TV Review: Perry Mason (2020) Chapter 1

Perry Mason (2020)

“Everybody’s up to something. Everybody’s got an angle, hiding something. And everybody is guilty.”

Every classic mystery fan is familiar with Perry Mason. You know, Perry Mason, the down-on-his luck private eye, the shambling alcoholic, the divorced dad who can’t afford to mail a Christmas present to his kid. The haunted World War I veteran discharged for “conduct unbecoming.” By night, he wallows in the seedy underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles; at sunrise, he staggers home to the family dairy farm, which is on the verge of being repossessed. You know, Perry Mason.

Anyone who comes to the new HBO series Perry Mason expecting anything like a faithful adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legal mysteries is setting themselves up for disappointment. Even in his early, more morally flexible years, the Mason of the books was never this sleazy. It’s not even clear whether this version of Mason is a lawyer at all—though, if he is, the dusty diploma glimpsed in one shot makes it clear that the law no longer figures in his life. What HBO has given us instead is a gritty period drama featuring a number of excellent character actors who rather distractingly call themselves “Perry Mason” and “Della Street.” Still, it offers a pretty good time for viewers who are up for something a little less like the Mason books and a little more like Gardner’s private-eye series Cool and Lam.

The episode opens with a striking pre-credits sequence, which begins in an empty apartment overlooking the Angel’s Flight funicular, a classic noir setting. The phone rings. A desperate couple, Matthew and Emily Dodson, are instructed to leave a suitcase full of money open in front of the window, where its contents can be seen from inside the passing funicular car. They will find their kidnapped child in that car. A joyous Emily runs to baby Charlie, only to discover that everything has gone horribly wrong.

(A word of warning: While Perry Mason contains all the expected violence, nudity, and adult language that HBO is known for, I did not expect to see [highlight for spoiler]  a dead baby shown even once, let alone twice. For those wishing to avoid this experience, both shots are at least heavily telegraphed, so they can be avoided. Basically, any time you start asking yourself, “They’re not really going to show it, are they?”—they are going to show it.)

The introduction of Mason, played by Matthew Rhys, is meant to be more lighthearted. He and his partner Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham) are following Chubby Carmichael, a Fatty-Arbucklesque film comedian. It’s the second scene of the episode and already the second betrayal of the night: the detectives were hired by Chubby’s own studio in the hopes of finding immoral conduct that will allow them to break his contract. And do they ever find it. This whole sequence is distasteful; it’s one long fat joke at Chubby’s expense. But what seems like a one-off scene will have darker repercussions down the line.

An exhausted Mason returns home to the broken-down farm he shares with two cows and an airfield. He perks up a little at the sight of his neighbor Lupe; we’ll later learn that the aviatrix shares a neighbors-with-benefits relationship with Mason, coming over whenever she’s in the mood for “someone good-looking and dumb.” On this particular morning, however, fate has something else in store for Mason. His old boss, attorney E. B. Jonathan (a natty John Lithgow) is waiting for him. One of Jonathan’s rich clients knows the Dodsons, and none of them believe the Los Angeles Police Department is up to the job of investigating little Charlie’s abduction. Mason is on the case, even if he does have to drop by the morgue to pick up a clean tie. That’s right, the personal effects of dead men are in better condition than Perry Mason’s everyday wardrobe.

Just as the viewer is beginning to wonder why this surly, unkempt alcoholic has so many friends, Jonathan’s secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) makes her first appearance. The two are clearly old friends, and Mason lights up around Della as they banter. For the first time, he shows a spark of curiosity and charm that suggest the man he might once have been. A later scene, with Mason, Della, and Jonathan brainstorming about the case, also offers a brief glimpse at a Perry Mason viewers might recognize, carried away by the pleasure of putting his mind to work on a complex problem.

The deeper he digs into the Dodson case, however, the more dangerous his position. In this first episode, Mason only scratches the surface of the crime, as the kidnapping of a grocer’s son attracts attention in high places—not only on earth, but in heaven, as several key figures in the case belong to the same megachurch, operated by a flamboyant female minister (Tatiana Maslany, channeling Aimee Semple McPherson).

Series premieres are always more about setting up the pieces than actually playing the game. This one does it better than most, seamlessly incorporating a lot of plot action among the exposition without seeming too crowded or rushed. Despite the shocking events of the plot, this feels grounded in a very real world, with lived-in settings and costumes and realistic interactions between the characters. There is the sense of a genuine, bustling city just outside the frame, full of people simply going about their lives.

