Erle Stanley Gardner and an Author’s Point of View

by Glenn on April 7, 2018

The latest Perry Mason novel I read (Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Buried Clock. New York: Ballantine Books, 1943) has more overt references to World War II than the previous one (The Case of the Careless Kitten).

There was a war metaphor:

“The door was pushed open. Two men came barging over toward the group, moving with grim purpose like warships plowing through sea toward a convoy.” [p. 46]

One of the characters was back from the war, recuperating from injuries:

“Vincent Blane had asked him if it would make him nervous staying alone in a cabin where a murder had been committed. . . . Harley smiled every time he thought of that; he who had been trained to carry on while comrades were shot down all around him; he who had become so familiar with death that it had ceased to inspire him even with healthy respect, let alone fear …” [p. 59]

There was a reference to rationing:

[Perry Mason:] “Perhaps in your position, Doctor, you haven’t as yet appreciated the seriousness of tire rationing, and therefore dismissed it from your mind.” [p. 92]

War time” was referenced, where clocks were pushed forward an hour ahead to save electricity.

I assume all of the characters in the story were white. Race wasn’t an issue as it was in the previous book. However, one of the characters makes a comment that reminds you that race was an issue:

[Lola Strague]: “And I do wish, Burt, you’d either snap out of it or go home! After all, I’m free, white and twenty-one.” [p. 139]

I don’t recall ever hearing a line like this and had no idea it was a catch-phrase:

There was another expression I’d never heard:

 [Harley:] “… if he was going to jail he’d as soon be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and he was going to make it worth his while.” [p. 15]

An explanation of the expression is found here.

As always, there are interesting (which does necessarily mean good) metaphors/similes:

“Hamilton Burger moved with the slow dignity of a steam roller …” [p. 210]

“Mason lit a cigarette [it would be interesting to count how many times that gets written in one of these books]. ‘Trying a lawsuit is like changing a flat tire. Sometimes the jack works perfectly, the rim comes off, the new tire goes on, and you’re on your way so smoothly that you hardly know you’ve had a flat. Sometimes everything goes wrong. The jack won’t work, and when you finally get the car up, it rolls off the jack, the old tire sticks, the new rim won’t go on. . . . And this is a case just like that, where everything has gone wrong to date.’” [p. 148]

Astrology makes an appearance in the story. A short chapter in the book consists of a newspaper article, including this paragraph:

The Bugle has commissioned one of the leading astrologers to cast the horoscope of Jack Hardistry [the murder victim]. Jack Hardistry was born on July 3rd, which according to astrologists, makes him a ‘Cancer,’ and astrologists point out that persons born under the sign of Cancer are divided into two classes—the active and the passive. They are thin-skinned, hypersensitive, and suffer deeply from wrongs, real or fancied. They are at times irrational in their emotions, and subject to ill health.” [p. 144-145]

I’ve never understood astrology and don’t understand how a reporter would include it in a news article, though I do have very smart friends who think it explains all sorts of things. Mason’s private detective, Paul Drake, had some things to say about astrology:

“She’s [Mrs. Payson] interested in astrology, but she’s interested in a lot of other things. Astrology, it seems, doesn’t have so much to do with astronomy, and like lots of women who talk about the signs of the zodiac, she doesn’t know a damn thing about the stars themselves.” [pp. 216–217]

Astronomy is the place where Mason gets stuck for a good portion of the book and Paul’s comment helps him solve the case.

These Perry Mason novels continue to be interesting because of the times in which they are set. (I think the same thing is true of the television series.)

*  *  *

This book got me thinking about the authorial voice.

Early on I noticed that Gardner had certain sentence structures that he used again and again. I’ve never been so aware of an author’s writing style, especially sentence structure. There were a few formulations in this book that leapt out at me as I read.

1. The first I’ll call the “that … which/that” structure.

“Harley propped his head back against a pine-needle cushion, half closed his eyes, experiencing that sudden fatigue which comes to men whose reserve strength had been sapped by wounds.” [p. 4]

“Adele Blane, sitting on the rock beside him, smiled down at him with that tenderness which women have for men who are recuperating from wounds received in combat.” [p. 4]

“There was still the same charm of manner—that courteous interest in others which was neither effusive on the one hand, nor patronizing on the other, but had the graciousness of dignity about it.” [p. 12]

“Yet there was in the man’s face that grayish look of fatigue which comes to those who are near the point of physical exhaustion from the strain of overwork.” [p. 90]

“For a moment the pair were gripped in that rigid immobility that comes with discovery.” [p. 7]

2. The second I’ll call the “with that” structure.

“The evening had turned chill, with that peculiar penetrating cold which comes at night in the high places, which gets into the blood and settles around the marrow of the bones.” [p. 16]

“The air was cold and still with that breathless chill which polishes stars into glittering brilliance.” [p. 123]

“Hamilton Burger said with that ponderous manner which was so characteristic of him.” [p. 210]

3. Ina number of these examples, a “which/that comes” formulation is used often (underlined above).

None of this is meant as a complaint or critique so much as an observation. I’m just beginning to become aware of certain phrases that I use again and again. It’s hard to get around them and if you obsess on them, you might get stuck and never write another sentence.

