Perry Mason, a Corrupt Nation Turns Its Not Easily Entertained Eyes to You

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I grew up on Perry Mason, viewing the show with my parents virtually every Saturday night up until I was old enough to go out and create my own trouble. Until then, I enjoyed watching the virtuoso attorney leisurely handle the one case he had per week. I mean, that burly barrister was hands-on.  He’d drive around LA and its environs half the night sleuthing, make house calls galore, and be in the office the next morning alert and ready to go. Most importantly, however, he used his prodigious mind to solve each and every case in a bang-bang third act confession, all the loose ends neatly wrapped-up — ta da!

One of the pundits covering the Impeachment Inquiry evoked that great lawyer’s name, warned us not to expect the proceedings to be “Perry Mason.”  Indeed, after the first “episode” featuring Taylor and Kent, media critics complained that the proceedings lacked “pizzazz.”  No way the American public whose attention spans have been decimated by fast cut editing, screen memes, multi-tasking, and herky jerky gifs could ever focus on a series of uninspiring factual questions.

Nevertheless, Devin Nunes, who, I understand, is suing a cow, has likened at various times the proceedings to an actor’s audition, a circus, and a crusade. To be truthful, he and his shirtsleeve henchmen Jim Jordan have been the most animated performers, especially Jordan who rat-a-tats details of debunked conspiracy theories like a carnival barker, and when finished, exudes the smug, self-congratulatory demeanor of  an overconfident high school debater. Every melodrama needs a villain to hate, and from my admittedly left-of-center perspective, I find the two to be, well, for lack of a better word, deplorable.  Boo!  Hiss!

Despite Nunes’ contention that the Inquiry is tanking ratings-wise,[1] I found Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s broadcasts to be fascinating. I especially enjoyed Democratic Counsel David Goldman’s questioning of Timothy Morrison, who appeared beyond uncomfortable as he continually looked left at his lawyer to make sure what he was saying wouldn’t result in a perjury indictment. Watching him squirm, his eyes darting as if he expected some predator to swallow him at any moment, reminded me of what great literature often depicts: consistently telling the straight truth is preferable to prevarication. [2]  What a difference in demeanor between him and William Taylor, who calmly looked his questioners in the eye, answered their inquiries, and actually smiled while being assailed.

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Wednesday’s NY Times morning teaser posited three possibilities for Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony.  He could lie, plead the Fifth, or fess up. As it turns out, the episode might have been billed as The Monster Bus Show, as Ambassador Sondland flattened the upper echelon of the Trump Administration, including Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, and that Master of Reality Television himself, Donald J Trump, who before leaving for wherever on his helicopter read from a piece of paper: “I don’t know him very well.  I have not spoken with him much.  This is not a man I know well.  He seems like a nice guy though.”

C’mon, Donald, learn your lines.  It’s so much more realistic.

For his part, at least at the beginning of the festivities, Sondland seemed calm – some have used the adjective debonair – perhaps secure in having decided to tell the truth and knowing he has millions of dollars at his disposal for securing topnotch legal counsel.

Of course, it would have been more dramatic if Trump burst into the chamber, fell to his knees, and blurted out a tearful confession like the murderers on Perry Mason.

At the end of each episode, Perry, his detective Paul Drake, and secretary Della Street huddle to explain how the case was solved.  How fun would it be to  peek in on Adam Schiff, David Goldman, and Nancy Pelosi connecting the dots in the Speaker’s office after today’s testimony

But, like I said, this is reality television, not an adaption of an Erle Stanley Gardner courtroom drama. That doesn’t mean, however, that the action necessarily lacks interest, especially given the stakes.


[1] From what I understand, television ratings don’t take into account streaming, which I suspect is how most of us viewers are accessing the proceedings.

[2] Compare Hester Prynne to Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.

