Today I am improving my mind with The Case of The Sulky Girl, a Perry Mason mystery. I love these old novels. One of my favourite indulgences on a weekend is filling some pleasantly empty hours with a Perry. It has always been thus, for as long as I can remember, so much so that now when I open them I don’t just escape into the cosy yet exciting yester-world of Perry, Della and Paul, but into nostalgic memories of summers past, when I used to sit and read them on the porch of my grandparents’ New England summer house when I was a teenager.
We had quite a collection of these old mystery stories, dog-eared paperbacks with their gaudy 1950s covers; hammock reads bought by my parents and grandparents in summers before I was born. I loved them. I would sit in the mission rocker on the porch, or sprawl on the chunky old mission day bed, and disappear into a distant sun-drenched California and a world of mystery and murder and grown-up intrigue.
Forty-odd years later the old novels are as evocative in their way as memories inspired by old songs. When I read them, I’m taken back; I recall vividly the scent of pine in the air and the exhiliarating sounds of the brook rushing through the woods at the bottom of our meadow, the chatter of chipmunks by the barns and the soft rustle of a breeze rippling the leaves on the huge maples beside the house. Lunch was typically a tuna salad sandwich on thick Pepperidge Farm bread with a couple chunks of pickled watermelon rind, sweet and syrupy, on the side.
Erle Stanley Gardner wrote, I believe, a total of eighty-eight Perry Mason novels. We had at least a dozen different titles on the bookshelf on the porch in those days, but in the years since I have read at least sixty and acquired quite a collection. My favourites are the early ones, from the Thirties – the first, The Case of The Velvet Claws was published in 1933 – or those from the 1950s, when Gardner was at the height of his popularity and Perry Mason novels were selling at the rate of 20,000 a day.
They are very different in tone. In the early novels, Perry was quite a hardcase, more ruthless, not at all the more avuncular legal genius we associate with Raymond Burr in the 50s television series and in the Perry Mason novels of that decade. He made no bones about his legal practice being a business and charging hefty fees, “whatever the market will bear” as he puts it himself in The Velvet Claws. The romance with Della is more on the surface in the early stories as well. By the late 1940s, early 1950s Perry and Della and Paul had settled into a comfortable ensemble cast. To be sure, the novels have become more formulaic by then, but in a nice sort of way. Reading them is like settling into an easy chair. I like both. I never really warmed to the novels written during the war years – the dated references in them and the intrusion of reality jarred me out of the timeless quality I like to find in a good Perry Mason, while the ones Gardner wrote during the 1960s (he died in 1970) seem somehow vaguely out of place. Perry and Della and Paul don’t belong in the Sixties.
To me, Perry, Della and Paul belonged – and still belong – to a distant film-noir world that existed intriguingly beyond my ken as a child; a world of Californian sunshine, big curvy automobiles, rainy nights and neon-lit boulevards and dangling cigarettes. That’s where I like them. And where I find vestiges of my own vanished world that existed out on the porch on warm balsam-scented Saturday afternoons.