Monday, June 13, 2016

Perry Mason, Stoic

The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe – Erle Stanley Gardner

Two curiosities feature in this 1938 outing, one minor, one major. Usually Perry Mason is in every scene of a Mason mystery. However, chapter 15 is an informative primer on how district attorneys prime witnesses. That is, the deputy DA coaches a witness on what to say in court. The witness says "I guess" which the DA stomps on. “You don’t want a fancy lawyer to make you look like a dummy, do you?”

The other curiosity is more interesting. Gardner experiments with characterization to the extent that we get a rare glimpse of Perry Mason’s philosophical approach. He seems to be somewhat of a stoic .

Near the beginning of the mystery, at a nice lunch in a department store, Della Street asks the famous lawyer if seeing people are their worst has made him cynical. Quite the contrary, he replies.

People have their strong points and their weak points. The true philosopher sees them as they are, and is never disappointed, because he doesn’t expect too much. The cynic is one who starts out with a false pattern and becomes disappointed because people don’t conform to that pattern. Most of the little chiseling practices come from trying to cope with our economic conventions. When it comes right down to fundamentals, people are fairly dependable. The neighbor who would cheat you out of a pound of sugar, would risk her life to save you from drowning.

Perry Mason, like a stoic philosopher, uses reason and logic to identify and deal with other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Nobody is completely bad, nobody is completely good. Keep expectations realilstic, and never be disappointed. Mason expects people to make mistakes and commit crimes out of greed, lust, hatred, and love. If people make a mistake that attracts the attention of the authorities, they deserve a good defense. Recall also that in a dozen other novels, Perry is never too put out with clients who’ve lead him up the garden path. 

Mason says that cynics start as idealists who have lofty ideas that people should be wise, brave, fair, and restrained. But idealists became cynics when they bitterly conclude that most people can’t drive the speed limit or control their appetites much less apply prudence and self-restraint consistently in daily life. Cynics don’t let go of the unreasonable expectation that they themselves, other people and the whole frickin' world must do this or shouldn’t do that. And they end up constantly disappointed that people are not acting better. Constantly condemning leads to – well, just look at social media.

Mason seems to argue that because of economic and social pressures on people, a philosopher can’t reasonably expect folks to follow the cardinal virtues. For her own tranquility, a philosopher had better expect that people will act in ways that would try the patience of a saint. Expecting this, a philosopher can be prepared for whatever antics a spouse, kid, coworker, customer, or boss will get up to next. The sage had better forbear and remember trouble brings out the best and worst in human nature.

Sarah Breel, Mason’s client, also has an old-school stoicism. This novel is set in 1938 so assuming she is 60, she was born in 1878, probably in a rural area and definitely during the Depression of 1873-79. Also, life expectancy in the US in the late Thirties was such (61.9 for men, 65.3 for women) that people at 60 years old had seen many deaths. Thus, her response to her brother’s murder:

I’m sorry George had to die, but as far as he’s concerned, he’s dead. As far as I’m concerned, I miss him; but when I grieve about missing him, it isn’t being sorry for him, it’s being sorry for me. It’s hard to explain, Mr. Mason. It may seem cold-blooded to you. It really isn’t. I have a great deal of love and a great deal of affection for George. He’s dead. We all have to go sometime.

For Sarah Breel, the fact George was murdered is trumped by the necessary fact of death.

Death happens randomly. Death can rear-end my car when I’m stopped at a light and it can come in the middle of night with a massive stroke. So I might as well live. Reminding myself that someday it’s going to my turn with no choice how and no choice when, I enjoy life. Putting death in perspective, I feel gratitude and awe, here and now, and worry less about what is going to happen.

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