By Kirk Woodward
For years I have read, re-read, and enjoyed the Perry Mason books by Earl Stanley Gardner. Generally speaking, a mystery reader becomes immersed in a series for two reasons: affection for the main character or characters, and an imaginative response to the world of the stories. Those are certainly my reasons for enjoying the Perry Mason series, and my pleasure is increased by my inability to remember the solution to any mystery, which means that I can return to it time after time without being bored.
I'm not sure that books that have sold so well need much of a defense, but I have the impression that the positive qualities of the Mason books are not always sufficiently appreciated. In this essay I want to help correct that situation by addressing both complaints and strengths. I have discovered after years of reading that some of the emotional wellsprings of the books are not exactly what one might expect. Those discoveries are included in the material that follows, which I present according to themes.
There are some eighty Perry Mason novels, plus a novella and a short story. Gardner published his first Mason novel in 1933 and continued to write them until his death in 1970, at the age of eighty. In my opinion the books written in the forties and fifties are probably the strongest as a group, but there is little falling off in quality through the entire series; they are all fun to read.
A "prototypical" Perry Mason mystery should include the main cast of characters, including Sergeant Holcomb, the boorish police sergeant, as well as Lieutenant Tragg; it probably should involve a switch in guns, a Gardner specialty; and it should end in a courtroom. I would propose The Case of the Long Legged Models as a classic example.
For illustrations in this essay, however, I will use The Case of the Grinning Gorilla, published in 1952. Gardner was sixty-two years old at that time - he was approximately ten years older than the century. Guns are not a major feature in Gorilla. But in other respects it is an excellent representative of the corpus, and a colorful and imaginative story.
(The titles of Mason mysteries all begin with The Case of the... In referring to Mason books in this article I will use only the parts of the titles that are unique.)
Someone told me once that the Perry Mason books appeal only to men, not to women. I can't imagine that this is true – I have known women who love the books – but we may begin by recognizing that Gardner displays characteristics in his writing that cry out to be labeled male chauvinism. Numerous times a woman getting out of a car "shows a glimpse of shapely leg," or nylon. Women are sometimes described in terms of their physical appearance, in a sort of barroom or smoking club tone.
But in contradiction to this somewhat sniggering masculine attitude is the redoubtable Della Street, Perry's secretary, treated by him almost always an equal – consulted and relied on, not just for her looks (there we go again), but for her brain. (In Stuttering Bishop she makes deductions that would not have occurred to Paul Drake.) And lined up with her are a number of smart, self-sufficient, self-motivating women (as well as Bertha Cool, the detective, who with her sidekick Donald Lam has her own series of books). Consider the following, from Sleepwalker's Niece, published in 1936. Mason is talking with a golddigger:
"I understand the woman is a nurse. Think of it, Peter Kent marrying a nurse!"
"What's wrong with a nurse?" Mason asked.
"Everything," she replied, "so far as Peter Kent is concerned. She has to work for a living."
"And a mighty fine thing," Mason said. "I like women who work for a living."
In Velvet Claws, Mason mentions that Della's family was rich and lost its money (the Great Depression was a recent event), so Della had to work.
Gorilla is mostly a book about men – perhaps appropriately, considering the gorilla theme! But Helen Cadmus, the beautiful stenographer who hoped for a movie career before disappearing from a ship, is shown in her diaries as sensitive and intelligent, and Fern Blevins, although no rocket scientist, has a lot of what used to be described as moxie. We can say that even the women in the stories who define themselves in relation to men, also have their own lives to lead.
The same can be said about Gardner's attitudes toward race. As a practicing attorney Gardner specialized in representing Chinese immigrants, so he had experience with treating members of minorities as individuals rather than as stereotypes. The early books do contain portraits of grinning Negroes, devious Asians, and shiftless Hispanics (for example, in Baited Hook); but quite soon these are replaced by a different attitude: "minorities" are people, with feelings, ideas, and experiences of their own. In Fabulous Fake Mason defends a young black man pro bono ; the man has been accused of theft because he is walking through a white neighborhood carrying a paper bag (his lunch) when a robbery takes place, and is only exonerated when someone else is arrested for the crime.
Gorilla handles race in a particularly interesting way, by using Chinese culture as a recurrent theme. The restaurant staff behaves in what could be considered a stereotypical way, with the waiter portrayed as stolid and imperturbable. Perry and Della discuss their "fortunes" seriously, speculating on the roles of fate and chance. Later, when a client is upset, Perry quotes the fortune he received, "Courage is the only antidote for danger" – particularly appropriate for his life - and recommends familiarity with Asian proverbs. At the end of the book, another "fortune" provides the book's emotional conclusion.
Gardner's treatment of an ethnic group, then, shows nuance and creativity. Whatever his prejudices and inherited limitations may have been, he ordinarily treats people as people.
Could Gardner "write well" – was he a "good writer" – and are not the Perry Mason books in fact badly written? Gardner built his career by producing on demand: he wrote what he needed to in order to make a living. But when style was required, he was excellent, as many of his short stories attest. Consider the following, the opening of "The Valley of Little Fears." I love the rhythms of this passage, and how much it accomplishes in a short space:
This thing is true of the desert, the first time you feel its spell you'll either love it or you'll hate it. If you hate it, your hatred will be founded on fear.
Those who know the desert claim you never change that original reaction, no matter how long you live in the sandy wastes. In that they're wrong. I know of one case where the rules didn't work. The desert is hard to figure, and you can't make rules about it.
The Perry Mason books put a premium on dialogue and on speedy narrative. The jacket cover notes (author unattributed) to Seven Complete Novels (Avenel Books, 1979), in an excellent critical evaluation of Gardner's writing style in the Mason books, points out that
Each of these stories is a murder mystery written with stunning economy of characterization and dialogue, moving from an intriguing beginning, through intricate plots and subplots, to the crescendo of a battle of wits and expertise in the courtroom to a climax that is always unexpected.
Arguments about "good writing" tend to point toward a generalized notion of "beautiful style", and often to forget that to be "good," writing must succeed at the purpose for which it is intended. Gardner's purpose is fast-moving narrative and dialogue. This purpose lends itself to dictation – a method of writing suited to a dialogue-centric style – and Gardner did frequently dictate his books. This practice may not be a flaw, though; perhaps partly as a result, the speeches in the books are varied, well characterized, lively with slang and idiom, and, needless to say, fast-paced.
While Gardner's dictating his books may have contributed to their lack of "literary" style, it also surely contributed to the quality of the dialogue, which is colloquial, character based, and flexible.
It is true that Gardner has his favorite expressions – many times someone is said to "take a button and sew a vest on it" – but for this reader at least, such affection for particular phrases is part of the charm of the series.
Subjects of particular interest
But there are two subjects in the Mason books (in addition to crime and the law, of course) on which Gardner writes with particular eloquence, two subjects dear to his heart: the undeveloped American West and wilderness, and dogs. In particular, as a writer he seems almost to relax (as do Perry and Della) when his stories leave the cities and head for the mountains and the deserts, as in Drowsy Mosquito, Rolling Bones, and many short stories. He seldom bothers to describe the physical properties of a scene unless it involves the desert or the mountains:
Down below the desert stretched interminably. The tall, weird shapes of the Joshua palms cast long, angular shadows. Over on the right show-capped mountains turned to a rosy glow in the rays of the setting sun. Then the desert gave way to mountains, piling up in jagged, tumbled peaks until the crests became covered with dark green pines. A lake flashed into view (Runaway Corpse)
As for dogs, Gardner loved them; they play a role in the plots of several books, and Mason displays deep familiarity with their behavior, as for example in this passage from Drowning Duck:
"They're nice dogs," Mason said. "Peculiar thing about canine psychology. They hurl a challenge at you, and you stand still and look at them, and, as we lawyers say, 'the issue is joined.' You keep right on going about your business, and show absolutely no fear, and almost any dog is inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt."
