Does Perry Mason Follow the Rules for Detective Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, November 29, 2018

In my last post, I wrote about becoming addicted to Perry Mason. The trouble is I’m not a murder mystery fan, so I’m clueless when it comes to analyzing the clues. I’ve never guessed whodunit while watching Perry Mason. In fact, I often feel cheated when the murderer confesses because it seems like the writers kept them mostly offstage, and Perry doesn’t give us the important clues until the end of the show when he’s explaining his logic to Della and Paul. We seldom see the murderer conviving.

Because Perry Mason won nearly all the 271 cases presented in the nine seasons of the show, I know not to suspect his clients. The show certainly would be a great deal more fun if Hamilton Burger won at least a quarter of the cases or even a third. By some accounts, Mason only lost three cases, but even those are iffy. Watching a formulaic story is comfortable sometimes, but annoying at other times.

The creative appeal of Perry Mason is the highly contrived murders. The other night I watch “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse” which involved two women with the same name and looks. It featured a young actress Judy Tyler who had just made Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley that tragically died in a car accident not long after making the PM episode. The story was colorful and sexy, but highly contrived, while the murder and whodunit seemed more like an afterthought. In most episodes, the cleverness of how the victim was murdered seems to take a backseat to actually allowing the viewer a chance to solve the murder. To me, that’s breaking the rules.

Like I’ve said, I’ve had little experience with murder mysteries. I’ve read damn few of them, mainly a handful of novels by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve seen many more murder mysteries on television or at the movies, but I don’t seek them out. Now that I’ve got hooked on Perry Mason, I want to understand the art form.

I did find “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S. S. Van Dine, author of the Philo Vance mysteries. I tend to think the Perry Mason episodes often violates his rule number 10:

The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

I have not read the Erle Stanley Gardner books, so I can’t claim it’s his fault or the television writers when the rules are broken. And part of the problem is Perry Mason isn’t a detective but a lawyer, but he seldom lets Paul Drake his hired detective do any detecting. Reading, “I Rest My Case: Perry Mason Still Rules in the Courtroom” by J. Kingston Pierce, I get the feeling that book Perry is very different from TV Perry.

Raymond Burr is the star of the show and he gets to do all the crime solving. Because half the show is usually in the courtroom, we get a mix of a detective story with a courtroom drama. Everything moves fast, and it often feels like the writers are pulling a sleight-of-hand trick at the end. This doesn’t keep me from watching, though. Maybe the appeal of the show is to recreate the logic in the post-show analysis.

I know Perry Mason is an extremely well-loved television show, but I think it could have been much better. I feel it often breaks the rules for writing detective fiction. It makes Perry invincible which makes Paul and Della feel like subservient pawns in Perry’s game. I think the stories would have been superior if Paul Drake had done most of the detective work and Della had been given more of her own skills to contribute. And the stories would have had far more depth if Perry lost one-fourth of his cases to a more cunning Hamilton Berger. Plus, I think Lt. Tragg should have outsmarted Perry some of the time too. In fact, I think it would have been thrilling if the viewer sometimes got to solve cases that Perry flubbed. Or even have murderers outwit Perry. It gets tiresome waiting for Perry do all his same old tricks in each episode. I haven’t seen many episodes after season three, so maybe things change. Or maybe someone will create a new Perry Mason series.

It’s tedious to have infallible heroes. I wished Perry Mason had broken its formula writing rules and followed more closely the rules for writing whodunits. Like I said, I’m just getting into murder mysteries. I’ll start taking notes and analyzing some of the more interesting Perry Mason cases. Maybe the clues are all there and the writers are on the up-and-up, and I’m just a terrible murder mystery solver. I need to prove my case that Perry Mason breaks the rules with more specific facts, which will require deconstructing some episodes in the future.


13 thoughts on “Does Perry Mason Follow the Rules for Detective Fiction?”

  1. Agatha Christie violated S. S. Van Dine’s rule a number of times by making the murderer someone with a very minor role in her novels. I’ve read a couple dozen PERRY MASON novels and Erle Stanley Gardner includes a lot more legal maneuvering than the TV episodes do. There are several different types of mystery stories. Hard-boiled detectives tend to collect clues by beating the crap out of some thug. Ellery Queen (in the early mysteries) constructed incredible, detailed murders. At a certain point, Queen would stop the story and issue a challenge to the Reader by saying all the clues were exposed: whodunit?

    I’m also a fan of John Dickson Carr who specialized in Locked Room mysteries where the victim is found in a sealed room. It’s a challenge to figure out how the crime was committed.