While the world of the show is fully realized, in other ways the series is still finding its feet. I wish the tone had been less unrelentingly bleak. There are a few fun moments, like Strickland’s fixation on a serialized novel called Lipstick Girl, and Mason teasing Detective Holcomb about his terrible suspect sketch of the kidnapper (“Man in a hat? Really?”) that help break up the tension a little, and they are sorely needed. Hopefully there will be more of this in future episodes, as the wall-to-wall darkness is overpowering at times. It’s also understandable that the show would want to give Mason some kind of backstory, as he literally has none in the books. I’ve read dozens of Perry Mason novels and the most personal thing I know about him is that he loves steak. You can’t build a show around that. Not prestige TV, anyway. The new series takes the opposite tack, however, piling one trauma on top of another. Ninety percent of his past appears to have been revealed in the very first episode. Ironically, there’s little sense of mystery when it comes to Mason himself.

In fact, Mason’s behavior can be so dour and unpleasant in this first episode that it takes an exceptional actor to make him even tolerable. Fortunately, we have one. Matthew Rhys turns a bundle of clichés into a human being, showing Mason’s sadness and dysfunction without asking for the audience’s pity. Without saying a word, Rhys communicates that Mason is really listening and really seeing everything around him, as much as he wishes he didn’t have to.

This Mason would love to be the kind of blank slate portrayed in Gardner’s novels. He prefers to experience life through a camera lens or the bottom of a bottle. When he visits the Dodson house with Jonathan, Mason is considered so superfluous that no one notices him wandering off. He spots Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) sitting alone in her bedroom, lost in grief. Mason’s response? To take her picture and silently move on. He has no wish to experience strong emotion in person. Better to contain it safely within a photograph where it can be examined later, at a distance. Yet only a minute later, he shares one of his few personal moments with Emily. Their conversation is poignant precisely because it is so banal. For a few minutes, they are simply two parents exchanging small talk about their sons, pretending the little boys are not lost to them. Yet even during this sincere conversation, his detective instinct is working, gathering clues that Mason will harvest later. He simply can’t shut it off.

“You need to think about your actions,” Mason is warned at one point. “You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.” By the end of the episode, he has taken the first small step toward deciding. So, no, this is not the Perry Mason readers may be familiar with, but it looks like he might be on his way there. What the show delivers in the meantime is an enjoyably world-weary California noir that is shaping up to be an intriguing summer series.

Availability

Perry Mason airs Sundays at 9:00 pm on HBO and is available for streaming on HBO Max.

 

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

What’s bothering me is why the facts don’t fit together. Don’t ever fool yourself that facts don’t fit, if you get the right explanation. They’re just like jigsaw puzzles—when you get them right, they’re all going to fit together.”

What doesn’t fit in this case?” she asked.

Nothing fits.”

Complaints about howling dogs are little outside Perry Mason’s area of expertise. His new client Arthur Cartright is insistent, however, that his neighbor Clinton Foley is inciting his dog to bark for the specific purpose of annoying Cartright. It is obvious to Mason that there is more going on here than a simple dispute between neighbors. As the feud reaches its boiling point, a case that began with a howling dog is about to get much more complicated. Luckily, murder is all in a day’s work for Mason.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley GardnerThe Case of the Howling Dog is one of the best early Perry Mason novels. Its howling-dog setup is the purest possible example of the typical Mason plot, in which the brilliant attorney’s attention is captured by a strange but seemingly innocuous situation that quickly spirals out of control. As he battles for his client in the courtroom and on the front page, Mason will do anything within the law to win his case—and here, he comes closer to the edge than ever, committing a major ethical breach in service of his client.

When he arrives at Mason’s office, Arthur Cartright is clearly agitated. He claims that the incessant howling of Foley’s dog is driving him crazy. Foley counters with witnesses who swear the dog does not howl. Though Mason secretly wonders whether Cartright might be insane, this only strengthens his resolve to represent the interests of a vulnerable man, however minor his concern may seem to be. In addition, Clinton Foley’s over-the-top reaction to the complaint convinces Mason that there is more to their relationship than either man is willing to share.

Unlike the obviously weird Cartright, Foley seems to be normal enough, living a quiet life with his invalid wife Evelyn. Despite their large and prosperous home, the Foleys employ only two servants, housekeeper Thelma Benton and Chinese cook Ah Wong. (The treatment of Ah Wong is odd. Gardner seems to be setting him up for a significant role in the story, as well as laying groundwork for a critique of the treatment of immigrants, but then seems to forget all about it. Since this plot thread never goes anywhere, we are left only with the offensive initial setup.) Thelma Benton attracts Mason’s attention immediately: she is young and quite attractive, but seems to be intentionally making herself appear dowdier. She is also Foley’s star witness, insisting that his German shepherd Prince is a quiet animal.

The Case of the Howliing Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner As Mason delves into the pasts of Cartright and Foley, he learns there is far more to the story than a dog that barks in the night. One mystery follows another, and every time Mason thinks he has a handle on the case, it throws him another curveball. For a long time he doesn’t even know who he’s supposed to be representing. Is it Arthur Cartright, Evelyn Foley, or someone else altogether? (This client, once the confusion is straightened out, proves to be that pearl beyond price—a client who actually obeys Mason’s instructions not to talk to police without a lawyer present. Over the decades, he has instructed every one of his 82 clients to keep quiet, but I can count on one hand the number who successfully manage it.)