Gardner was not anti-cat, however; the behavior of Careless Kitten is crucial to the solution of the plot, and it is one of two books named for cats, as well as for birds and other animal life.
Aside from his interest in the west and in animals, Gardner is consistently interested in what goes on in life. Subjects as varied as racetracks, modern art, corporate management, beauty contests, real estate, ducks, photography, detergents, casinos, waiting on tables, farm-bred trout, Hollywood, motel management, prospecting all are grist for his mill.
The Perry Mason books have both internal and external climaxes. The external is the moment when the case swings Perry's way. As with classical Greek tragedy, this is followed by a denouement, in which the situation is resolved, sometimes (though by no means always, as it sometimes seemed on TV) with the public confession of the guilty party. The internal climax is the moment when Mason suddenly sees the true configuration of the events of the mystery. (This is equivalent to Nero Wolfe's pushing his lips in and out, but for Mason it happens in various ways.) This moment is always at least implied in a Mason book; sometimes it is not described, but we know it must have occurred. The false connections melt away, and Perry understands what must have really happened.
The structure of the Mason novels is in fact highly Aristotelian, typically including an exposition, a rising action, an inciting incident (almost always the murder), a climax, and an unraveling. However, Mason is not a tragic hero; instead, he is both the protagonist and the one who restores order to a society torn apart by the worst of all crimes, murder. His client is innocent too (with a qualified exception or two), at least of murder – not always of wrong behavior. Frequently clients get themselves in trouble by making dubious decisions (for example, in Screaming Woman and Glamorous Ghost, but many of the books provide examples), and very often they lie to their attorney.
Perry Mason is a lawyer. To Gardner, who was himself a resourceful and capable attorney, this is explanation enough for Mason's actions. A lawyer's duty is to fight for the client. On the other hand, it is worth noting that although Gardner holds in the highest esteem the ideals of the legal profession, he does not idolize lawyers as such. The Mason books are full of inept or crooked ones, like Nathaniel Shuster in The Caretaker's Cat, Banner Boles (not a practicing attorney, but trained in the law and all the more dangerous on that account) in Lucky Loser, or the excellently named "Old Attica, the shyster" in Half-Wakened Wife.
In Gorilla Mason finds himself teamed with the young attorney James Etna. The two attorneys exercise considerable professional caution before they join on the case, and collegiality once they do. Mason always observes legal etiquette, and makes sure his young associate gets to take part in cross-examination at the trial, although he also keeps him in line – explaining why, so his junior associate will be able to grow. Sidney Hardwick, a lawyer for another group of characters in the story, is resourceful and willing to use the status of his client to manipulate the district attorney's office for his own purposes. He gives the impression that he works the margins of the law as Mason does; one also gets the impression that his faith in justice is as not as high.
As an attorney, surely Mason appeals to readers everywhere because he returns his phone calls. Anyone who has tried to get a lawyer – or anyone else – to call back knows how glorious this is. Mason may not answer his mail (he hates to), but when a client needs him, he is there. No wonder he doesn't like unimportant cases.
Gardner periodically mentions that Mason has multiple clients, and occasionally introduces one; on the TV show it generally seems as though he has only one client at a time, and devotes all his attention to that one person. In the books we see Mason accepting pro bono work (Hesitant Hostess), and shifting appointments so he can concentrate on the most important case of the moment. The man can prioritize. His clients are of all sorts – young and old, rich and poor, attractive and unattractive, cooperative and uncooperative, sympathetic and unlikable, naive and manipulative, sometimes pure as the driven snow, sometimes so shifty that they ought to be guilty, even if in fact they're not.
Gardner, like Abraham Lincoln, enjoyed tricky defense strategies – not dishonest ones, but strategies that take advantage of every nook and cranny of the law. We see Mason home late at night, reading the advance decisions (Hesitant Hostess). He keeps a file of unusual decisions (Singing Skirt), as did my father, also a lawyer. The fact is that Mason stretches the limits of the law in order to carry out what he considers (to borrow Star Trek terminology) its Prime Directive: to represent and defend his client to the best of his ability. This principle often leads him to the edge of both trouble and the law. One sympathizes with the police.
Gardner doesn't spend a lot of time personalizing judges; they almost certainly appear as they would to a lawyer – fairly remote figures with individual traits worth noting primarily for strategic reasons. Mason is on personal terms with some (Restless Redhead, Fenced In Woman, Beautiful Beggar), and he does his best to gain an advantage from what he knows of a judge's personality (Careless Cupid ).
Some judges are tougher than others. None are visibly corrupt or unable at least to listen to Perry's arguments, although many express strong reservations about Perry's tricks, especially his habit of turning preliminary hearings into conclusive trials. But the ethos of the books requires that Mason have at least a fair chance before the Court, something he seldom gets from the police or the District Attorney.
The practice of law
A collection of Perry Mason's comments about the practice of law gives a fascinating picture of determination in the service of justice. Here are some remarks found in Gorilla:
"I make my living by knowing something about law and something about human nature. I stand up in front of juries. I cross-examine witnesses. I have to know a lot more about human nature than the average man."
"You don't get to understand human nature by listening to what people tell you when they're talking to you. That's when you see them with their make-up on, with their best foot forward. You learn about human nature by watching people when they don't know they're being watched, by listening to conversations that they don't know are being overheard, by prying into their thoughts whenever you can find what their true thoughts are. You learn about people when you see their souls stripped naked by suffering."
"I saw no reason to comply with an empty legal formality." (Della Street replies to this, "I think probably that last remark is a very complete index to your character.")
"We're never going to get anywhere by denials and evasions, and being on the defensive. This is a case where we're going to have to carry the fight to the other man."
"When a lawyer has to argue with himself to try to talk himself into believing a client's story, it's a damn sight better to keep anyone else from ever hearing that story."
"There's a difference between retreating until you can fight at the right time and at the right place and just running away."
"You have to take them as they come, Jim. You can't skim the cream all the time. Every once in a while Fate hands you something."
"We advise our clients for their best interests, not ours."
Mason often describes himself as a fighter. His comments on his own motivations don't go much farther than these (from Runaway Corpse ) in a conversation with a District Attorney:
Vandling said, "The district attorney in Los Angeles gave me quite a briefing about you. He told me you were tricky, shrewd, diabolically clever, and while he didn't say in so many words that you were crooked he intimated that you'd cut your grandmother's throat in order to obtain an advantage for a client."
"Why not?" Mason asked, grinning. "After all, I'm supposed to represent my clients. Then again you're not my grandmother."
Gardner certainly would have approved of Leslie Charteris's comment that he created his great series character The Saint as a protest against "the miserable half-heartedness of the age." Mason sees the law as a great ideal, and its ambiguities as a testing ground for personality.
I'm a hunter, Della. Some men get their thrills in life out of standing up to a charging lion or tiger. Some like to shoot small birds; some just like to hunt, not for what they kill, but for the thrill of hunting. Well, I hunt murderers. And, Della, I want to bag that murderer. I don't want Tragg to do it. I'm willing he should have the credit, but I want to be the one to do the hunting, and finding. (Haunted Husband)
To that end he will sacrifice even the typical human ideal of the happy family life. And it seems to have sacrificed him as well. He never mentions parents, and says he has no brothers or sisters. And of course he is unmarried.
Mason is the classic example of Franklin's precept in his Autobiography : "I have always thought that one man of tolerable abilities may work great changes, and accomplish great affairs among mankind, if he first forms a good plan, and, cutting off all amusements or other employments that would divert his attention, make the execution of that same plan his sole study and business."
Mason lives in an apartment; we don't learn much more about it than that he reads in his chair. He has a good car; he dines out and eats well; he goes camping with cronies and makes what they call Thousand Island Gravy. Otherwise he is a saint to the law. Where does this devotion come from? We aren't told, but it may remind us of Bible verses like Psalm 119:34: "Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart."