Perry Mason and the Hardy Boys in Erle Stanley Gardner’s/Franklin W Dixon’s “The Case of the Oedipal Parricide”

Chapter 1 – It’s a Small World After All

It’s a typical sunsplashed Tuesday in Southern California where Perry Mason sits in his spacious walnut paneled office admiring his brand new state-of-the art intercom system. This is the age of rotary pay telephones, automobiles with tailfins that stretch out like prison sentences, an age when administrative assistants are known as secretaries.

Mason’s secretary, Della Street, shares the office with him. She’s an extremely attractive dark-haired woman in late twenties, buxom but wasp-waisted, slender, long-legged. Although the median marriage age for women is 20.6, Miss Street is single, and her desire for Mr. Mason is palatable. They frequently socialize, and his demeanor towards her is paradoxically solicitous yet aloof. Even though he often places his hand on her shoulder or waist as they walk together, there’s a distant formality in those gestures. Somehow she hasn’t intuited he’s as gay as a rhinestone-studded cummerbund.

As she leans over to place some papers on his desk, there’s a brisk knock on the door, and in strides Paul Drake, Mason’s private detective of choice. Drake is a strapping 6’2,” with sharp features and an abundant amount of blonde hair combed back from his forehead. He’s sporting a soon-to-be out-of-style checkered blazer and a skinny black tie.

He gives Della the once over and says, “Hello, beautiful.”

“Hello, Paul,” Mason replies.

Drake places his hands on his hips and frowns. “Look, Perry. I’ve asked you more than once to desist with these playful innuendos. I know you’re joking, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. I could claim harassment.”

Mason looks up an offers a slight, quizzical smile. “First of all, Paul. It’s 1957. There are no harassment laws. Second, I was looking down at these papers on my desk. You didn’t say, ‘Hello, Della. You look beautiful.’ You said, ‘Hello, beautiful.’ I assumed you were referring to my soulful protuberant eyes and the feline grace with which I move my broad-shouldered frame, my girth always well disguised beneath the impeccable tailoring of my Brooks Brothers suits. But, look, I didn’t call you here to match lawyerly wits but to get you working on a case.”

“Okay, Okay,” Drake says, surrendering.

Drake, Perry (seated), Della

“Ever heard of Fenton Hardy?”

“You mean the private detective who works out of Bayport, that small but thriving city of fifty-thousand inhabitants, located on Barmet Bay, three miles inland from the Pacific Ocean?”

“That’s the one.”

Della pipes in, “He has two sons. I read about them recently solving a case for their father.”

“That’s right,” Mason says. “One boy is dark, and the other fair, but there’s a marked resemblance between the two brothers, Eighteen-year-old Frank is tall and dark. Joe, a year younger, is blonde with blue eyes.   By the way, their father, Fenton is dead.“

Della and Paul, as if in a duet, simultaneously gasp, “Dead?”

“Murdered,” Mason says, holding up his palm, traffic-cop-style to prevent their gasping “Murdered?”

“Well,” Paul says, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, “There certainly are a slew of thugs, gangsters, insurance fraudsters who would have a motive. “

Mason, calmly, “Oh, they’ve already arrested a suspect.”

In unison, “They have?”

“Yeah, the older boy Frank, the darker one, has been arrested and booked for murder.”

“Back in Bayport?” Stella asks.

“No,” Mason replies matter-of-factly. “In Anaheim. The family was vacationing at Disneyland. Laura, the mother, and Joe had gone out to run some errands. Frank was back in his room recuperating from sprained back from a fall he’d suffered in Frontierland, and the father was napping. When Laura returned she found her husband dead in bed, gunned down by his own pistol, which was lying on the floor. The gun is covered in the older boy’s prints.”

“That’s Frank,” Drake asks, “the older one, the dark one?”

“Correct. Paul, I want you to drive to Anaheim to the Clearview Motel, Rooms 17 and 19 and to see if there’s anything Tragg has overlooked. I’m headed to the jail to interview Frank.”

“Okay, boss.”

“Della, I want you to come with me.”

As Della grabs her purse, Drake exits in a hurry, leaving the door open. Mason waits, places his hand gently on Della’s back ushering her out. He turns around and carefully closes the door.

[cue the ominous distinctive theme song]