Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The evolution of Perry Mason

My next book is going to be about radio shows that were based on literature or popular fiction. That means a large proportion of the book will concentrate on mysteries--Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe and many other characters who originated in prose had their runs on radio.

So did Perry Mason. I've read a number of Earl Stanley Gardner's original Mason novels, but these had been those published in the '40s and '50s. These all followed the standard Perry Mason formula that we're all familar with--his client is accused of murder, he and Paul Drake investigate, then there's a really fun courtroom scene at the climax in which the real killer is revealed.

But it wasn't always this way. I had always known that Gardner's early Mason novels were written with a more hard-boiled sensibility, but now I've confirmed that first hand. I just read "The Case of the Velvet Claws" (1933), the very first Mason novel.

Here, Mason never gets to court (in fact, he says at one point that his cases rarely get that far). Instead, the book follows a very tough-guy Mason as he deals with a client accused of murder. He beats up a reporter. He carries a gun. He bribes a cop to trace a phone number. He blackmails the head of a blackmail ring. He does do some lawyer stuff, but for the most part, he could have easily been written as another hard-boiled P.I. without drastically changing the plot.

In other words, he's nothing like the man he would one day become. In the 1930s, Gardner created dozens of characters for the pulp magazines. He was always a good writer and his early stuff is still fun to read. With Perry Mason, he struck literary gold. But this happened only after he evolved the character from just another hard-boiled guy into the more sedate but still brilliant lawyer he eventually became.

As for the radio show--that was, believe it or not, more of a soap opera than a mystery show. It was only when Perry Mason came to television that he was properly treated. And don't think it isn't painful for an old-time radio buff such as myself to have to admit that television actually did a better job than radio. But, in this one isolated case, it's true.

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