One of the shocking things about Perry Mason’s early adventures is how much lying he does. Mason has absolutely no compunction about impersonation, bribery, manipulation, witness tampering, or just plain dishonesty, as long as it is technically legal. “This is on the up and up?” a skeptical accomplice asks. “It’s within the law,” Mason hedges. In The Case of the Howling Dog, he really goes all out. He stashes away witnesses, hires actors to impersonate suspects, leaks false information to the press, and so much more. In the process, he exposes his secretary Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake to potentially serious consequences. Of course, they are happy to sacrifice themselves for Mason, but he never even asks before embroiling them in these situations.

Mason’s other sidekick in this case is law clerk Frank Everly, who receives the benefit of his boss’s hard-earned legal knowledge. Mason’s philosophy is that a defense lawyer’s only moral obligation is to provide the best possible defense for their client. Anything else, as long as it doesn’t actually break the law, is fair game. It’s not enough to have facts on your side, either. An effective attorney must stage-manage a trial as if it were a play.

A jury is an audience. It’s a small audience, but it’s an audience just the same. Now, the playwrights who are successful with plays have to know human nature. They recognize the fickleness of the mass mind. They know that it’s incapable of loyalty, that it’s incapable of holding any emotion for any great period of time […]

Pick some dominant emotion if you want, but touch on it only for a few moments. Then swing your argument on 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 bust 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.

His methods don’t always hold up to cross-examination, however. When Everly points out to Mason that one of his shenanigans has discredited testimony that they both know to be truthful, Mason shrugs it off. It’s always interesting to get these glimpses behind the curtain. Mason presents his methods as pure pragmatism, without ever quite acknowledging how much he contributes to, and thrives upon, the circus-like atmosphere of the courtroom.

“I don’t like routine,” Mason admits. “I want excitement. I want to work on matters of life and death where minutes count. I want the bizarre and the unusual.” He certainly gets all of that and more in The Case of the Howling Dog, which combines Perry Mason’s trademark courtroom pyrotechnics with some startlingly cynical behind the scenes manipulations. Even on the very last page the twists keep coming. With its intricate mystery and superior legal drama, The Case of the Howling Dog is one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s best.

Second Opinion

Mysteries Ahoy!

Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.

Vintage Pop Fictions

The Case of the Howling Dog is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Availability

The Case of the Howling Dog is available as an ebook and audiobook. The 1934 film version stars Warren William as Mason, in an appropriately rascally performance.

This Is Murder (1936) by Erle Stanley Gardner

This Is Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“I didn’t realize it would be so much fun fooling around with crime.”

“You’re not fooling around with it,” she said, “you’re getting into a game where you’re playing for big stakes and you don’t know what trumps are yet.”

Advertising pays the bills for Sam Moraine, but he can’t help finding it just a trifle dull. So when his poker buddy, district attorney Phil Duncan, is called away to deal with a kidnapping, Moraine is eager to tag along. Little does he realize that he’s about to be drawn into kidnapping, murder, and political corruption—and that his beautiful secretary may  be involved. Moraine wanted excitement, all right, but this might be more than he can handle. Continue reading “This Is Murder (1936) by Erle Stanley Gardner”

The Case of the Lazy Lover (1947) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Lazy Lover by Erle Stanley Gardner

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“This is once,” he said, “that not only does Perry Mason’s client have her neck in the noose, but the great Perry Mason put it there.”

Lola Allred needs a lawyer—but why? Perry Mason often receives retainer checks in the mail from potential clients. What is unusual is to receive two $2,500 checks from the same person drawn on two different banks. One is forged, one genuine, neither explaining what he’s been hired for.

When Mason goes looking for Lola, she’s nowhere to be found. Her husband says she’s run off with another man. Mason’s not so sure. The deeper he digs, the more dirt he finds on the wealthy Allred family. It seems that nobody’s hands are clean in this case, and it will take all of Mason’s legal wiles to uncover the truth Continue reading “The Case of the Lazy Lover (1947) by Erle Stanley Gardner”

The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink (1952) by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink by Erle Stanley Gardner 1952 book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“You’ve never been in a case before where an officer was killed in the line of duty. Take my advice and don’t get in one. Things happen in cases of that sort. You could get hurt. You will get hurt.”

After a tough deposition, Perry Mason and his secretary Della Street are looking forward to a quiet dinner at their favorite restaurant. When they arrive, however, the owner is upset by a strange event. His new waitress, Dixie Dayton, just ran out in the middle of a shift, leaving her mink coat behind. Even a ratty mink like this one is beyond the means of a waitress—how did Dixie get this coat, and why would she abandon it? And why is her boss Morris Alburg so worried?

Mason is soon juggling two potential clients who may be connected to the murder of a police officer, a situation that will put his legal skills to the test. Continue reading “The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink (1952) by Erle Stanley Gardner”