The family structure
Mention of marriage brings us to the central emotional feature of the books – the nature of Perry Mason's "family". Gardner periodically tries to establish a romance between Perry and Della Street, his secretary. (After Gardner's wife died, very late in his life, Gardner married his secretary.) Perry and Della discuss marriage (for example, in Lame Canary, Golddigger's Purse, and Caretaker's Cat), but they never marry; they move toward marriage, and then away from it. Their moments of hugging and kissing don't feel quite right to the reader.
The reason for this dance of closeness and distance, I believe, is that in a psychological, or even psychic, sense, Mason's team actually is a family. Mason is the paterfamilias; Della and Paul Drake are his children, and Burger and Tragg are alternately cranky and bearable relatives. (Holcomb is an unpleasant neighbor.)
Perry Mason doesn't marry Della, then, because the relationship would be too weird; it would feel as if he had married his daughter. So the efforts to kindle sparks between Perry and Della are doomed; because of the way the stories are structured, such a pairing would strike us as icky, even if it were not literally so. (When a new Perry Mason series starring Monte Markham appeared on network TV, the producers indicated that Perry and Della would be a sexually active couple. The series was a failure.)
I am not claiming that this interpretation is "true" in terms of the stories – that "Della really is Perry's daughter" – or that Gardner intended to present the situation this way, but that this is how the situation feels to the reader, and apparently how it felt to Gardner too, since he was not able to overcome the structural resistance between Perry and Della, like trying to bring two magnets together at the same pole.
Readers and audiences love families. Holmes and Watson are a family, and readers can hardly get enough information about their relationship. Lord Peter Wimsey, Bunter, and Harriet Vane are a family. We still want the Beatles to reunite as a family, even though alas that is impossible. The family relationship in the Mason books gives the stories an emotional strength, even if a slightly odd one, that carries them through.
Mason says the same things that every other ordinary male of his time might have said about women; but he is a gentleman, and, when actually offered a sexual encounter, he is practically a monk, again illustrating his remarkable single-mindedness – a constant theme of the books, and a quality at the core of his character.
The plot hook
The "engine" of the plots of the Mason books, the "hook" that gives them their distinctive nature, is that Mason invariably does something that puts him in as much trouble as his client is in – he runs the risk of being disgraced, or jailed, or, worst of all, disbarred and forbidden to practice his sacred craft any more. He must then fight as hard to extricate himself from the mess as he fights for his client; and, to make things more difficult, if their interests clash, he must put those of the client ahead of his own.
A typical Mason client looks guilty as sin because someone has deliberately arranged appearances that way. It is not always clear whether Mason sees through the deception from the start, or whether he is merely acting according to the principle that everyone is entitled to an effective defense. He often proclaims that he only defends the innocent; he is not interested in getting scoundrels off. However, appearances damn his clients; how does he know they are innocent?
In any case, each defendant is by definition an underdog in some way. Gardner does not always view the law from the defense's perspective; he wrote books with a District Attorney, Doug Selby, as the hero. Even in those cases, though, Selby is fighting heavy odds. Gardner was a scrapper in real life – an acquaintance is said to have called him "a contentious son of a bitch" – and the series characters of his stories are scrappers too.
The practice of law in the United States has evolved over the decades, to the point where Perry Mason would find much of it unfamiliar. Pre-trial discovery, in particular, would remove a number of strings from his bow, or make them more difficult to use. However, in the books Mason stays current with the law, just as Gardner stays current with what happens in society.
The writer Penelope Gilliatt once remarked how interesting it was to watch the hemlines go up and down over the years in Agatha Christie's long-running mystery play The Mousetrap. In the same way, one sees both social and legal fashions change in the Mason books. Perry Mason begins as practically a tough-guy detective out of Dashiel Hammett; Gardner, always on the watch for a market for his writing, freely imitated the core concepts of other writers. (His Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, written under the name A. A. Fair, bear a remarkable and I would guess not coincidental resemblance to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.)
But as the years pass, Mason becomes much less obnoxiously tough, and more the sophisticated lawyer, a fact Gardner comments on in his introduction to Lucky Legs, where he notes that the early Perry Mason was seldom without a set of master keys to use when breaking and entering, but gradually settled down to become a law-abiding member of the bar, shunning his initial cavalier lawbreaking.
The reader of the books in sequence sees the Miranda warning coming into effect, irritating the police but interestingly not seeming to influence Mason at all – he frequently instructs his clients to stay silent anyway, and he knows all about their need for an attorney.
As legal fashions change, so do social. Gardner keeps Mason's world as unrestricted by time period as possible (a remarkable bit of foresight); but we see glimpses of speakeasies, of the Depression, of World War II, of beatniks and the turmoil of the 1960's (Gardner and Mason don't have much use for it, but Mason treats everyone even-handedly until he reaches the point of exasperation). People lose their fortunes in the Depression, soldiers come home from war shell-shocked, rationing makes it difficult to buy tires Gardner doesn't connect his stories to particular dates, but the real world makes shadowy background appearances.
Gardner was an active, participatory sort of man, and his books demonstrate his powerful curiosity. Gorilla includes a great deal of speculation about the possibility of hypnotizing animals – and what would you do with them then? – plus substantial interest in the actual habits of gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys. Typically a Gardner book reflects a lively interest in what's going on in the world.
Through it all, as noted, Mason continues to get himself in trouble as he tries to get his clients out of it. The major difference between the books and, in particular, the TV movies starring Raymond Burr that began in 1985, is that on TV Mason is of course a tough cross-examiner, but not particularly a risk-taker, while the Perry Mason of the books can hardly resist an opportunity to throw himself into the fire.
Perry Mason on TV
The TV series falls somewhere between these two stools, but of course any faults of the years of the series (1957-1966) are redeemed by its extraordinary cast. It is well known that Burr was barely allowed to audition for the show at all; Gardner saw him audition for the antagonist, the role Burr frequently played in movies, and announced, "That's him!" It can be said that Burr did not fit Gardner's physical description of Mason (not that he ever describes him extensively): his features are not steely or craggy, but soft. But Burr had the extraordinary gift of making the simplest line, like "Then what did you do?", crackle with significance.
He also seemed to contain a deep well of kindliness. When I was a child, my parents took me to hear him speak to the Bar Association, and he gave me his autograph afterwards. I recall him as pleasant and considerate.
The family unit (Barbara Hale as Della Street; William Hopper as Paul Drake, the detective; William Talman as Hamilton Burger; Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg) is also perfectly cast, again not necessarily in keeping with the descriptions in the books, which (except for Mason's) Gardner subsequently de-emphasized. Hopper was tall but not glassy-eyed or bug-eyed. Talman was not "bear-like". Collins was not Mason's age, and tall, but older, and short. But none could have been equaled.
In the books written after the TV show had begun to take hold, the characters subtly begin at least not to contradict those on TV. (Gardner, as is well known, played a judge in the last episode of the TV series, incidentally one of the best examples of a "final episode" of a TV series.)
Keeping the formula fresh
Since the TV series ended up in the same courtroom every week, we may forget that Gardner worked hard to vary the characteristics of his books. By my count about a quarter of the books in the series either do not end in a trial at all, or end in some sort of a hearing other than a trial, or in a county other than Los Angeles, and the District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, does not appear in every Los Angeles trial, although he tends at least to make an appearance toward the end, when he anticipates that Perry is at long last about to lay an egg.
It should go without saying that Gardner is a master plotter, from the initial incident (in Gorilla , Perry purchases a series of diaries at an auction) through the denouement, which may contain a surprise inside the surprise. One of the surest signs of the high quality of Gardner's plotting, to my mind, is that not all Perry's schemes pay off. Some backfire, getting him in trouble; some simply don't amount to anything, a realistic observation – nobody's perfect, and Mason makes mistakes, and loses his temper, like anyone else.
What's in a name?
