Perry Mason and Me, Part I

Part I—Watching the series as a child

My mother watched the classic 1950s and 1960s Perry Mason TV series at noon every weekday when I was a child during the early to mid 1970s. The show was in syndication on Channel 12, our local independent television station here in Portland. She would make lunch for us, and we’d sit at the dining room table with Perry Mason running on the TV in the living room of our small ranch home. Los Angeles Attorney-at-Law Perry Mason, fictional scion of justice from the late 1950s and early 1960s, brilliantly played by Raymond Burr, an implacable figure to young Dale, relentless in defending his clients.

I saw the murder suspect trapped not only by circumstance but the LAPD and especially Lieutenant Tragg of Homicide. Ray Collins was 68 when he took the role in 1957, craggy and time-worn in his baggy suit, wearing a fedora and bearing a knowing, “gotcha” smile. I was unaware he was a veteran radio actor with hundreds of credits to his name, nine hundred stage appearances, as well as having been a vaudeville performer in his youth. 

All I saw was the gleeful old detective who had cornered another innocent victim. The same was true for tireless District Attorney Hamilton Burger, played to an intense tee by William Tallman. My childhood memory had both men collaring the victimized suspect as a duo, when of course Tragg worked with uniformed police and often Sergeant Brice, his faithful assistant. Burger waited in court for Mason and his client, ready to spring the full force of the law on the accused, having lined up witnesses that would spring his legal trap. 

As a kid I did not follow the structure well—instead, I focused on the innocent suspect and Perry Mason rising to their defense despite the police having them dead to rights, with the case all but a foregone conclusion. I did not know what Noir was back then, but I picked up on the Noir vibe while watching the show. The black and white gave the show a dire tone to my inexperienced eyes.

So much about the show I did not understand, like the suspects and their woes, the nasty behavior of the murder victims, and the other suspects. 

I did not follow Perry’s arguments or the byplay between him and Burger, what I saw was a defending attorney using the force of his arguments and personality to get the actual murderer to confess and thus save his client from the gallows.

Despite seeing it listed on television in the 1980s and 1990s, I stayed away from Perry Mason as a young adult. It wasn’t until 2022 that my wife and I decided to watch it, encouraged by a friend who was a huge fan.

What I discovered was a show nothing like I remembered.

Part II—Returning to Perry Mason as an adult

Categorized as Mystery

Hello 2023

Happy Belated New Year! I ended 2022 with two screenings of Glass Onion, the follow-up to Knives Out. If you enjoyed the first film featuring the world’s greatest detective, Benoit Blanc, definitely catch the second, now streaming on Netflix. An eccentric billionaire and his group of friends on a sunny and luxurious Greek isle present Blanc with a twisty mystery to solve. To say more would be spoiling the fun, so I won’t.

It’s taken me a while, but A Shush Before Dying is coming together at last, and I’m having an absolute blast putting this library cozy mystery together. It’s scheduled to be published later this spring.

I am now a regular blogger at the Kill Zone, a thriller and mystery writing site. My “Words of Wisdom posts” appear every other Saturday. The next will be on 1/14.

I have ambitious plans for 2023, including writing the second novel in the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries, writing a few mystery short stories, posting weekly here, as well as my every-other-week posts at KZB. I have a pile of mysteries to read, as well as finishing watching the classic Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote TV series with my wife.

What are your plans for this new year?

Puzzling Out an English Village Murder

A quaint little village in the Cotswolds, or the Lake Country, or somewhere in Oxfordshire. A place where everyone knows your name and what you’ve been up to. The public house is the center of community activity and the place to escape the troubles and worries of daily life. There’s a manor house, the hoary old church, the classic English cottages. But there may be the new development, causing tension in the community. Long-held grudges and long-festering feuds suddenly boiling up in the face of change, with murder the result.

Fertile and deadly ground for thousands of mystery novels, and countless television shows.

It’s also the inspiration for Murder in Little Piddling by White Mountain Puzzles.

Murder in Little Piddling
A seemingly-peaceful, quaint English village, riven by murder.

