OVER THE YEARS, Perry Mason has become an American archetype: the wily lawyer who always gets his client off regardless of the niceties of legal procedure. Yet in the eighty-two books Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about his lawyer detective, published between 1933 and 1973, Mason remains largely an enigma beyond the work he does, and (unlike, say, Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple) he never reveals much of a persona beyond his professional one. Indeed, Gardner’s work rarely showed much concern for characterization, writing style, or moral ambiguity–which is probably why he was utterly ignored by the literary establishment and generally slighted even by his fellow mystery writers.
Nonetheless, for many years Erle Stanley Gardner was commonly listed as the bestselling fiction writer of all time (though the perennial Agatha Christie has now surpassed him), his books having sold well over 300 million copies. . . .
The Mason books differ greatly from the television series, even though Gardner personally supervised the show. When the first installments appeared in the early 1930s, mysteries were either hard-boiled (emulating Dashiell Hammett and the other "Black Mask" pulp writers) or relatively urbane (like the puzzle tales of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie). Gardner somehow managed to write both at the same time. Like a Hammett private eye, Perry Mason is tough and relentless, actively investigating the crimes and willing to use his fists when necessary. In the second novel, "The Case of the Sulky Girl," Gardner describes the lawyer as giving "the impression of bigness; not the bigness of fat, but the bigness of strength. He was broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient. Frequently those eyes changed expression, but the face never changed its expression of rugged patience."
Mason’s biggest weapon, however, is his mind, and he differs from his hard-boiled contemporaries in using logic to solve the crimes (although the cases are so intricate that it is usually all but impossible to determine whether Mason’s arguments actually make sense). After Mason presents his elaborate solution in "The Case of the Counterfeit Eye," District Attorney Hamilton Burger asks how he knew what had happened, and Mason says, "Simply by deductive reasoning." The Mason books further follow the puzzle form in forgoing the cynicism that pervaded the hard-boiled school of mystery story, where money inevitably corrupts and women are nearly always duplicitous.
Incorporating elements from both types of popular crime fiction, the Mason stories follow a strict but highly flexible formula unique to Gardner. First we encounter some strange and puzzling events that will lead to murder, either shown through third-person narration or told in first person as a character (often the one who will eventually be accused of the crime) relates the incidents to Mason in his Los Angeles office. So, for example, in "The Case of the Counterfeit Eye" (one of the very best entries in the series), a man hires Mason to find out who stole one of his custom-made bloodshot glass eyes. . . .
Mason’s quest is for justice, and Gardner’s multimillion-dollar observation was that a lawyer could stand as the new knight, with his clients as beautiful damsels and oppressed peasants who needed protection from wicked and incompetent nobles, invading warlords, pirates, and rogue warriors. Knight-errantry was a conscious decision on Gardner’s part. In their 1980 "Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer," Francis and Roberta Fugate quote Gardner: "This is the vision of the knight charging to the aid of the damsel in distress. It is the fairy godmother touch of Cinderella, in which justice is brought to the downtrodden. And it also has something of Robin Hood because Mason’s mind is about the same as Robin’s bow and arrow."
The narratives and imagery of the Mason books make this intention clear. Mason tells an antagonist in "The Case of the Stuttering Bishop," "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." In Gardner’s modern romances, wealthy businessmen replace the barons, and government officials (usually corrupt) serve as their satraps. Gangsters replace the independent warlords, while playboys and idle young women are the new courtiers.
The jousting in the Mason books is done with the mind rather than lances, of course. . . .
As with all romances, story takes precedence over characterization. Concealment of individuals, objects, and information is always a powerful motif in Gardner’s work. In every Mason story, the lawyer hides a crucial witness or fact from the police, leading them astray and preventing them from assembling an airtight case against his client. Gardner further evokes classic romances by having his protagonists adhere to a clear code of honor: Although Mason flouts the rules and even breaks the law, he does so only in pursuit of justice, never for selfish reasons. . . .
Like all real romances, the Mason tales show little interest in psychological examination and explanations. Gardner’s insistence that people are responsible for their actions provides what the critic J. Kenneth Van Dover called a "stable moral background" for the stories. In "The Case of the Velvet Claws," for example, the pervasive blackmail in the plot does not imply that all of society is fundamentally corrupt, as it would in a Hammett or Chandler novel. On the contrary, these transgressions reinforce the sense of justice at the center of the story. Mason’s goal is not to ensure that nobody is held responsible for the crimes in question, only that his client is not wrongly convicted. . . .