The mention of Burger brings up the topic of Gardner and names. He loves triple-names and middle initials, although none of the core team has them. Names of peripheral characters can be exotic, as though they had been assembled by a quick visit to the phone book (although there are plenty of ordinary names as well). Those in Gorilla are not as bizarre as, say, Eduardo Marcus Deering, the District Attorney in Duplicate Daughter, or Dr. Herkimer Corrison Renault in Runaway Corpse, but neither are they ordinary:
And was Gardner aware from the start that his DA's name was Ham Burger?
There is little about religion in the Mason books. In Caretaker's Cat a clergyman is suspicious and afraid to open the door of his house, an attitude that bemuses Mason and Drake. The character of the Stuttering Bishop is evaluated primarily in terms of his professional responsibilities, but it is also reported that in Australia he was "one of the most human ministers I've ever seen. He didn't have the smug, self-righteous attitude so many preachers have. He was a man who wanted to help people - and he helped me."
Then there's the following interesting conversation from Stepdaughter's Secret. A client is speaking:
"There was a chaplain in that prison who took an interest in me. I won't say that he gave me religion, because, in a way, he didn't. He simply gave me confidence in myself and my fellow man, and in a divine scheme of the universe.
"He pointed out that life was too complicated to be accidental, that it took a master plan to account for life, as we knew it; that fledglings emerged from the egg, grew feathers and poised on the edge of the nest with the desire to fly because of what we call instinct; that instinct was merely a divine plan and a means by which the architect of that divine plan communicated with the living units.
"He asked me to consult my own instincts, not my selfish inclinations but the feelings that came to me when I could deliberately disregard my environment and put myself in harmony with the universe. He dared me to surrender myself in the solitude of night to the great heart of the universe."
"And you did?" Mason asked.
"I did it because he told me I was afraid to do it, and I wanted to show him I wasn't. I wanted to prove he was wrong."
"And he wasn't wrong?"
"Something came to me - I don't know what it was. A feeling of awareness, a desire to make something of myself. I started to read, study and think."
And in Long Legged Models, Mason tells a woman a parable of life and death that I have not seen elsewhere, and that would stand out in any discussion of death and immortality. If the reader is not familiar with it, I highly recommend it. Needless to say, the passage is integrated with the plot.
Looking for a savior
I described above the "hook" to the plots of the Perry Mason books, in which Mason immerses himself in his client's case to the extent that he is in almost as much trouble as the client is. I have saved to the end a comment on the "myth" underlying this device. (By "myth", of course, I do not mean something fictional, but rather a significant underlying story.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, Perry Mason is a Savior. He enters a world not his own, participates in it, and saves his devotee from death. In other words, Mason is a Christ figure. Jesus as he appears in the gospels is not merely someone, even a loving someone, who looks at us, possibly sees the best in us, and pleads our case with God. That would be fine, of course (and would correspond to the TV Mason movies), but that's not the Jesus story. Instead, as the author of Hebrews 5:2 writes, "He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness."
I am not claiming that Gardner was a Christian – I have no idea. (He requested that the only religious event at his graveside be a reading of the Twenty-Third Psalm.) I definitely am claiming that the Mason books resonate because of their mythic structure, because they dramatize the situation of all of us who get ourselves deep in life's messes, and pray – whatever that may mean for us – for help. In the Mason books, that help is provided – which is also the upshot of the Christian story.
MORE OF PERRY MASON'S COMMENTS ABOUT LIFE AND THE PRACTICE OF LAW
Some of the Perry Mason books contain comments on the practice of law – sometimes rather extensive comments. The quotations that follow are occasionally slightly edited.
Velvet Claws (1933)
"I'm different. I get my business because I fight for it, and because I fight for my clients. Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I've never yet probated an estate. I haven't drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn't know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don't come to me because they like the looks of my eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they've known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They come to me because they want to hire me for what I can do."
She looked up at him then. "Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason?" she asked.
He snapped out two words at her. "I fight!"
"Most attorneys hire clerks and detectives to work up their cases, and find out about the evidence. I don't, for the simple reason that I can't trust any one to do that sort of stuff in the kind of cases I handle. I don't handle very many, but when I do I'm well paid, and I usually give good results. When I hire a detective, he's hired to get just one fact."
"I'm a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients. Most clients aren't square shooters. That's why they're clients. They've got themselves into trouble. It's up to me to get them out. I have to shoot square with them. I can't always expect them to shoot square with me."
"It isn't fair!" she blazed.
"Of course not," he smiled. "It's business."
"If all clients had your loyalty, Della, there wouldn't be any law business. Don't forget that. You've got to take clients as they come."
"All right. Listen, here's what you're planning to do. You're going to look me up. I'll tell you in advance what you'll find. You'll find that I'm a lawyer that has specialized in trial work, and in a lot of criminal work. Every fellow in this practice cultivates some sort of a specialty. I'm a specialist on getting people out of trouble. They come to me when they're in all sorts of trouble, and I work them out. Most of my cases never come to court.
"If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he'll probably tell you that I'm a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney's office, he'll tell you that I'm a dangerous antagonist but he doesn't know very much about me. If you look me up through a bank you won't find out a damned thing."
Sulky Girl (1933)
"A man can nearly always think his way out of any situation in which he finds himself. It's merely a paraphrase of the old saying that where there's a will there's a way."
"You came to me with a problem. You can't gain anything by lying to me, any more than you could by lying to a doctor. You've got to tell your lawyer and your doctor the whole truth. You can trust me, I don't betray communications made by my clients."
"It's an axiom of criminal law that a man should try everyone except the defendant. You know, sometimes you can try the prosecuting attorney. Very frequently you can try the prosecuting witness. You can start digging around, cross-examining on extraneous matters, trying to show some sort of a motive for murder. Then, if you can get a motive before the jury, you start showing opportunity, and if you can get motive and opportunity, you suddenly switch the accusation and claim there's just as much ground to suspect the prosecuting witness as there is the defendant. [I'm simply telling you] how criminal lawyers play the game."
"Are all your clients innocent?" she asked.
"That's what the juries say," he told her. "And after all, they're the ones to judge."
"The way to get to the bottom of a murder," he said, "is to pick out any pertinent fact which hasn't been explained, and find the real explanation of that fact."
"I want to do more than raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. I want to make a complete solution of the case What I'm trying to do now is to crash the point home to the jury in such a dramatic manner they'll never forget it."
Curious Bride (1934)
"What right have I got to sit back with that 'holier than thou' attitude and expect [clients] to come clean with a total stranger? They come here when they're in trouble. They're worried and frightened. They come to me for consultations. I'm a total stranger to them. They need help. Poor fools, you can't blame them for resorting to subterfuges."
"Remember this, Della, I can dish it out, and I can take it."
"You've heard the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction? There are millions of facts that may fall from the wheel of chance in any possible combination. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred those combinations of fact are plausible and convincing, but once out of a hundred the actual truth challenges credulity. When a defendant is caught in that kind of a trap, it's one of the worst cases a lawyer can get hold of."
Howling Dog (1934)
"You overlook the fact that I'm representing my clients. I'm a paid gladiator. I have to go in and fight; that's what they hire me for. Any time I get weak-kneed so I don't have guts enough to wade in and fight, I've fitted myself to carry on my profession, at any rate, the branch of it that I specialize in. I'm a fighter. I'm hired to fight. Everything I got in the world, I got through fighting."
"I carry my two fists, and my wits. I fight with those. Sometimes I carry a gun, but I don't make a practice of it. It's bad training. It teaches one to rely entirely on a gun. Force should only be a last resort."
"A lawyer who wouldn't skate on thin ice for a client ain't worth a damn."
"I never believe anything that I can't make a jury believe."
"That is the way to prepare a criminal case. You've got to make all of your preparations and block out your defense before the district attorney finds out what it's all about. After that, it's too late."
"I'm a lawyer and I'm representing a client who is entitled to a fair trial. By God, I'm going to see that she gets it!"
"Does all this spectacular and dramatic stuff constitute your idea of a fair trial?"
