, nor did she notice that I had the classic two-volume Sources of Indian Tradition, nor did she say anything about The Cornel West Reader.
When she got to The Case of the Crooked Candle, she looked me in the eye and smiled. “Perry Mason!” she said delightedly. “They say that they’re going to put out the entire television series on DVD!”
“You mean the original one, in black and white?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said. “I hope they do put it out on DVD, I’m going to buy it and watch them. I love Perry Mason!”
The literary snobs may turn up their noses at Perry Mason, but book store employees don’t give John Updike that many exclamation points. The literary snobs relish stories of grim truth and reality that reflect the sordid life that they believe we all live. Little do they know that most of us live partway inside the Realm of the Collective Unconscious, where they take part in the eons-old battle against Evil, and against Untruth.
I have tried reading Updike’s novels, but find them inexpressibly dreary. Indeed, I have mostly given up on reading fiction. Why should I read something someone has made up? — I’d rather read about things that really have happened. Maybe that’s why I continue to read Perry Mason novels:– they’re fiction, but Perry Mason is also the Hero, the Jungian figure who stalks through the Collective Unconscious righting wrongs and saving the day. That’s about as true as you can get.
As for The Case of the Crooked Candle, suffice it to say that the murder takes place on a yacht that is moored in shallow water. The crooked candle lead Perry Mason to unravel the true solution to the murder. And at the end of the book, after Mason reveals the solution to Della Street, Paul Drake, and his clients Roger and Carol Burbank, the phone in his office rings….
Mason nodded to Della. She picked up the receiver, listened a moment, then placed her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Chief, there’s a blonde woman out there with a black eye who says she has to see you at once. Gertie [the receptionist] says she’s terribly upset and she’s afraid she’ll have hysterics if…”
“Show her into the law library,” Mason said. “I’ll talk with her there. While I’m doing that, you can get a check from Mr. Burbank payable to Adelaide Kingman for one hundred thousand bucks. You’ll excuse me, I know. An hysterical blonde with a black eye would seem to be an emergency case, at least an interesting one — The Case of the Black Eyed Blonde.”
So the Hero ends one adventure, and immediately sets out on the next one….