  2. Hi
    Well, the van Dine was partly in jest. Raymond Chandler had a simpler rule: the ending should both be a surand feel inevitable at the same time. Clues are really just one way of doing that. Although many people like to play solve along with, and then a few of the Van Dine rules make sense.
    Agatha Christie is an obvious place to start. A Murder is Announced is a good one, as is And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express. Lots of sites review AC. Most stuff from the 30s is good. The Siamese Twin mystery by Ellery Queen is an example of how far some push the clueing and logic.
    James Anderson wrote three pastiches in the 80s That are fun and play with the rules, so might interest you. Affair of the blood stained egg cozy is the first. I recommend you try that one.

    1. Thanks. I think there is a lot to learn about being a mystery fan. I wish I had talked to my mother about this. She was a lifelong mystery fan. I wonder what her approach was to enjoying the books.

  3. Book Perry changes as a character as the series goes on… the 1930s version is a lot tougher physically, and more willing to break the rules, than the guy who features in the 1940s and onwards. That less brash, more conservative lawyer is a lot closer to TV Perry.

    Most of the episodes from the first season of the TV show are based on Gardner novels; of course there was only a limited supply of these, and the vast majority of episodes overall are original stories “based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner”. Gardner kept a close watch on all the scripts, so I think he shares some of the blame for weaknesses even in episodes that aren’t derived from a book.

    I have not watched every episode or anything close to it, but I have the impression that the later in the series you get, the more complicated and confusing the plot of an episode is likely to be.

    I agree that it would have kept things fresher if Mason had lost a case now and then, or if the occasional client had turned out to be guilty as hell. With no disrespect to William Talman, who played Hamilton Burger, I also think it would have been more interesting (and realistic) if there had been a rotating group of prosecutors with different styles and personalities for Perry to square off against.

  4. There were times in the TV show that Perry did face off against another prosecutor, often in another municipality or, like last night’s (1/1/19) MeTV episode, the military. For awhile, William Tallman was suspended. Originally, the DA and the Chief of Detectives in the books were crooks: they would decide who they thought did it and suppress all evidence to the contrary and maybe “massage” the other evidence to look more incriminating. They were gotten rid of, and Perry, who had been pulling all sorts of shenanigans on them, continued to treat Burger and Tragg the same at first… which was the start of the whole adversarial relationship. I don’t remember if it was stated or I just got the idea from reading them (at least through “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse”, which I barely remember) that Mason, Drake, Tragg, and Burger were within four of five years of each other’s age. It made the stories different, when Perry had a halfway friendly relationship with Tragg (Perry defended Tragg’s future wife in “The Case of the Silent Partner”, which was changed for TV-but a shadow of it remains in another episode when Tragg tells Perry that “Mildreth sends her love”.) A few times each asks the other for a favor (an episode with Robert Brown, another with J. Pat O’Malley for two), and I liked that.

    Raymond Burr said at some point he was accosted by a TV watcher who said she didn’t feel the show was realistic, since Perry never lost a case. Burr pointed out that she only saw the cases he took to court on Sundays. And, if I remember correctly, Perry says at least once in the books (and I think of TV) that he has lost cases-but who wants to see those?

    I would say that the books (and by extension the TV show) are not always mysteries, with clues you can put together and all, but there is often some mystery in the story, whether it makes complete sense or not. And trimming the TV show to fit the new commercial-heavy broadcast formats doesn’t help.

    There was an episode of a TV show (“Judd For The Defense”, maybe?) where the defense attorney realizes that his client is guilty as sin and his whole case has been manufactured for him. During his defense, he begins to ask questions and set up stuff for the prosecuting attorney. Partway through the prosecutor realizes what is going on, and runs with it. The guy was convicted, and probability had grounds for a retrial (but we didn’t get to see that). Still, I remember seeing it maybe 50 years later.

    1. Now, that’s interesting that Mason, Drake, Tragg, and Burger were all about the same age in the books. I like Ray Collins, but I feel that he’s too old for the part in the TV series. It’s hard to believe that Tragg has a future wife. It’s also insightful that in the original stories the cops and DA were corrupt, but the Perry played fast and loose too.

      By the way, I’ve started reading the first book.

      Thanks for the info. I was hoping old fans would leave messages here.

  5. It’s ALWAYS the LAST person you would expect. It is someone who plays a minor role and someone with seemingly no motive (not to mention ability) and that way the audience is totally shocked by the revelation. I have gotten pretty good at figuring out who the culprit is. I have found this formula used on many crime drama television shows.

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