"Yes. My idea of a fair trial is to bring out the facts. I'm going to bring out the facts."
"All of the facts, or just the facts that are favorable to your client?"
"Well, I'm not going to try the case for the district attorney, if that's what you mean; that's up to him."
"I wouldn't get you into anything that I wouldn't go into myself."
"We're a dramatic people. We're not like the English. The English want dignity and order. We want the dramatic and the spectacular. It's a national craving. We're geared to a rapid rate of thought. We want to have things move in a spectacular manner."
"There are lots of ways of trying a lawsuit. There's the slow, tedious way, indulged in by lawyers who haven't any particular plan of campaign, other than to walk into court and snarl over objections, haggle over technicalities, and drag the facts out so interminably that no one knows just what it's all about. Then there's the dramatic method of trying a lawsuit. That's the method I try to follow."
"Pick some dominant emotion if you want, but touch on it only for a few moments. Then swing your argument to something else. Then come back to it. The human mind is like a pendulum: you can start it swinging a little at a time and gradually come back with added force, until finally you can close in a burst of dramatic oratory, with the jury inflamed to white rage against the other side. But if you try to talk to a jury for as much as fifteen minutes, and harp continually upon one line, you will find that the jurors have quit listening to you before you finish."
Lucky Legs (1934)
"I'm one of the biggest gamblers in the world. I gamble with human emotions instead of with cards."
"I don't think until I've got something to work on. You can't build up a case without facts. I haven't got all of the facts yet."
"I always take risks. It's the way I play the game; I like it."
Caretaker's Cat (1935)
"A lawyer isn't like a shopkeeper who can sell his wares or not as he chooses. He holds his talents in trust for the unfortunate."
"That's what I like about the practice of law – it's an adventure. You're looking behind the scenes at human nature. The audience out front sees only the carefully rehearsed poses assumed by the actors. The lawyer sees human nature with the shutters open."
"Remember one thing about me – when I start fighting I don't hit where the other man's expecting the punch. I always hit in an unexpected place."
"A lawyer has a trust to his client. He can set any fee he pleases. If the client doesn't pay it, the lawyer doesn't need to take the business; but if a client pays it, it doesn't make any difference whether it's five cents or five million dollars. The lawyer should give the client everything he has."
"The main thing in handling a lawsuit is to keep the other man's client on the defensive; not to get yours in a position where he has to do a lot of explaining."
"To hell with the money! If a man's accused of murder and has money, I want a big slice of it as a fee. If people who are living their lives the best they can get into trouble and are accused of committing crimes of which they're innocent, I want to give them a break."
"Suppose he's really guilty?"
"Then we'll find out all about the extenuating circumstances and either make him plead guilty and get the lightest sentence we can for him, or else let him get some other lawyer."
"That's not an orthodox way of practicing law"
"Who the hell wants to be orthodox?"
"I'm not a lawyer," Mason grinned, "except as a sideline. I'm an adventurer."
"Why the hell don't you sit in your office and let cases come to you the way other lawyers do?"
"For the same reason a hound doesn't like to follow a cold scent," Mason said. "I like my cases served up while they're hot."
"I play a no-limit game. When I back my judgment, I back it with everything I have. I try not to be wrong. What the hell can a man lose? He can't lose his life because he doesn't own that, anyway. He only has a lease on life. He can lose money, and money doesn't mean one damn thing as compared with character. All that really counts is a man's ability to live, to get the most out of it as he goes through it, and he gets the most kick out of it by playing a no-limit game."
"I want to beat everyone to it. You know me. I'm a great grand-stander."
Counterfeit Eye (1935)
"I have this office routine. [I want], not necessarily a murder case, but a good fight in front of a jury. I like dramatic murder trials, where the prosecution explodes an unexpected bomb under me, and, while I'm whirling through the air, I try to figure how I'm going to light on my feet when I come down"
"I never make admissions."
Sleepwalker's Niece (1936)
"Any time I have to depend on perjured evidence to acquit a client, I'll quit trying cases. If he's innocent, we'll get him off."
"I'm like a football player who has the ball and is in the clear. Behind me are a whole swarm of enemy tacklers. Any one of them can tackle me. If I run the ball across the goal line for a touchdown, the stands go wild and no one stops to think of how I got it there. But if I start looking over my shoulder and wondering which of the tacklers may bet me, I slow down enough so they all get me."
"A lawyer looks at murders a little differently from the way other people do. Murders are just cases to a lawyer. He doesn't know the people who are killed, he doesn't know the people who are accused. He's able to give better service that way. He's not blinded by sympathies and his mind isn't clouded by worries."
Stuttering Bishop (1936)
"Would you fight for a poor person against a millionaire?"
Mason said grimly, "I'd fight for a client against the devil himself."
"How I love a mystery, Della," he said. "I hate routine. I hate details. I like the thrill of matching my wits with crooks. I like to have people lie to me and catch them in their lies. I love to listen to people talk and wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is false. I want life, action, shifting conditions. I like to fit facts together, bit by bit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."
"Regardless of what you may think, Mr. Brownley, I'm not merely a paid gladiator fighting for those who have the funds with which to employ me. I'm a fighter, yes, and I like to feel that I fight for those who aren't able to fight for themselves, but I don't offer my services indiscriminately. I fight to aid justice."
"It would," Mason told him," take a mighty good man to convince me I had no hope of winning a lawsuit. I prefer to reach my own conclusions on that."
"In solving a crime, a man has to figure out lots of theories. Some of them hold water, and some of them don't. A man who wants to build up a reputation for himself will keep his thoughts to himself until he knows they check out."
"Do you want to build up a reputation for yourself, Chief?" she asked softly.
"And how!" he told her.
Lame Canary (1937)
"That," he said, making a wry grimace, "is what comes of trying murder cases. I'm constantly translating everyday occurrences into terms of the bizarre."
"Most cases hit you an awful wallop right in between the eyes with a mess of complicated circumstances which gradually simplify themselves when you start unraveling them."
"I sit in court with an armful of legal monkey-wrenches and toss them into the machinery whenever I see a couple of wheels getting ready to move around."
"A solution of any crime which doesn't account for all of the various factors involved is no solution at all. In the long run, Della, the essence of all successful detective work lies in reconstructing the life of the victim. That gives motivation, and motivation makes murders.
"Virtually every man has enemies. Sometimes they're business enemies. More often they're personal enemies, people who hate him, people who will look down their noses and say it's too bad when they hear he's bumped off, but who will be tickled to death just the same; but it takes a peculiar psychological build-up to perpetrate a murder. A man must have a certain innate ferocity, a certain lack of consideration, and, usually, a lack of imagination."
"Why a lack of imagination?"
"I don't know," he said, "except that it's nearly always true. I think imaginative people sympathize with the sufferings of others because they're able to visualize those sufferings more keenly in their own minds. An unimaginative person, on the other hand, can't visualize himself in the shows of another. Therefore, he sees life only from his own selfish angle. Killers are frequently cunning, but they're rarely original. They're selfish, and usually determined. Of course, I'm not talking now about a murder which is the results of some sudden overpowering emotion."
Substitute Face (1938)
"...I don't like to represent persons who are guilty. Of course, every person is entitled to a fair trial. That means he's entitled to a lawyer. But I'd prefer that chaps like Moar would get some other lawyer. Of course, I can't always pick innocent ones. For one thing, I have to reach snap judgments. I'm like a baseball umpire who has to call the plays as he sees them."
"...when you start fighting, never try to hit the other man where he's expecting the punch. And when you once start a fight, never give up until h other man's licked. If you can't do it by hook, do it by crook.."
Perjured Parrot (1939)
"You know, Della, I wish people would learn to differentiate between the reputable lawyer who represents persons accused of crime, and the criminal lawyer who becomes a silent partner in the profits of crime."
"Just how would you explain the difference?" she asked.
