Tag Archives: Perry Mason

The Case of Constant Doyle

Once upon a time, Perry Mason was in the hospital, and another lawyer had to step in…. and who was that lawyer? None other than Bette Davis. She plays Mrs. Doyle, the smart, tough-talking lawyer who helps out Cal Leonard, the handsome young juvenile delinquent who’s in jail for assault. Cal steals her car and next thing Mrs. Doyle knows, she’s in the middle of a murder case — and taking on the male establishment to boot.

I’m a big fan of Perry Mason. But Constant Doyle, as played by Davis, is way better than Perry Mason as played by Raymond Burr. Check it out yourself:

Getting mad, Perry Mason style

A discussion of tactics between the lawyer Perry Mason and the private detective Paul Drake that occurs on page 128 of The Case of the Amorous Aunt by Erle Stanley Gardner:

“ ‘Tomorrow I’m going to be dignified, injured, and perhaps just a little dazed by the rapidity of developments.’

“ ‘Are you going to be an injured martyr or are you going to get mad?’ Drake asked.

“ ‘It depends on which way will do my client the most good,’ Mason told him.

“ ‘My best hunch is that you should get mad,’ Drake said.

“ ‘We’ll think it over,’ Mason said.

“ ‘Won’t you get mad anyway?’ Drake said.

“ ‘A good lawyer can always get mad if somebody pays him for it, but after you’ve been paid a few times for getting good and mad, you hate like the deuce to get mad on your own when nobody’s paying you for it.’

“Drake grinned. ‘You lawyers,’ he said.”

Well. I feel a little odd agreeing with a fictional lawyer, but it occurs to me that that religious professionals are wasting their time if they get mad while at church, unless they’re getting paid to get mad. I guess what I mean to say is this: while getting mad is a natural reaction to many things that happen in church life, you rarely get anything out of getting mad, except getting mad.

Not that I think we should draw life lessons from a pulp fiction hero.

The Case of the Pointless Paperwork

This afternoon, I worked on organizing my office. I hate organizing my office. It’s boring. I want to be making something happen, not straightening up my desk and filing paperwork. Of course, sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do those mundane office chores. Somewhere, the poet Gary Snyder talks about how important maintenance is — you can’t always be creating things, he says, you also have to maintain what you’ve got. So I tried to tell myself that I was doing Snyderian maintenance this afternoon, even though I think what Gary Snyder had in mind when he was talking about maintenance was more along the lines of sharpening his axe or cleaning out the barn, chores which would have been much more attractive than dealing with paperwork.

In my opinion, the greatest theorist on the subject of paperwork was the great philosopher, Perry Mason….

….Perry Mason regarded the pasteboard jacket, labeled “IMPORTANT UNANSWERED CORRESPONDENCE,” with uncordial eyes.

Della Street, his secretary, looking crisply efficient, said with her best Monday-morning air, “I’ve gone over it carefully, Chief. The letters on top are the ones you simply have to answer. I’ve cleaned out a whole bunch of the correspondence from the bottom.”

“From the bottom?” Mason asked. “How did you do that?”

“Well,” she confessed, “it’s stuff that’s been in there too long.”

Mason tilted back in his swivel chair, crossed his long legs, assumed his best lawyer manner and said, in mock cross-examination, “Now, let’s get this straight, Miss Street. Those were letters which had originally been put in the ‘IMPORTANT UNANSWERED’ file?”


“And you’ve gone over that file from time to time, carefully?”


“And eliminated everything which didn’t require my personal attention?”


“And this Monday, September twelfth, you take out a large number of letters from the bottom of the file?”

“That’s right,” she admitted, her eyes twinkling.

“And did you answer those yourself?”

She shook her head, smiling.

“What did you do with them?” Mason asked.

“Transferred them to another file.”

“What file?”

“The ‘LAPSED’ file.”

Mason chuckled delightedly. “Now there’s an idea, Della. We simply hold things in the ‘IMPORTANT UNANSWERED’ file until a lapse of time robs them of their importance, and then we transfer them to the ‘LAPSED’ file. It eliminates correspondence, saves worry, and gets me away from office routine, which I detest….

[from The Case of the Perjured Parrot by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1939.]