*  *  *

Novels and stories are told from either a first or third person perspective, which means we experience the story as “I woke up, dressed, and went out,” or “Bobby woke up, dressed, and went out.”

With first person, someone “in the story” describes the action as we experience everything through that person.

Third person is different. Someone outside the world of the story tells the story. The Perry Mason mysteries are told in the third person.

This gets a little tricky. In a first person story, the author may or may not be the narrator. If the story isn’t true, the person telling the story is likely not the author sharing their experience, but a person from the author’s imagination (allowing for unavoidable autobiographical elements).

A story told in the third person doesn’t necessarily mean that the author is that storyteller either. Some years ago I read James Michener’s Hawaii. It’s a phenomenal book. If I recall correctly, it is written in third person from the beginning, but then at some point the authorial voice shifts for a moment. I don’t want to give anything way, but in a key moment the third-person telling gives way to a first-person comment. And so the rest of the book has two layers. There is the story that Michener is telling—and we wonder, as with all good stories, what will happen next and how will it end—and then there is this mystery of who is doing the telling. It doesn’t seem like Michener is the one telling the story (though, obviously, he wrote the book). Who does this voice belong to? It’s a great thing.

I just finished listening to a book, The Noticer: Sometimes, all a person needs is a little perspective, by Andy Andrews (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

I enjoy Mr. Andrews, so this isn’t meant as a critique of what he is teaching (this is an engaging and worthwhile narrative about, as the title says, the importance of perspective), but I found it a little odd that his book began in the first person and then shifted to the third person and by the end was back to the first person. I don’t recall noticing the abrupt shift in point of view when I read the book some months ago, but as I listened to it this past week, that shift in voice didn’t work that well, perhaps because the entire book was read by the author. What if the first person elements were read aloud by Mr. Andrews and then the third person were read by someone else? Probably would have been even more distracting.

In the Perry Mason novels, the third person voice normally describes what can be perceived by an observer. The third person voice does have an omniscience about it. It knows everything that is going on in the story, including what is going on in the hearts and minds of each of the characters. But it limits what it tells us. As readers we accept this. In the case of the Perry Mason novels, we don’t get to see into the hearts and minds of characters. But once in a while, though, something slips:

“Milicent Hardistry dropped into her chair, almost immediately propped an elbow on the arm of the chair, and rested her head against the upraised hand. Her attitude was that of tired dejection. She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible.” [pp. 207–208]

Suddenly, with the last two lines, it appears we are going beyond observation. “Her attitude …” could be a description of how her affect might be perceived. But the last line, “She only wanted to get it over as soon as possible,” seems to be telling us what’s going on inside the character. This is something I will pay attention to in future novels. Are there limits for the omniscient third person narrator? Do those limits change?

*  *  *

I do like the authorial voice to be consistent. When I’m thinking too much about that voice, whether it’s because of a repetitive sentence structure or a major shift in storytelling perspective, it’s a little distracting.

I want that voice to be trustworthy. I want to know that I may rely on that voice to be telling me the truth, at least the truth as they see it. I’m sure there are some novels that play with this, where the narrative voice (either first or third person) has some issues with reliability, which becomes part of the experience of reading the novel. That gets confusing for me. I have enough trouble tracking characters and timelines and details, particularly with mysteries, without wondering if I need to be focused on the narrator as well.

I enjoy it when the authorial voice is interesting. I am remembering the first line of E. M. Forster’s Howards End:

“One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.”


Less delightful though fantastically compelling is the authorial voice in Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Here is that opening line:

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.”

Not delightful. Pained, really. The genius of this novel is that Ishiguro has, unforgettably, captured the voice of a butler.

Note: I suppose there is such a thing as second person writing. It seems to me that falls more in the realm of advertising and self-help:
You can have whiter teeth and fresher breath.
You can take control of your life if you will follow these nine steps.
My experience with stories, though, has them in first or third person.


One comment

[…] I had been thinking about point of view in writing. It occurs to me that a similar thing is in effect with the making of television and film. […]

by Three Murders and Some Thoughts on the Authorial Voice on Screen « on 11 April 2018 at 5:26 pm. Reply #

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