I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason
Perry Mason has been a literary, radio, television, and film hero for nearly 100 years.
"I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason", by Susan Kandel
Published by William Morrow, the publisher of the Perry Mason Mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner
Trial attorney and crime author Erle Stanley Gardner of Southern California never attended law school. A militant individualist, he studied on his own and passed the state bar exam in the early 1900s.
This is not the only time that this task has been accomplished. In the 1960s, the subject of the Spielberg film Catch Me if You Can (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken); Frank Abagnale Jr. performed the same feat successfully in another state. He later took a job with the federal government to stop people like himself from committing fraud.
In the 21st century, we may have too large a body of law to learn to make that trick work again.
Not Just A Girl Detective
When I saw the cover of this book in a used book store and marked with a clearance price, I had to have it. Having always enjoyed reruns of the old black & white Perry Mason series as a youth, I’d been disappointed as an adult to learn that real attorneys often don’t work so hard or in such out-of-the-box ways.
Often, you hire an attorney and you also do a large part of the work, while they receive 34% of your settlement. They dispense good advice, though, and I respect them very much for that. Meanwhile, I continue to read crime stories of unusual attorneys and detectives and watch TV’s Boston Legal reruns, which I realize are is so over the top as to be unreal, but nonetheless entertaining.
I never dreamed I married Perry Mason – Superman, yes; Mason, no. However, in first grade I was drawn to mathematics and logic puzzles and mystery fiction: Charlie Chan, Mr. Motto, Perry Mason, a few of the Nancy Drew stories; Sherlock Holmes pastiche even more than the original Holmes stories.
The Perry Mason and the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series remain my favorites, except for one other. This is a single book that could have become another Gardner series, set in a large Chinatown with a white detective that knew all its corners and corridors as well as the language, like the author himself.
Freeing The Innocent In The Court of Last Resort
Susan Kandel’s first book is written from the viewpoint of a tall woman in her mid-30s that writes biographies of famous mystery writers.
This is a delightful premise. It provides a foundation from which to offer both some biographical insights into our favorite authors and a rousing crime story all at once. I was thrilled that Ms. Kandel started with the famous fictional attorney, to whom past Presidential hopeful John Edwards likened himself.
Cece Caruso is the biographer and her current subject is Erle Stanley Gardner, the boxer turned-attorney sans law school who wrote hundreds of books, fact and fiction. His life has not received the attention is could enjoy, based on the amount of interesting events in his life, but Susan Kandel's book helps.
Cece develops writer’s block and ignores her editor’s increasingly frequent and persistent phone messages. Ms. Caruso is simply at an impasse. At this point, lightning strikes in the form of a hot letter.
A Cold Case Lights Up
Cece discovers a letter among Gardner’s papers, received from a death row inmate claiming his innocence. This is Joe Albacco, convicted of murdering his wife in cold blood. Gardner was not able to attend to this case, but its letter heats up Ms. Caruso’s interest and clears away her writing barriers.
There are no notes left by Gardner concerning this letter, the case, or why he was unable to handle it. Her interested spark to a high flame, Cece visits Joe Albacco, still rotting in prison after 40 years and still waiting for help. Cece is drawn into his story and decides to so some amateur detecting on her own.
The detective biographer finds a large amount of hidden information and runs across another corpse as well. As we read the engaging plot lines and dialogue, we hope that it all helps Joe. Meanwhile, we learn things about the murder and potential suspects, about Cece Caruso, Southern California culture and architecture, and about Erle Stanley Gardner.
Cece is divorced, lives in West Hollywood, and has Annie, her adult daughter - who may soon become divorced as well. Cece’s other hobby is vintage clothing, particularly that worn in Hollywood in the Golden Era.
There is a tendency for reviewers to label any mystery by a woman or about a woman detective a “cozy” – that is, a slight mystery without any mess that is read only by old women in bed under a comforter where they fall asleep, never to finish the book. This is unfair and small minded.
This is also one reason that some newer writers begin their female-detective mystery novels with gunfire, explosions, bleeding, severed limbs, and vile profanity without any situation requiring such language. How gauche.
Early Gardner Stories
The Original Innocence Project
Erle Stanley Gardner
Gardner is the very person that began today’s program of vindicating wrongfully imprisoned people, back in the 1940s in coordination with Esquire Magazine. The article series was called The Court of Last Resort, later published in book form.
Several people were freed from prison after Gardner and the public began to ask that certain cases be reopened on the basis of new evidence or some oddity in the court transcripts. In the 1960s up through today, legal classes at universities began to “adopt” such a case each year and attempt to free the prisoner. Some do succeed.
Gardner today would be thrilled to limitless heights with the current DNA technology that is releasing greater numbers of the innocent from lockup. He began it all – without a law school education
Shadows and Black Masks
Some writers of the female detective genre do descend into the mush of the cozy, but still bring out a more exciting story a couple of times a decade and these stories deserve some credit and attention. The critical should investigate a series well before denigrating the whole line – something like signing the American Reconstruction and Recovery Act without reading it or criticizing it without knowing a single word of it. Or worse yet – criticizing it based on information they have made up out of whole cloth, because no one else has likely read it.
It is true that the more one learns, the more one is aware of the universe of information extant and how tiny a parcel of it one acquires. The uneducated learn a small bit and state that they know everything – until reality smashes into their faces like a boulder. Related to this, Kandel’s work contains a lot of “characters”, like those on the USA Channel – eccentric, quirky, odd, struck cold by reality at times.
And so it goes with some characters in mystery novels. Reading about them and about those that can put together the pieces of an intriguing puzzle because they recognize the negative space around them is compelling. Portions of Kandel’s story is a lot like 1940s detective fiction published in Black Mask, where Gardner placed some of his early works. Black Maskis coming back now, and I am reading it and I am reading more of Susan Kandel. In her first book, Cece is even stalked and that is increasingly frightening in today’s world.
That ain’t cozy, Bub.
© 2009 Patty Inglish