Mason said, "Crime is personal. Evidence of crime is impersonal. I never take a case unless I'm convinced my client was incapable of committing the crime charged. Once I've reached that conclusion, I figure there must be some discrepancy between the evidence and the conclusions the police have drawn from that evidence. I set out to find them."
She laughed. "You sound as though you were more of a detective than a lawyer."
"No," Mason said, "they are two different professions. A detective gathers evidence. He becomes skilled in knowing what to look for, where to find it, and how to get it. A lawyer interprets the evidence after it's been collected."
"My training has been to sympathize with the underdog and fight for him."
"But I'm not an underdog."
"You will be by the time that family gets done with you," Mason told her grimly.
"There's only one way to fight, and that's to win. Never attack where the other man is expecting it, when the other man is expecting it. That's where he's prepared his strongest defense."
"The prosecuting attorney has at his command all the facilities of organized investigation. He uncovers facts. He selects only those which, in his opinion, are significant. Once he's come to the conclusion the defendant is guilty, the only facts he considers significant are those which point to the guilt of the defendant. That's why circumstantial evidence is such a liar. Facts themselves are meaningless. It's only the interpretation we give those facts which counts."
"We've been talking quite a bit about becoming hypnotized by circumstantial evidence. After a person once gets a fixed belief, he interprets everything which happens in the light of that belief. It's a dangerous habit to get into and I'm afraid I haven't been entirely innocent, myself."
"Let's cheer up; let's get this feeling of hopelessness completely licked."
Baited Hook (1940)
"Dammit," he said to Della Street. "One of those frosty, reserved, human adding-machines gets under my skin worse than a dozen shysters who try browbeating tactics."
"Whoever got anything in life by being careful? Every time you stop to figure what the other fellow's going to do, you unconsciously figure what you'd do in his place. The result is that you're not fighting him, but yourself. You always come to a stalemate. Every time you think of a move, you think of a perfect defense. The best fighters don't worry about what the other man may do. And if they keep things moving fast enough, the other man is too busy to do much thinking."
Silent Partner (1940)
"You don't need to see a man, look in his face, shake his hand, and hear him talk, in order to know him. You can watch the things he does. You can see him through the eyes of others. You make allowances for [ ] prejudice when you know the others. You can then judge the extent of their distortion. That's the only way you can solve cases, Della. You must learn to know the characters involved. You must learn to see things through their eyes, and that means you must have sympathy and tolerance for crime."
"A lawyer is very much like a doctor. A doctor devotes his life to easing a person's body. A lawyer devotes his to easing their minds. The machinery of justice is very apt to get out of gear if it isn't kept well oiled and running smoothly. Lawyers are the engineers."
"I don't go around selling myself. My brains aren't a commodity like a motor car which anyone can buy who has the price. A person can buy a bulletproof car and use it to help hold up a bank, but he can't buy my knowledge of law to use in committing a crime."
"I've always tried to represent clients who were innocent. I've been lucky. I've taken chances. I've played hunches, and the hunches have panned out. Circumstantial evidence can be black against a client, and I'll see something in his demeanor, some little mannerism, the way he answers a question or something, which makes me believe he's innocent. I'll take the case, and it will work out. I'm not infallible. my percentages should run about fifty-fifty. So far I've always been on the black side of the ledger. That's luck. ... I do know that a lawyer can't simply sit back and refuse to take any case unless he thinks his client is innocent. A client is entitled to legal representation. It takes the unanimous verdict of twelve jurors to find a person guilty. It isn't fair for a lawyer to turn himself into a jury, weigh the evidence, and say, 'No, I won't handle your case because I think you're guilty.' That would deprive an accused person of a fair trial."
Empty Tin (1941)
"No chance to stop on that one. Using the throttle was our only chance. If you hesitate, you're licked."
Haunted Husband (1941)
"When I pry, I make a good job of it."
"We can try one rehearsal when we've a little more time. I don't want to rehearse you so much that it will look staged. I want you to make it appear spontaneous and natural."
"Right now, [things] look black. All cases do at the start."
"Suppose you're on the roof and a murderer is sneaking out through the basement. You can't stop him by yelling at him, but if you take a loose brick out of the chimney, drop it, and hit him on the head, it stops him, and why isn't it perfectly justifiable? After all, you've only taken a loose brick from that dignified structure you've been talking about."
"That is the secret of crime solution. You find the things that are unusual, the things which vary from the normal or average, and, using them as clues, you get away from generalities, and down to specific individual cases."
Drowning Duck (1942)
"We've been taking too much for granted simply because of our ancestors. We've hypnotized ourselves. We keep saying proudly that other nations should be afraid of us because we never have lost a war. We should put it the other way. It might be a good thing for us all to learn that we have to stand on our own two feet"
"Know anything about surgery? There are times when you have to cut, and cut deep in order to save a patient's life. This was what you might call legal surgery."
"Isn't it illegal?"
"You can get what you want out of life – if you fight hard enough for it."
"It's a question of doing justice to a client. Once you become convinced your client is guilty, you interpret all of the evidence in a false light and weigh it by false standards. When you once get the correct master pattern, every single event fits into that pattern. It dovetails with every other event which impinges upon it. When you get a master pattern which seems to accommodate all of the events except one , and you can't make that event fit in, it's pretty apt to mean that your master pattern is wrong."
Drowsy Mosquito (1943)
"I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice."
"Taking advantage of all the technicalities, of course," Tragg said.
" Why not? The law is technical. Any man-made rule is technical. You make a line of demarcation between what is prescribed and what is prohibited, and you will always have borderline cases that seem so close to each other as to be absurd. And furthermore, Lieutenant – furthermore I'll thank you to remember that my clients are not criminals until they've been convicted by juries
"The law guarantees a person a trial by jury, Tragg. If I should refuse to defend someone because I thought him guilty, that would be a trial by Perry Mason, not a trial by jury. Of course, the accused wouldn't want me to represent him."
"I like combat. I like the acrimonious personalities of a grudge fight."
"It's hot all right," Mason admitted, "and it keeps getting hotter. It won't be long until it starts boiling."
"Then I'll become even more hard-boiled."
Black-eyed Blonde (1944)
"When I find that one theory of a case is hopeless, I squirm around and try to find some other theory. After all, it makes a great deal of difference how you look at a case. It's what the lawyers call the legal theory on which it is to be tried. ... A lawyer needs imagination. When you come to one legal road that's blocked, you back up and try another."
"A lawyer can't afford to get too big, Della. He always has to remember he's a part of the machinery by which justice is dispensed. When it comes to a matter of justice or injustice here isn't such a thing as big or little. Injustice is a social malignancy."
"I know now how a doctor feels when he's sitting by the bedside of a patient he's powerless to save. After all, Della, a lawyer is sort of a doctor of justice."
Crooked Candle (1944)
"Cautious lawyers get in a rut."
Half-Wakened Wife (1945)
"The theory on which you want to work is always the theory on which the other man doesn't want to work."
"For my part, I have a different way of handling a chiseler."
"What's that?" Jackson asked.
"I kick his teeth in."
Jackson winced. "That expression always makes me shiver," he said. "I detest violence – of all forms."
Mason said, "I love it."
"I guess it's only fair to tell you that when I start fighting I fight rather rough."
"You can't get out from under when you're representing a client."
"I don't give a damn what becomes me and what doesn't. Thank heavens I've lived my life so I can do pretty much what I please."
Fan-Dancer's Horse (1947)
"Never, never, never cross-examine a witness by following the pattern that the witness expects."
Lonely Heiress (1948)
"I'm always a pushover for a client's tale of woe"
"I like to watch people around a depot. It's fascinating. You can see so much of human nature that way. People aren't on their guard when they're dead-weary or when they're completely removed from their usual environment. A person who lives here in the city feels he's on his own home ground, no matter what part of the city he's in, unless it's the depot. Btu the minute he walks into the depot he's started, so to speak, on a complete change of environment and he lets his guard down."
"There are times when a lawyer throws the rule book away, when he has to go by hunches."
