Perry Mason and the Case of the Careless Kitten

by Glenn on March 6, 2018

One of my goals is to read the complete Perry Mason mysteries. There are 85 of them. My connection to them goes back to my grandmother. As a child at her house, I remember her watching the show on her little black & white TV, although it wasn’t a show I could appreciate or follow as a child. Watching it today is nostalgic.

Books, of course, are different from television and movies. And, reliably, the books are better, or at least much different.

It’s especially true with this series.

I haven’t read one of the Perry Mason mysteries for a while but just finished The Case of the Careless Kitten. (Erle Stanley Gardner | New York: William Morrow & Company, 1942.)

Although the publishing date is early in World War 2, there isn’t much direct mention of the war except for the fact that one of the characters has come out of basic training. He is in love with a girl whose aunt (and protector—no mention of what happened to her parents) disapproves. As he and she talk one evening, a crime is committed in the house and he is seriously wounded by a gunshot. While he is in surgery, the girl observes,

“I guess we used to think we were entitled to happiness as a matter of right. Now, people are dying all over the world and . . . well, I’ve got to learn how to take it—and so has everyone else.”

While the war isn’t mentioned overtly, the attitudes, more specifically, the prejudices of the era, are quite explicit. Uncomfortably so.

A servant who self-identifies as Korean is referred to as “Jap” by a police officer.

His name is Komo, which does sound like a Japanese name. One would understand why he wouldn’t want to be identified as such. In response, he says “with dignity,”

“Excussse please . . . I am not Japanese. I am Korean. My sentiments for Japanese are not friendly.”

A co-worker of the servant says to Perry, “I can’t stand having a darned Oriental snooping around.” He goes on to call him “that damned Jap.”

When that co-worker makes claims about that servant, Perry Mason uses the same sort of kind of language: “Those Japs certainly are clever. The Orientals know a lot about drugs that we don’t know.” This is surprising. Is this language Perry would use, or is he simply using the language to get into the confidence of this co-worker?

I can’t imagine the Perry Mason of television saying anything like this. I have another five novels to go that were published during World War 2. It will be interesting to see if and how the language changes.

In an earlier novel, I remember Paul Drake and Perry wanting to interview some witnesses. Perry tells Paul to talk to someone, Perry says, “I’ll talk to the Chink.” It makes you cringe.

In 2018, the words feel entirely inappropriate and disrespectful. I can separate the attitudes of a character from his author, but it’s weird to consider a world where that was okay.

Part of my attraction to the books (and the television show as well) is the anachronisms—cars, police methods, the unceasing and abundant smoking, which is startling to consider. Clearly, though, propriety in language has changed. For the better.

One quote I really enjoyed. A lawyer, Gerald Shore, who Perry Mason has taken on as a client tells Perry, “I see that I’ve got to be frank with you.”

He adds,

“I think you’ll realize that no one ever knows how honest he is. He goes through life thinking he’s honest, because he’s never been confronted with a sufficient temptation; then suddenly he’s confronted with some crucial situation where he finds himself facing ruination on the one hand and with a chance to turn defeat into victory by doing something which seems very simple but which is—well, not dishonest but not strictly legal.”

Perry is not interested in “excuses.” But it does feel honest. Perhaps an affirmation of 1 Corinthians 10:12:

“[I]f you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

There are funny expressions in the Perry Mason books. Della Street wakes up, pushes away the kitten she is taking care of, and says, “Not now, Amber Eyes. The strident clang of the alarm calls me to industry.” Not sure who talks like that. Apparently Della does.

There are funny similes, too. In another book, Gardner writes something to the effect of “Della Street looking as crisp as a chilled lettuce leaf …”

It’s hard not to think of the television personalities as you read the books. The one that doesn’t fit the description is Lt. Tragg, who is younger in the books than on television. While not explicit, Perry and Della’s relationship in the book clearly goes beyond the professional.

One comment

[…] 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). […]

by Erle Stanley Gardner and an Author’s Point of View « on 7 April 2018 at 4:55 am. #