by David Vineyard.

   The popularity of the canny lawyer in fiction dates at least back to stories told about Abe Lincoln and were popularized by characters like Post’s Randolph Mason, Baroness Orczy’s Skin ‘O My Tooth, and Train’s Mr. Tutt. Post and Orczy both featured lawyers very much in the Mason tradition — Randolph Mason much closer to the edge than Perry ever thought of being.

   But there is no question the Prohibition and then the Depression era saw a sharp rise in outlaw heroes and slick legal types who fought for the little guy by any means possible. The whole spirit of the New Deal era was the idea of the little guy taking on the powers that be whether it be the rich or the state with gentleman adventurers, adventuresses, masked heroes, outlaws and some gangsters, clever defense attorneys, independent minded private eyes, and wise cracking reporters dominating the popular imagination.

   What Gardner did in the Perry Mason novels that was unique was to marry the hard-boiled voice and attitude to the classic detective story and the court-room drama. It may seem formulaic today, but fictional lawyers outside of plays didn’t solve their cases with brilliant courtroom tactics in much of the pre-Mason mystery fiction. It isn’t just Perry Mason who is a brilliant creation, but the entire milieu he operates in.

   Prior to Perry you might get the rare courtroom mystery, but most would amount to perhaps Dr. Thorndyke giving evidence, or Lord Peter speaking before a trial in the House of Lords, Uncle Abner in a short story, or perhaps Mr. Tutt, but there was no one quite like Perry Mason and nothing like those dramatic courtroom solutions Gardner provided. If he didn’t invent the genre, he honed it and perfected it, and gave it a new a vital life on the printed page.

   I always liked Gardner’s Doug Selby DA books, but I have to admit Selby is pretty colorless compared to his nemesis A.B. Carr or Perry. Gardner wisely made Perry part rogue, part detective, part gun fighter, and part crusading knight to the point we never really needed to know much about Perry as a human being, just that he was there to protect the innocent and risk everything doing it.