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the case of the grinning gorilla

10 august 2009

After 55 pages of breakneck exposition, this novel finds Perry Mason chased through an eccentric millionaire's mansion by a homicidal great ape. I love this kind of fiction. It is out-and-out pulp. It brings me no status points, not even via the backhanded snobbery of someone who's read all the classics and must cast about for something newly recherché. It brings me no information. It offers very little purchase on American culture of the 1950s – or at least, while I'm reading, I'm not filtering my pleasure through the lenses of critical cultural studies. There's nothing that can be said to be properly aesthetic in my pleasure, either. The dialogue is impossibly stilted, and the plot is ramshackle, with loopholes you could drive a Bel Air through. But there is no purer delight in the literary world than a good Perry Mason. He touches some limbic level of the reading brain, and turns on all its pleasure receptors.

When I was a child, the Guinness Book of World Records used to name Erle Stanley Gardner as the best-selling author in world history. They were probably figuring this distinction by units sold, not by weight of paper. Most of the Gardners in print were like my Pocket Books edition of Grinning Gorilla: less than 200 4" by 6" pages that really would fit in your pocket, at least the pocket of an amply-cut 1950s men's jacket.

And you can see why there were umpteen million Gardners in print. Perry Mason is relentlessly energetic. His cases offer adult entertainment. Their mode is neither prudish nor blue, but it's not coy either. The characters are straight out of Central Casting, but Gardner never seemed to tire of them and their stock quirks. Perry himself is a bundle of self-aggrandizing energy: truth be told, if he really existed, he'd be an insufferable jerk, but safely between paperback covers, he exudes a magnetism that you can't pull away from. You can see why longsuffering secretary Della Street stays by his side 24/7 and never grouses about overtime. And then there's Paul Drake, operator of the world's largest all-hours detective agency, "so damned tired of coffee and ham sandwiches bolted in between telephone calls" (85). And the millionaires, and the golddiggers, and the Uriah-Heepish hangers-on, and the grey lawyers, and the agonizingly overmatched D.A. Hamilton Burger.

Perry Mason offers a rare example of fiction made less sensational by Hollywood. The television series with Raymond Burr, both in its 1950s-60s incarnation and its 1980s-90s reincarnation, is by contrast exasperatingly stolid. Burr had a comforting presence, but all his energy resided in his wonderful voice. By contrast Gardner's literary Perry Mason drives at terrifying speeds (so does Della, with each of them complaining about the other). He eats "thick steak with butter and chopped parsley" and "French bread toasted to a delicious brown, and dusted with shredded garlic" (20); he tosses $50 bills at waiters and gets into fisticuffs with hypnotized gorillas.

For all their verve, the Perry Mason novels are pretty lightly-boiled. They are puzzle-mysteries in the vein of Rex Stout and Ellery Queen, with enough atmosphere to keep them out of the murder-in-the-vicarage category, but with nothing of the acid desperation of C.W. Grafton, Cornell Woolrich, or Patricia Highsmith. But it's summer, after all: the season for murder mysteries where the victim, "tanned beyond the bounds of her Bikini" (vii), calls out for justice from "an intimate diary and the juiciest pin-ups Perry Mason had ever seen" (back cover). Almost all these novels are out of print, and unlikely to return to print even as curiosities. Fortunately, there are countless millions of them in used-book stores around the globe.

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Grinning Gorilla. 1952. New York: Pocket Books, 1956.