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.

JWH