In the book, Mason works on paperwork for about ten minutes before a new client walks into the office with another high-speed murder case. I should be so lucky. In my office, I plugged away all afternoon. I kept hoping that a client would walk in the door and want me to investigate a murder case. That didn’t happen, although the chair of the House and Grounds Committee did stop in for ten minutes to let me know how the various building maintenance projects were coming along.

By the end of the day, I had found lots of paperwork that had once been relevant, but was now so irrelevant that I skipped the “LAPSED” file and threw it right into the recycling bin. Such was the sad end of the case of the pointless paperwork.

Too many books…

Between reading for sermons and reading for pleasure, the pile of books next to my writing table has gotten pretty high. To help me remember what I’ve read in the past two weeks, here are short takes on a few of those books:

The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and other Hangouts at the Heart of Community, Ray Oldenburg.

Oldenburg claims to be a sociologist, but this book is filled with undocumented assertions that smack of nostalgia for a time that never existed. Worse, the book is rooted in prejudices of which Oldenburg doesn’t seem to be aware. Like this sentence telling why wine bars are driving pubs out of business:

The wine bars are more comfortable [than pubs], cosmopolitan, and favored among working women and the softer male that one finds everywhere throughout the modern world these days….

Based on that statement, I guess I’m glad that Oldenburg’s favorite “great good places” are fast disappearing.

Passion: New Poems, 1977-1980, June Jordan.

Jordan claims the poetic tradition of Walt Whitman, and claims Whitman as a poet of liberation, which works for me. Her poems are certainly poems of liberation. Yet she isn’t Puritanical in her liberative message. Take, for example, the poem “Alla Tha’s All Right, but,” which Sweet Honey in the Rock made into a song:

Somebody come and carry me into a seven-day kiss
I can’ use no historic no national no family bliss
I need an absolutely one to one a seven-day kiss…

Amen. I’m already figuring out how to use this poem (and others of her poems) in a worship service….

A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut’s last book is short, uneven, and slight. But it’s got some kickin prose epigrams buried in the meandering text…

Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don’t you wish you could have something named after you?

…and for good measure Vonnegut throws in some delightfully vicious offhand ad hominem attacks on U.S. political leadership:

…She wrote, “I’d love to know your thoughts for a woman of 43 who is finally going to have a child but is wary of bringing a new life into such a frightening world.”

Don’t do it! I wanted to tell her. It could be another George W. Bush or Lucrezia Borgia….

…and you’re quite sure Vonnegut feels he has listed the most violent man first. Slight as it is, I’ve already read this book twice.

Drawing the Line, poems by Lawson Fusao Inada.

Not just poems, but some good clear prose too, mostly telling quiet stories with lots of depth. The prose poem “Ringing the Bell” tells about a Japanese-American boy in a multi-racial neighborhood, making friends with a Mexican-American boy and his family. “Picking Up Stones” tells about a Zen teacher in an internment camp during World War II who wrote words on stones and scattered them outdoors. Some of the poems aren’t stories; “Just As I Thought” begins…

Just as I thought: One blue jay
                        a whole morning.

Just as I thought: The streetsweeper
                        is related
                        to the preacher….

…and goes one for six rhythmic pages, a collection of images and sounds and feelings that makes most sense when read (or chanted) aloud.

The Case of the Perjured Parrot, Erle Stanley Gardner.

A millionaire is found dead in his mountain cabin, with a parrot watching over his body. Perry Mason is called in, and he discovers that the parrot swears like a trooper and says things like, “Drop that gun, Helen…. Don’t shoot…. My God, you’ve shot me.” By the time the novel is done, there are three parrots (one of whom is brutally and bloodily murdered), a man who may or may not be dead, and a murder case that’s solved in the middle of the coroner’s trial.

In this crazy world, if I can’t get a seven-day kiss, at least I can read a Perry Mason novel.

Summer dreams

Standing in front of the stove, stirring the chopped chinese cabbages and carrots and garlic and ginger in the biggest frying pan, I think to myself: Oh I remember that place where I…. But it was a dream, not a memory: a dream place in which I wandered sometime last night while lying in bed.