The image for the puzzle itself (shown above) is slightly different in a few important details from the box art, which, for instance, shows the murder scene bucolic and corpse-free. Once you complete the puzzle, you read the provided “story” of the murder, and then can read the clues and testimony on the various sections of the puzzle itself to solve the mystery.

Being a jigsaw puzzle, the main fun to be had is with “solving” the actual puzzle, but the murder mystery is a fun coda to that. Compared to escape room-style board game puzzles we’ve tried, like “Box One,” the mystery here is a snap to solve, especially for seasoned mystery readers, but it’s entertaining in the process.

Jigsaw puzzles and murder mysteries go hand-in-hand in my book, since both involve solving sometimes maddeningly challenging puzzles. Murder in Little Piddling combines them for even more fun.

If you are interested, you can find the puzzle here.

Jessica Fletcher is my hero

I’m very late to the Murder, She Wrote party, but now that LeAnn and I are watching the show, I realize what a wonderful character Jessica Fletcher is. Wise in the ways of the world, kind to everyone she meets, and filled with empathy for all. Her previous career as a high school teacher and her upbringing as a Mainer both come out in her down-to-earth manner.

Like all great detectives, she’s curious, always asking questions, fearless once she’s on the case in pursuing leads wherever they take her, and relentless in investigating.

She’s also persistent in her writing, always working on the next book, wishing she could focus more on her writing and less on the promotion side, but happy to give a talk on a TV show, or a school library, or wherever she’s asked to speak.

She’s charming in a straight-forward way, and relates to everyone, especially working class people. In Murder to a Jazz Beat, she becomes friends with the taxi driver who picks her up at the airport, Lafayette, played engagingly by Garrett Morris, he helps provide knowledge of the music and food scene in New Orleans. They have a great rapport, which is typical of the friends Jessica makes.

Even when Jessica loses her temper, almost always justified, she regains her composure quickly.

Murder, She Wrote, is a comedy mystery, to me at least. True, it’s a bit of a stretch that the police almost always defer to her in solving the crime, but that’s the “suspension of disbelief” we viewers willingly make with the show, because it’s so much fun to watch our hero tackle crime and restore order.

To me, she’s an archetypical cozy mystery hero, filled with hope, a sense of adventure, intellectual daring, and a drive to find the murderer, not stopping until she does.

The best kind of amateur sleuth.

Some favorite mystery shows

Living in the current golden age of digital streaming, we mystery lovers have a lot of wonderful mystery shows we can watch, old and new.

Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

Midsomer Murders. I love this delightful cozy featuring police as the main characters, set in the fictional English County of Midsomer. Twenty-two season and counting of light-hearted, sometimes outlandish, and always enjoyable mystery spinning.

Only Murders In the Building. This fable-like series on Hulu blew me away when it premiered last year. The trio of sleuths have fantastic chemistry, balancing in the wacky oldsters in Martin Short and Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez’s twenty-something old soul in a young person’s body hero. The stately Arconia in New York City is a character in its own right, and the show balances humor with a twisty, sometimes dark mystery. Plus podcasting fun.

Elementary. I loved this modern version of Sherlock Holmes, set in Manhattan, with Lucy Liu playing Doctor Joan Watson and Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes. Great setting, great mysteries, and an intriguing on going storyline of character growth and friendship

Columbo. The classic reverse-who-done it series, where the viewer saw the murder committed and knew the identity of the killer from the start. It ran in two iterations on television. The first, in the 1970s (following a pilot move in 1968) and a second run beginning in 1989 until 2003. The always rumpled and disheveled police lieutenant detective (except in the original pilot) played a bumbling, absent-minded sort that lulled the entitled, rich murders into underestimating him. The heart of the show was watching Columbo solve the mystery and reveal the villain. Peter Falk was absolutely brilliant in the title role.

