Monday, May 10, 2010


by  Gina Sestak

Looking back to our early influences in the mystery genre, most of us mention Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  Who can forget Nancy tooling around with George in her roadster, following clues that often led her into danger?  Or Frank and Joe working together to find the murderer?  Then I remember Perry.

I didn't read the books by Erle Stanley Gardner until adulthood, but I watched the black and white tv show religiously.   Aided by his secretary Della Street and private detective Paul Drake, attorney Perry Mason fought to prove his clients' innocence.   He always prevailed, despite the best efforts of Police Lieutenant Tragg and District Attorney Hamilton Burger.  [Ham Burger!  How's that for a character name?]
Gardner wrote more than 80 Perry Mason books.  The tv show ran for years in its original form, then came back in color with an older Raymond Burr.  The astonishing thing about this is that there was essentially only one plot:  Perry exonerates a client charged with murder by determining who really killed the victim.   A large part of every episode took place in the court room, where Perry's incisively cross-examination of the witness he had determined to be the killer almost always resulted in a confession.

I've been rewatching some of those early episodes, courtesy of Netflix, trying to figure out what makes them so appealing, even after all these years.  Variety came through the clients themselves, who ranged from elderly miners to shapely fan dancers, and the details of their particular situations, but the interaction between the regular characters also helps to hold interest, despite the fact that there is little development over the years.  We never learn much about Della's backstory, or Paul's.  They are stereotypes - the faithful secretary, the dogged detective, filling their niches.

Maybe that's the key.  We really don't have to find a new and different plot or unusual characters.  We can rewrite the same tired story time and time again, using the same stock characters and, with a few minor tweaks, make it work.


Annette said...

I think there is a certain amount of comfort in knowing that good will prevail. Life doesn't offer anything close to that.

PatRemick said...

This is an interesting post. I hadn't thought about Perry Mason, which I also adored, for years now and your analysis also has me wondering. Maybe Annette is right -- we want to see justice prevail and the good guys/girls win. Maybe that's what always needs to be central to our stories.

Jennie Bentley said...

I absolutely agree that we need/want to see justice prevail and good win over evil; that's the whole reason mystery/crime fiction is the second most popular type of genre fiction out there. (The first is romance. We all want a HEA.)

That said, I'm not sure rewriting the same tired old story each time, with the same stock characters, is gonna work. Sure, each crime story is a variation on the same theme, and there are only - what? - nine different plots out there? Stock characters don't go over too well these days, though. I think that's the big difference. We expect our characters to be better developed, with real backgrounds and personalities, while in earlier years, we didn't. Back then, plot moved the story forward. These days, we're taught that plot should be character driven. BIG difference there!

Joyce said...

I agree with Jennie. Enticing characters are sometimes more important than the plot. I've read many books where the plot was only so-so, but I kept reading because I loved the characters.

And good must definitely prevail over evil. I really dislike books that don't have a satisfying ending. The bad guys should never win.

Karen in Ohio said...

Gardner could get away with such formulaic writing because he did NOT have the same sort of competition there is in the publishing business today. Back then TV was three channels, four if you were really lucky, and movies were only found in theaters, and then they weren't at multiplexes, with sometimes as many as two dozen choices.

Hate to burst your bubble, Gina. :-)

My mother-in-law was totally in love with James Gardner, Raymond Burr, and Wolfgang Mozart, not necessarily in that order. She would stop everything to watch old Perry Mason reruns, and anything old Jim was in.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Both Jennie and Karen have it nailed. I think that's why crossing genre's is effective. Start something new and there's no competition, at least for awhile.

Going back to retelling stories, look no farther than Avatar. Compare Avatar with Dances With Wolves. Almost identical plots. But Avatar had interesting and different characters and a LOT of great CGI.

Patg said...

"It's still the same old story,
A fight for love and glory...."
Same story, different characters, setting, and profession. Variations we all love.
I came to Oregon in 1971, and Perry Mason ran at 12N everyday on an independant station. It's still running. I seem to remember there was ONE case where his client was guilty.

M Pax said...

True. All's we can do is put the stories together in a different way with a different twist. That's the key.

One of the things I loved about Nancy Drew was the descriptions of the food. Always made me hungry, but she and George always ate so well. LOL I have no idea why that fascinated me. I should think on it.