16 November 2011

Perry Mason Comes to Kindle

One of the strangest things about my childhood was the number of 25-cent Perry Mason paperbacks I went through while still in elementary school. I can't give you an exact count, but I'd say I'd bought and read at least 30 of them before the cover price went up to 35 cents and that before long I'd polished off most or all of the backlist and was following Mason's creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and in hardback. (My father subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post, but an issue would have cost all of 15 cents on newsstands; a new hardback Perry Mason, when I started buying them, went for $2.95.) Gardner, who was born in 1889, lived until 1970, and I followed him even longer: Gardner's last Mason novel appeared in 1973.

It's hard for me to realize that today's readers under 30 are unlikely to remember defense attorney Perry Mason. But for the last several years only one Mason novel (out of a total of over 80) has been in print in the US; the TV series starring Raymond Burr ended its principal (nine-year) run in 1966 and survives today mostly on Netflix. I've heard it described as the longest-running courtroom drama series on television, and for most of those nine years I didn't miss an episode. But it was a flash in the pan in comparison with the series of mystery novels on which it was based.

The series began in 1933 with The Case of the Velvet Claws, which was coincidentally my first 25-cent Mason novel. For most of the following 37 years Gardner produced three or more novels a year. Some of them featured other detectives (like the  private-eye duo of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool in books published under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, including Top of the Heap, also available as an ebook), but the majority of Gardner's books star Perry Mason, the brilliant defense attorney whose client is (almost?) never guilty. Mason is abetted by secretary Della Street and investigator Paul Drake; other recurring characters, as the series continues, are D.A. Hamilton Burger and Lieutenant Tragg of the LAPD.

Writers can end up paying a price to be as  prolific as Gardner was. To some readers, especially in later years, Gardner seemed more like a book factory than a writer with texture, wit or literary sensibilities: these readers could still be impressed by his more ingenious plots (as in The Case of the Mythical Monkeys or The Case of the Spurious Spinster), but paperback reissues of the series, in the 1970s and 1980s, did not attract the same readership that the Mason novels had in earlier decades.

But flash forward to 2011: Perry Mason comes to Kindle, for the first time. Ten Mason novels are available as ebooks, including, from Gardner's first and perhaps richest decade, The Case of the Velvet Claws, The Case of the Curious Bride, The Case of the Substitute Face and The Case of the Perjured Parrot. If you've been missing Perry--or if you wonder what all the fuss was about--follow one of these links, click on the cover to look inside, and decide whether this might not be something for you.

Still to come: Josephine Tey, Christianna Brand... and Patricia Highsmith.

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