"But I always do – stick my neck out for my clients. I should have taken the case just the way any other lawyer would have; taken the facts as they were and let the chip0s fall wherever they might. But no, I'm not built that way. I'm always a pushover for a client who is having the breaks go against her."
"I go all the way for a client, Paul."
"A murder case is simply a jigsaw puzzle, a lot of things to be put together. If you have the right solution, all of the parts fit into the picture. If some of the parts don't seem to fit, it's a pretty good indication you haven't the right solution."
Vagabond Virgin (1948)
"A lawyer who does much trial work has to make snap judgments. The clerk calls out the names of a prospective juror. That person gets up from his seat in the courtroom, walks up to take his place in the jury box. You have an opportunity to watch him for six or seven seconds. In those six or seven seconds you have to reach a snap judgment as to his character, how he's apt to react to testimony and argument, what kind of a person he is, whether he's broad-minded or liberal minded, whether he's bigoted, good-natured or antagonistic.
"Of course, you have an opportunity to supplement that first impression by asking him a few questions, but as a rule a man has steeled himself by the time you start questioning him so his appearance is more or less of a mask. He's trying to convince you that he's intelligent and important. He knows that he's in the limelight and he has that natural tendency to put his best foot forward. He's trying to convince himself he's something of a judge. Your best opportunity to size him up is as he walks up to the jury box."
"We're all making the most asinine of all fundamental errors! We're looking at the thing from the standpoint of the Prosecution. The Prosecution reconstructed the crime and we're falling right in with their reconstruction. Let's go back to first principles."
One-Eyed Witness (1951)
"Many people misunderstand the duty of an attorney. It's an attorney's duty to see that a defendant has a fair trial. If the attorney makes up his mind that the defendant is guilty and therefore won't represent that defendant, that's asking an attorney to substitute his own prejudices, his own judgment for the judgment of a Court and a jury."
"Suppose you know a client is guilty."
Fiery Fingers (1951)
"A lawyer isn't paid to consider probabilities . He's paid to consider possibilities ."
"A good lawyer must always remember one thing. Never get mad unless someone pays him to do it."
Moth-Eaten Mink (1952)
"I never disbelieve a client, but whenever I'm listening to a client's story, I'm constantly wondering how a jury is going to react to that same story"
Hesitant Hostess (1953)
"The first basic principle of cross-examination is to start asking a witness conversationally, affably and in a friendly way about some of the minor points that the witness hasn't thought over quite so much, and on which he doesn't expect cross-examination. As long as you're friendly and affable, if you get adverse answers it doesn't hurt your case in the least, but if you do uncover a weak point then you can move in on it swiftly and capitalize on the advantage.
"In that way you can cross-examine a witness with everything to gain and nothing to lose.
"Human memory is a tricky thing. If a person actually experiences a holdup, or sees a murder, or something of that sort, he keeps recalling the dramatic high lights of that occurrence perhaps a thousand times an hour. Whenever he starts thinking about that happening, he doesn't pay much attention to the connecting links which bridge the gaps between the dramatic high lights. The more routine matters are dwarfed in his mind by the spectacular.
"For instance, if a person witnesses a shooting, he keeps seeing the assailant level the gun and pull the trigger. He recalls seeing the victim stagger and fall a thousand times, but where the car was parked, whether the sun was shining or if it was cloudy, he may recall some forty or fifty times, or perhaps not at all. There is, in short, a mental unbalance as far as the memory is concerned. When a person gets on the witness stand and tries to connect up all the events in his mind he's quite likely to rationalize certain things which he thinks must have happened. Those things may not have happened at all."
Fugitive Nurse (1954)
"Identification evidence is given the greatest weight in a court, and it's likely to be the poorest evidence. The person who is really trying to be fair says, "I think that was the person whom I saw.' They riddle him with cross-examination and ridicule. Jurors dismiss his testimony. He's apt to be telling the truth."
"The person who isn't trying to be fair wants to make an impression on the witness stand. he becomes partisan, biased, positive, and won't admit to any guilt. Jurors believe him."
Restless Redhead (1954)
"I just reach into the hat. That's my contribution. The rabbit jumps into my hat."
"You have to hold the interest of a jury. You can't do it by fumbling around with papers. Any time you make a pass at a witness and then quit and start fumbling around with papers you make it appear that you don't know what you're doing, that the witness has the best of you. You're going to keep throwing questions at the witness. Rapid-fire questions. you aren't going to pause for anything. You're just going to keep slamming questions at him. ... Furthermore, you mustn't, under any circumstances, keep going over the same things he's testified to in the same order. ... Go at him from a different angle. ... Bore into him. Give it to him hammer and tongs. Don't let him have any time to think in between questions. The minute he answers one question, fire another one at him.
"Don't let your mind go blank. Keep throwing questions at him, any questions. Ask him what the weather was. Ask him what kind of tires were on the automobile. Whether they were white sidewalls or not. Ask him exactly where the car was parked. How many feet from the corner. How many inches from the curb. Ask him how he happened to be there. Ask him if he was walking, or ask him if he stopped walking. If he had stopped walking to watch the girl, find out when he stopped walking and why. How long he stood there. Ask him how he happened to be there, where he'd been, how long he'd been there, where he was going, what stopped him, when he started walking again. Just keep throwing questions at him and all the time keep watching him like a hawk, using your powers of concentration to remember everything he says and to correlate every answer, looking for a weak spot.
"If you're going to be a trial lawyer, you not only have to think of all those things but in addition you've got to keep watching the jurors out of the corner of your eye. You've got to see what impresses them and what doesn't. You've got to see when they're getting bored, and when they're getting bored you've got to do something spectacular that will arouse their interest. You've got to keep thinking about the record. You've got to keep watching for errors. You've got to keep an eye on the court. You've got to frame your questions so they're calling for evidence that is legally admissible and not have your questions couched in such phraseology that the other side can object and have the objection sustained. That makes the jury feel you don't know what you're doing. ...
"You'll get so they're automatic. You'll be able to stand on your feet, throw out a steady stream of questions, and keep thinking of all those things and half a dozen others."
"I've been in the practice long enough to realize that it's advisable to get all the facts, and then apply the law."
"A lawyer is trained to look at facts with a good, healthy cynicism."
"Object to anything, just so it isn't important. Let them get in all the important facts whether they hurt us or not. Save your objections for the facts we already know. Throw a little variety into the case and give him something to think about."
"In a preliminary never object to any questions calling for new evidence. Only object to the form of questions so you keep the prosecutors off balance and keep them from letting a witness have things too easy. Otherwise let them drag in everything they want. You can never tell when something will do some good. The more a witness says the first time he's on the stand the more he's apt to contradict himself the second time he gets on the stand."
"A defendant in a criminal case very seldom has anything to lose by letting the issues become confused."
"When you're skating on thin ice the only way you can keep from breaking through is to start going like hell."
"I'm scrambling facts," Mason said.
"Did you ever cook eggs over a camp fire?" Mason asked.
"Yes, but what does that have to do with it?"
"And did you ever start out trying to fry eggs, break the yolks and then save your face by scrambling them and pretending you had intended to scramble them all along?"
Neely grinned. "Yes," he admitted.
"That's a damn good way to try a lawsuit when you're up against a frame-up," Mason said. "When you scramble eggs no one can tell which yolk was accidentally broken, and when you scramble facts you have at least upset the plans of the man who thought he had a perfect frame-up."
"I believe that an attorney should capitalize on anything that will give his client a break."
Runaway Corpse (1954)
"She's at least entitled to a fair representation. She's entitled to her day in court. She's entitled to her constitutional rights. She's entitled to be confronted with the witnesses against her and to have them cross-examined. But somehow I can't feel this case is as black as it seems."
"Let's take one thing at a time."
"An attorney is supposed to anticipate not only the things that may happen but the things that can happen."