Feeding My Mystery Muse

After returning from a visit with a friend yesterday, I watched two more classic Perry Mason episodes, and marveled again at the storytelling and dialogue, and the skilled way a mystery was laid out and solved in under an hour. The series is very much a product of its time, and yet feels fresh and modern in many ways. Good conflict is timeless, and Perry’s never-ending quest to help those in need is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

I’m also reading James Scott Bell’s entertaining “Neo-Pulp” mystery collection, Trouble is My Beat, featuring pulp writer and Hollywood studio troubleshooter Bill Armbrewster. It’s a cracking good read, well written and fast-paced, and above all, fun. If you enjoy a good pulp style mystery, or are a fan of the Coen Brothers film Oh, Caesar, which features another studio troubleshooter, I think you’ll enjoy the Armbrewster story collection.

As a writer, it’s important to “feed” the muse as well as write, and I’ve been doing that for mystery for the past couple of years. Creative writing is a team effort between your conscious “I” self and your subconscious, and the subconscious benefits and enjoys it when you consume stories.

A Puzzling Mystery, Part II

Like a mystery novel, the mystery of how I became an avid jigsaw puzzler in 2020 is more straight-forward than why. In 2019, I wouldn’t have tried a jigsaw puzzle. I’d watched my wife do them years earlier, and it just didn’t appeal to me.

What changed?

The lockdown in the Spring and Summer of 2020 had an unanticipated silver lining: a pause. That pause of staying at home gave me and others the opportunity to slow down.

I think I’d actually be interested in puzzling all along, but had been intimidated by it. I had enjoyed fast moving video game “puzzlers” like Tetris Attacks, Columns, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, and others. Those games all capture a fundamental aspect to jigsaw puzzling–finding the piece that fits.

Of course, jigsaw puzzling has much more to it than that. Subject is important. I have a friend who is a talented amateur photograph and routinely sends photos of potential puzzles. They don’t appeal to me as much as they do to him, but that’s not to say that the subjects won’t make a fine puzzle. They just wouldn’t for me.

The Gradient Moon puzzle at the top of this post is an example of a subject which I love–Luna and astronomy. The same for the Solar System panorama puzzle we did in 2020.

Discovering puzzle subjects that I loved really increased the appeal.

But, it really came down making order out of chaos–building an image from a jumble. Even more “elementary” than that, it came down the satisfaction of plugging the right puzzle piece into the right spot.

It meant sorting puzzle pieces into colors and shapes. It meant doing the edge first.

In the process, I fell hard for puzzling and my wife rekindled her own passion for puzzling.

We discovered Karen Puzzles, a YouTuber who spreads the joy of puzzling and has now gone full time pursuing her puzzling passion. Karen tackles changing puzzles, including a twenty-fourth thousand piece monster and does so with humor and fun. Karen collects and does old puzzles, and mystery puzzles, and gradient puzzles.

Most of all, I find puzzling relaxing, when I’m not too caught up in trying to puzzle as fast as my wife LeAnn or Karen, and take it at my own pace.

Joy and relaxation are at the heart of the solution to this mystery.

Not Perry Mason

I grew up watching the classic Perry Mason television, starring Raymond Burr and a host of talented character actors. For many years, it ran at lunch time on our local independent station, Channel 12. My mother was a huge fan. I was young enough that, while I appreciated the peril the accused seemed to be in, I didn’t really understand the storylines all that well.

Fast forward to last year and LeAnn and I decided to start watching it on Paramount+. We were both hooked right from the start. So much so that I picked up the complete set on DVD, since it includes two seasons and several other episodes that aren’t available for streaming, probably because of rights issues.

Perry Mason was produced by Gail Patrick Jackson, who had some terrific writers working for her. The dialogue crackles, the story lines twist and turn. Los Angeles in the Fifties and early Sixties has a character all its own, with a noir tone. But there’s another tone, one that surprised me–a bit of a cozy vibe vying with the noir. The ending of each episode, which I think may have often been cut in syndication, feature Perry, Della, Paul, sometimes even DA Hamilton Burger, or often the former defendant, now exonerated. The final exchange is usually light, even funny.

I love that.

What I wanted to share today alongside this today’s post by my friend and fellow mystery author Garry Rogers, over at the Killzone, where he shares some examples of real world exchanges between defense attorneys and people on the stand in Canadian courtrooms. Well worth a read, and pretty much the opposite of the dialogue we see Mason and Burger and others use with witnesses on the stand in Perry Mason.