Books make dreams even stronger in summertime:

A hymn to Agni, god and priest of fire, that I read in the Rig Veda comes back as people in a mysterious place that is part building and part woods.

The story about a library with no end becomes a waking dream, a poem that makes me interrupt cooking in order to write it down.

Perry Mason the amazing attorney is in my dreams, or is it his secretary Della Street, or I am detective Paul Drake.

The dreams fade into the early morning light that I never see because I stay up late into the night reading.

The dreams return at the oddest moments, a flash, then they fade. Sometimes I have to put down a book because of such a strong thought, which I think I should write down, but then I don’t, and when I next think of it, it’s gone; or was it only a dream thought that I thought I had thought?

Summer is rooted in the earthy carrots, grounded in the solid chinese cabbage that we bought at the farmer’s market in Davis Square. But summer fades into the nothingness of airy dusk when dreams return to you as you sit nodding there on the front porch reading.

The Case of the Amazing Attorney

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….


Cambridge, Mass.

You’ve probably heard the saying, Boston is the hub of the solar system. And you may well have thought, What East Coast snobbery, or What a dated sentiment from the early 19th C. when Boston was the literary center of the United States, or What a provincial thing to say, or maybe you didn’t think anything at all because you felt it was so patently untrue.

I have said all those things to myself, and have always used that saying with a sense of irony. “Hub of the solar system,” spoken as if it has quotation marks around it. But it’s also true for me, because I know I have been shaped by Boston-area literary heritage, by Boston-area instituions, by Boston area people. So here I am, in Cambridge, right at the edge of the hub of the solar system.

Not that I ever want to live in Boston, or even in Cambridge. I’d rather be outside the hub of the solar system. New Bedford will be close enough — or, I should say, far enough away.

And I do fit in, here in Cambridge. I ran into someone I went to middle school with, and an old friend saw me from the bus and sent me email saying hi. Walking over to the farmer’s market at Davis Square, I saw A. and T.’s house, and the house where R. and her sister M. used to live. Boston and Cambridge are smallish provincial places where you do know people.

So here I am, and while we’re here I’m enjoying being in Cambridge, next door to the Hub. Jean and I walked up Mass. Ave. towards Harvard Square to visit bookstores today. Jean stopped in at Robin Bledsoe, who sells art, architecture, and horse books (Jean was looking at the horse books). We went to Harvard Bookstore, where I found a translation of Japanese travel narratives, a book on the Cambridge (England) Platonists, and a Perry Mason novel.

Looking through the used nonfiction books, I wound up standing next to a tall thin young woman talking to a young man. I got the impression she had just graduated from college. She was telling him about a job interview that she had gotten with what purported to be an advertising agency. “So I got all dressed up, in like my best businessy clothes, and went in for the interview.” Then she told about her first interview, though I missed part of what she said, and she was called back the next day for a second interview. “So I walk into this room full of men in suits, and I’m wearing my business outfit, and they start talking to me, and they were saying I’d be good for the job.” I squatted down to look at a book, and missed a sentence or three. “It turns out I’d have to go door-to-door for like four hours a day, selling door-to-door. When I got back home, I was like, Nick, I got duped, I thought I had a real job, but it wasn’t at all, it was like going door-to-door.”

While we were at Harvard Bookstore, Jean saw that Michael Cunningham was going to be reading from his latest book tonight. So tonight we went to hear him read.

We got there 50 minutes early to be sure to get a seat. The reading was in the bookstore, and there wasn’t much room. Twenty minutes before he was to start, it was standing room only.

He came up to Cambridge from a stay down in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod (how very Boston). He was wearing a faded pink t-shirt, was very tan, with bleached-out hair, the picture of a Provincetown beach bum. He is a charismatic speaker, and he reads quite well. I have to admit I have not read any of his novels. I felt a little guilty that I was taking up one of the precious few seats. But then I realized that I belonged there, too. I’m a reader and a booklover, and unlike music lovers we don’t have concerts; unlike art lovers we don’t have gallery openings; our social events are author readings. It was good to be in a room full of book lovers, and it didn’t matter if we were in Cambridge, or Provincetown, or Geneva, Illinois — for readers, anywhere there’s a book and someone to read it, it’s the hub of the universe.