"Even if you're guilty you're entitled to a fair trail. You're entitled to all of your rights under the law. It's my business to see that you get them."
Nervous Accomplice (1955)
"I don't know why it is, but it's not once in fifty times that you'll find a client who tells you the entire truth. Nearly all of them, no matter how innocent they may be and how honest they may be, will try to sugar-coat the facts so that they become more favorable."
"If you're a card player you frequently pick up hands that you don't like. Just because you get a poor hand is no reason you should throw down your cards in disgust and not even try. You have to make the best out of every case you handle."
Demure Defendant (1956)
"As far as I'm concerned anything a client tells me is confidential."
"Get this straight. You're dealing with a murder case. No matter how awkward the truth is, you can't fabricate a situation that will meet all of the requirements. You can't get a falsehood that will dovetail with all of the facts. Sooner or later all of the other facts will be known. If your story doesn't dovetail you'll have to change it. If you change it under pressure the truth will then be ten times more awkward."
Calendar Girl (1958)
"I do mostly trial work and I only take the cases that interest me. Somehow or other that has led me to gravitate toward the defense of persons accused of murder, and, unless you want to go out and commit a murder, I'm afraid you're not going to interest me."
Singing Skirt (1959)
"I know as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather have my hand cut off than betray the interests of a client. If I'm representing a client, I want the representation to be honest, loyal and efficient. I make it a point to believe everything my client tells me and to act accordingly in order to protect the best interests of that client."
"Yet you recognize the possibility the client may lie?"
"I recognize the possibility the client may lie," Mason said.
Duplicate Daughter (1960)
"I'm fighting for time and I'm fighting a tough combination of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and overwhelming evidence. When a lawyer gets in that position the only thing for him to do is to take the initiative and keep moving."
"There was only one way to go. If I had stopped I'd have been engulfed, and if I'd gone any other way I'd have fallen over a precipice... In fact, that's the only technique to use... when you get in a fight, keep moving."
Bigamous Spouse (1961)
"Money was made round so it can be kept in circulation. Did you ever realize, Della, that if I take a dollar and pay it to Paul Drake, and Drake pays it to his landlady, and the landlady pays it to the grocer, that dollar is doing a man-sized job in the economy? Whereas, if I put the dollar in my pocket and sit on it – "
"It's more than being loyal to your clients. It's being loyal to the basic principles of justice. And when you're trying to do that, you have to take it on the chin once in a while – or at least be ready to."
Blonde Bonanza (1962)
"You can't get blood out of a turnip, Mr. Mason."
"No," Mason said, "but you can get sugar out of a beet – if you know how – and in the process you raise hell with the beet."
Ice-Cold Hands (1962)
"One of the most dangerous things anyone can do in the practice of law is to take things for granted."
Amorous Aunt (1963)
"As far as ethics are concerned, don't overlook the fact that a lawyer is ethically bound to protect his client. That's the first and foremost of all the rules of legal ethics. The people who formulate the canons of legal ethics take it for granted that an attorney will be protecting his client, so they lay down rules of professional conduct for the purpose of seeing the lawyer doesn't go too far. But the number one canon of ethics which should dominate all the others is that an attorney should be loyal to his client and should protect his client."
"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."
"Don't object to those things [being introduced into evidence]. That's the mark of an amateur. Let the evidence go in and then get the guy all flustered on cross-examination."
Mischievous Doll (1963)
"I have always been accustomed to controlling events, within reason. I hate like hell to find myself in a position where events are controlling me."
Stepdaughter's Secret (1963)
"You can't live without taking chances. If you want a lawyer who doesn't take chances, get someone else."
"When I'm handling a murder case I doubt everyone and everybody – even you."
Phantom Fortune (1964)
"In a murder case many things are entirely different from what they are in other cases. When a man's life is at stake he will do almost anything."
"Make up your mind to one thing, Mrs. Warren. After water has run downstream and over the dam, you can't find any way on earth of getting it back upstream and over the dam a second time. Take things as they come. Concentrate on the present, forget the past."
Beautiful Beggar (1965)
"Remember that I'm an officer of the court, a high priest at the temple of justice."
"Our system of justice isn't absolutely perfect," Mason said. "But the case isn't finished yet."
"My experience has always been that these things look much worse than they actually are. In fact, I tell my clients that nine times out of ten they can say to themselves, 'Things are never as bad as they seem.' I admit things look black, but we're going to keep fighting, and don't you get discouraged. "
"In the first place, as an officer of the court, I can't tamper with evidence. In the second place, I've always found that truth is the strongest weapon in the arsenal of any attorney. The trouble is lawyers quite frequently don't know what the truth is. They get half-truths from the evidence or from their clients and try to get by on those half-truths."
"You know and I know that personal identification evidence is just about the worst, the most unreliable type of evidence we have – not when a person identifies someone he knows but when he gets a glimpse of an individual and then later on makes an identification – either from a photograph or from personal contact."
"Sure, we all know that," Drake said.
"The good campaigner changes his battle plans in accordance with changing facts."
"I'm protecting you. A lawyer doesn't have room for more than one allegiance. You'll have to get accustomed to that."
Troubled Trustee (1965)
"The best defense is the truth, but in this case I don't know what the truth is, and I'm not at all certain my client is going to tell me."
"Don't disparage secretaries, Mr. Hedley," he said. "They are pearls of great price and I can assure you that good ones are hard to find. Miss Street is my right hand. I'd be lost without her."
"Wage slaves," Henley snapped. "Human dignity is entitled to something more than machine routine."
Mason said, "Dignity means greatness. Look it up sometime."
Mason said, "You're indulging in the most expensive luxury a man can indulge in."
"What's that? Being tried for murder?"
"No, lying to your lawyer."
"I never let a client plead guilty if he isn't guilty. I don't believe in it. I try to find the truth."
"These things nearly always look blacker at the start; then after the facts begin to come to light the case looks better."
"We'll give him a fight for every inch of ground we have to hold."
"After all, a lawyer is, or should be, an expert in the field of high-pressure salesmanship."
Queenly Contestant (1967)
"Razzle-dazzle is not good cross-examination. The purpose of cross-examination is to find out whether a witness is telling the truth."
Careless Cupid (1968)
"I have an idea your client is holding something back."
Mason said, "You can say that for about ninety percent of the clients who come to a lawyer's office, Paul. I wonder if patients hold out on their doctors. They come to a professional man to get help and then they almost invariably try to color the facts."
"Clients do strange things. There are several things you can always depend on a client doing. A client will usually hold out some pertinent fact, will substitute his own judgment for yours, and then make some crazy move which affects his status without asking you about it in advance.
"Aside from that, you can't tell what a client will do. They're unpredictable."
"You're not licked yet. Every once in a while we get in a situation where the best defense is a counteroffensive. We are going to initiate a counteroffensive."
"What right has any court anywhere to tell a citizen that he can't establish his innocence by any way he sees fit when a lot of innuendoes have been used to accuse him?"
Several works were discovered in Gardner's files after his death, presumably written well before the publication dates:
Crying Swallow (published 1971)
"I've practiced law long enough to know that a man should never torture clues to make them point in the direction he thinks they should go."
Postponed Murder (published 1973)
"The trouble with me is that I am a natural-born grandstander. My friends call it a flair for the dramatic. My enemies call it four-flushing. That, coupled with a curiosity about people and an interest in anything that looks like a mystery, is always getting me into trouble."
"I have to take chances. When I take on a case, my duty and loyalty are one hundred percent to my client. I do everything in my power to get at the facts, and sometimes I have to cut corners." (Della replies, "I know.")
"A lawyer trains himself to listen. Witnesses have usually rehearsed their story pretty well – at least to the extent of making the mannerisms and gestures more or less mechanical, but they rehearse silently. People really should cultivate the art of talking to themselves. They'd learn a lot about voices if they did."
"I guess I'm just made that way. When I start unraveling a mystery, I can't seem to find a brake. Every time I put my foot down, it hits the throttle."