Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 Classics #14

Posted just FYI but not claimed for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014

The Case of the Cautious Coquette – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1949

Adapted for the TV Series, aired Saturday, January 18, 1958 on CBS, with Barbara Hale, Ray Collins, Raymond Burr, William Hopper, William Talman. In the first season of the show, it was the 18th of 39 episodes that season.

The Book
Mystery expert Mike Grost says that the creator of Perry Mason had “seemingly inexhaustible ability to generate complex plots.” Evidence for this assertion abounds in this one, the 34th Perry Mason novel.

Amazingly, our favorite criminal lawyer opens the story performing as a personal injury attorney. Before we reach for the cuspidor, however, we must recall that this makes total sense since Mason takes on cases in which the little guy is pitted against merciless forces like insurance com-panies.

Mason is seeking witnesses to the hit-and-run accident that left his client (a poor college kid) with a broken hip and his mother (a widow) all shook up. Complexity rears its head after a newspaper ad yields two drivers of two suspected vehicles and eventually two settlements for one accident. Mason is further astonished when found shot to death in a garage is a chauffeur that turns out to be the driver of one of the guys who settled. In typical Dickensian-Gardnerian fashion, the vic was named Hartwell L. Pitken.

Attractive and cunning Lucille Barton wants Mason to rep-resent her in an alimony action, which he declines since he doesn’t do divorce cases. But Mason is with Lucille when Pitkin’s body is found in the garage of her apartment building. Mason directs her to report the body to the police and then leaves. Just like his usual conniving client, Lucille doesn't make the call and a neighbor provides a positive ID of the hottie, but is less sure of Mason. To avoid having to answer awkward questions from the police, Perry decides to cite attorney-client privilege. This lands him with a client he doesn't want, so he has to prove her innocence when she is arrested for murder of the driver Hartwell L. Pitken.

In a rare linking of talents and resources, Homicide Detec-tive Tragg and Mason join forces. Tragg’s rival on the force, Sgt. Holcomb, throws Tragg under the bus, so Tragg gratefully takes a tip from Mason. He cheers when Mason tricks Holcomb and a witness into a false identification and makes Holcomb look like a big dummy in court. Mason and Tragg are even involved in a car chase, a rarity in the Mason novels.

Despite some creaky antique slang such as “swell” and adjectives that have lost their power (what is the shape, size, and appearance of a “well-upholstered woman” any-way?), both fans of the series and novices will enjoy one of most intricately plotted of Mason's cases.

The TV Episode
The episodes were an hour long, so the novels had to be condensed. Writers simplified plots and deleted charac-ters, painfully aware their changes could be vetoed by Gardner.

However, for this particular episode, additional details and twists complicated the story. Besides the hit-and-run case and the murder of Pitkin, added were an embezzlement of $187,000, blackmail, a frame-up, a missing witness, and a secret marriage. By the end, I was confused, wondering why Gardner didn’t put his foot down.

A viewer will appreciate the casting of the five series regu-lars. All were experienced actors; Collins, for instance, played a crooked pol in Citizen Kane.  It seemed that they liked working with each other. The casting of the non-regulars sadly did not feature any “famous laters,” such as Ryan O'Neal, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, or James Coburn. However,  Virginia Gregg as a character not in the book could always be counted on for a solid perfor-mance, though her breakdown on the stand was in the tried, true, tired tradition of Fifties melodrama. A favorite of Jack Webb, a melodrama guy if there ever was one, she was on Dragnet frequently. Gregg had a very long career in TV, working until the late Eighties. Kipp Hamilton was easy to look at and was believable as the defendant. She worked in TV until the late Sixties.

When I was a teenager in the early Seventies, I watched Perry Mason in reruns over and over. My mother and I had a running joke in which she’d ask me if  I hadn’t seen that episode already and I’d always protest, with the in-jured innocence teenage boys excel at, that I’d never seen that one before. I liked Paul Drake’s Corvette. I liked Bar-bara Hale’s Della for her voice and dependability. I liked the interplay between Burr’s Mason and Talman’s Burger and Collins’ Tragg, though I wondered why Tragg had about 20 years Mason on TV (Collins was 67 when the show started, Burr 41) while in the books they were con-temporaries. I also pictured Mason as more Lanky Lincol-nesque than the barrel-chested Raymond Burr, in contrast to Gardner who supposedly jumped up and yelled “That’s Perry Mason” when he saw Burr’s audition.

The reruns are shown on my local WBBZ-TV, but I don’t stay up till 11:30 p.m. to watch them. As a working adult who needs his sleepy time, I find the baffling syndication edits and dumbing down of the novels to be a steep trade for blessed sleep. I will watch them at 10 a.m. if I’m burn-ing a vacation day for yard work. Of course. I still like the thrill of when Mason’s relentless cross-examination breaks the perp down, deepening my understanding of the char-acters and what they had at stake in the scheme.

But I have more reservations nowadays than when I was a teenager. For one, in the books Mason hits the street to examine crime scenes and interview witnesses and per-sons of interest, but in the TV show Mason moves around less.

As Mason doesn’t get out much, the role of confidential secretary Della Street shrinks to note-taker and file-keeper. In the books she never turns down a chance to go with Mason to commit B&E to search a room. She does reconnaissance and decoy duty. She drives like Danica Patrick to spirit Perry and Paul away from dicey situations. She impersonates gold diggers and, in Gardner’s phrasing, “broad-minded women with tolerant views of life.” She faces jail on evidence tampering charges.  Della’s indispensable when she’s playing Devil’s Advocate and generates plausible alternative hypotheses. She also keeps Mason from being distracted by “ruby lips and shapely hips.” She pooh-poohs deceit disguised as fragile helplessness with pithy bottom-lines like, "She'd cut your heart out for thirty-seven cents" in The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister.

In the novels Mason and Tragg sometimes regard each other as worthy adversaries and feel wary admiration for each other. In the TV series Burger is included in this friendly rivalry. The last scene in the show is usually Perry, Della, Paul, Burger and Tragg being all chummy buddy-buddy. Like hell. In the books, Burger hates and despises Mason. Burger seizes every chance to disbar Mason and relishes the prospect of publicly humiliating Mason. In the books, when an exasperated Burger has lost yet again, he stamps off as cross as a frog in a sock, no doubt vowing revenge on Mason’s “flamboyant and bizarre” courtroom flim-flam.

In conclusion, my most serious qualm is that the books give many examples of improper police procedure, espe-cially priming of witnesses, conducting half-ass investiga-tions, and denying people their rights. The TV show never touches these issues. Thus, the show is never true to Gardner’s public-spirited purpose to warn readers to be very careful before speaking voluntarily to cops and prosecutors.

Citation: For facts, I leaned on IMDB and the online book “The Perry Mason TV Show Book.”

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