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Perry Mason Meets James Bond

18 Mar 2016
In the past I've written about books that were turned into movies, but I left out a couple on purpose - Perry Mason and James Bond - because both were/are franchise characters that require closer attention. Like all small or big screen adaptations (Mason was in film before the famous Raymond Burr TV show), changes were made. Almost without exception when we think of either character we think of them as they are depicted on the screen, but in both cases the characters were much different in print. It is safe to say that the very qualities that made them so appealing in books were eradicated as quickly as possible by Hollywood, reducing Mason and Bond to formulae guaranteed to succeed, even though no formula was required to make them succeed in print.

Erle Stanley Gardner wrote more than 150 novels from 1933, when the first Mason novel appeared, until his death in 1970. Ian Fleming wrote one James Bond novel a year from 1953 (Casino Royale) until his death in 1967 (Octopussy, 1966).

I originally read the entire Mason series as a 14-year-old, the same year I read the entire Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout. The Wolfe series influenced me more, but I'm not writing about it here because Nero Wolfe never entered the public consciousness the way Mason and Bond did. I remember fairly little about Mason series but recently the earliest novels have come back into print, so I've read the first four, and boy are they different!

First let me say what they're different from, because if you've never seen the Perry Mason TV show, which originally ran from 1957 thru 1966, you won't have a benchmark. By comparison the first James Bond film, Dr. No, came out in 1962, so both franchises permeated entertainment throughout the 1960s.

The hallmark of the Mason TV shows was a client accused of murder, guilty by all appearances from the evidence, who goes to trial and Mason gets him/her - mostly her - off the hook. Most of the time this happens because Mason grills a witness under cross-examination. The witness breaks down under his interrogation and admits to the murder of which Mason's client was accused. Although the stories and details were always challenging, the formula became a bit of a joke because Mason always won and his client was always innocent, which is quite different from criminal justice reality. Of course, when the accused can afford upscale attorneys as Mason's always can, it's far less unusual for them to get off, so in that sense the series is quite realistic.

In the novels it's not nearly that simple. I've only re-read the first four, so there's no telling where the next 130 or so will lead me, but even so some early patterns stand out. The TV show is set in 1950s-1960s Los Angeles, but I notice that these Depression-era novels are set so that the location is not so obvious. The second novel, The Case of the Sulky Girl, makes a reference to Cloverfield which gives it a definitive Los Angeles area setting, but Gardner skillfully makes it as easy to think they are set in New York, as the Nero Wolfe books are, instead of southern California. Perhaps the later novels written in the 1950s and 1960s will be different.

But in 1933 Perry Mason is perhaps 35 and his secretary Della Street is described as 27. Della is by no means his "right hand man"; she is young, emotional, impetuous, and opinionated about Mason's activities. His boldness frightens her. Over time he teaches her to have faith in his vision and abilities, but it takes a lot of hand holding. Still, Della is capable: if created today, she would spend most of her time on the Internet doing online research for him. Instead she is not only his secretary but his front-line researcher as well.

The curious thing is, of the first four novels, only two have courtroom trials! Those trials were the set piece of the TV show, but so far they are largely a sideline. And of those two trials, Mason gets but clients off even though one turns out, after the fact, to be guilty. The key is, Mason is a schemer: He does not stay in the office. He goes out in the field and does his own research. Detective Paul Drake and his agency are in the story from the earliest novel, but they are secondary to Mason's own efforts. Mason uses Drake without ever letting him in on his entire plan.

Mason doesn't simply uncover evidence, he manufactures it. Long before the prosecutors even have a case for him to contest, Mason see what is coming and creates alternate scenarios, complete with fabricated evidence, that mislead them so that he can craft a defense even before his client his charged with a crime - and as a result, in two of the novels the client never goes to trial. Perry Mason skirts the edge of the law at every turn, and he makes it clear why he does it: for the rush. He also talks about doing it for the money, and justifies his high fees, but it's clearly about the excitement. Mason is an adrenaline junkie. He likes being smarter than the police and the district attorneys, and he plays them the way a chess grandmaster plays a school boy. He always skirts the edge of the law and runs the risk of disbarment and prison, getting his rushes by his very complete service to his clients, who often do not even understand that they need his help.

We almost forgot about James Bond, so let's talk about Ian Fleming's vision of Bond. Like Mason, the printed depiction is different from the screen depiction, but I have to say that the Bond model deviates a lot more does the Mason model. Why do I say that? Because the pre-Hollywood version of James Bond, the original and most honest James Bond, is an earthy misogynist who has no respect for women and wants nothing to do with them while he's on the job; they only get in the way. And Bond is no action hero, at least not at first: He is internal and driven by his own forces. He could never work for a female M; the very idea is ludicrous. The first novel, Casino Royale, is little more than a protracted game of baccarat - not Texas Hold'em, thank you - with the skillful introduction of a secondary character, Felix Leitner, who would make his way into many later novels and movies. Later, after Dr. No makes it to the big screen, Bond suddenly becomes a big-picture action hero, and Fleming's novels adjust accordingly; by the time of his death his novels are practically screenplays, in a case of art imitating art in reverse.

If you're waiting for me to draw a common thread between the Mason and Bond franchises, it's mostly already done: the screen versions were significantly different from the original print versions. Had the original print version been like the Hollywood versions, I doubt they would have lasted so long: Gardner's first Mason novel alone, The Case of the Velvet Claws, sold more than 15 million copies. Written two decades before television started making its way into homes, it's style and approach that, like Fleming's in the 1950s, was far more interesting than in the derivative screen renditions. Stories drawn from modern books such as the Dexter series are of a different mien, but that's a discussion for another day.


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