Today I welcome guest blogger K.B. Owen, whose historical mystery novel DANGEROUS AND UNSEEMLY is launching this week. Kathy has long been one of my very favorite bloggers and now she’s one of my favorite authors. ~ Janice Hamrick
Fabulous Formula: K.B. Owen Discusses the Success of Perry Mason
Hi, everyone! I’m thrilled to be a guest on Janice’s site today, talking about one of my favorite classic mystery characters, Perry Mason, and his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.
The Perry Mason series:
The books are part of the hard-boiled, pulp fiction tradition, with sexy dames, hard-nosed cops, and a protagonist who has his own set of ethics and his own way of dispensing justice. Some critics contend that the series became more “soft-boiled” over time, but I haven’t done a close enough reading of all of the novels to have an opinion on that. It certainly wasn’t high-brow literature; just a fun read that didn’t pretend to be anything else. Below are some of the covers, and they’re certainly drawn in the pulp tradition.
The books are readable and comfortingly formulaic: the first half of the story is concerned with introducing the client, the problem, and the investigation, where the police and prosecution seem to have the upper hand and all seems lost; the second half of the story is the courtroom scene, where Mason uses all the lawyer tricks he can get away with to shuffle around the evidence and confuse the witnesses, until finally the true culprit confesses and his client is cleared.
The prolific Erle Stanley Gardner:
Gardner was a California lawyer for 20 years, which came in handy for those slick points of law that Mason uses to get out of tight spots. He did some pulp-fiction writing during those years, but really hit his stride when he turned to writing the Perry Mason series full-time.
Over the course of 40 years (between 1933 and 1973), Gardner wrote over 80 Perry Mason “cases,” not including several short stories that featured the lawyer/detective.
I find that astonishing.
How does an author produce so many stories, without repetition of storyline and elements?
One answer, of course, is that Gardner followed a formula for each book. As I mentioned above, the first half of the story is investigation, the second half courtroom. There’s another formula, too, in terms of who has power. In the first half, Mason has the deck stacked against him and it doesn’t seem possible to extricate himself and his client. In fact, all seems lost. Yet, by the end of the second half there’s a twist and – voila! Mason’s on top once again. As much as folks disparage the use of formula, it helps build the brand for a series like Perry Mason.
But another surprising reason for the prolific storylines is Garder’s use of plot wheels. Take a look at these cool little tools that Gardner used in writing his novels. (Source for the following images: Teaching the American 20s).
Below are the wheels. In case the writing is too small, here’s the title of each, clockwise from upper left: “Solution,” “Wheel of Complicating Circumstances,” “Wheel of hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero,” and “Wheel of blind trails by which the hero is mislead (sic) or confused.” Nifty, huh?
For more on Gardner’s use of plot wheels, and other writing strategies he employed, take a look at the following:
Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer: the Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate, 1980 (before J.K. Rowling, obviously).
Perry Mason’s appeal:
- Della Street: the quintessential gal Friday, and an unacknowledged love interest for Perry. Super-efficient. I wish she could run my kids’ homework nights.
- Paul Drake, of Drake Investigations: the man could find out anything, and was almost as fast as Google.
- The clients: usually female, uncooperative bombshells, and their own worst enemy. Mason was essentially saving them from themselves.
- Perry Mason: his cleverness and ingenuity won out every time. He was also not above walking on the shady side of the law from time to time: a little B&E, some suppressing of evidence, etc. Who doesn’t enjoy a rogue who’s also a good guy?
Beyond the books: radio and television
Radio: CBS ran the radio episodes in 15-minute increments, five times a week, from 1943 to 1955. It was sponsored by Tide laundry detergent, “the amazing washday miracle” (info courtesy of Jack French). In other words, it was a soap opera!
Television: This was the Perry Mason we are most familiar with. The series, starring Raymond Burr, ran from 1957 to 1966, was a re-run staple for CBS, and later re-run on other stations.
Here’s a clip of the opening credits and music theme. Bring back memories?
Did you ever watch Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, or read the original novels? Who is your favorite detective? Janice and I would love to know!
Janice, thanks so much for hosting me! I had a blast.
K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. No doubt many people are thankful about that.
She now resides in Virginia with her husband and three sons. She recently finished the second book in the series, and is busily planning Concordia’s next adventure. Check out her website for more historical mystery fun: kbowenmysteries.com
About DANGEROUS AND UNSEEMLY
The year is 1896, and Professor Concordia Wells has her hands full: teaching classes, acting as live-in chaperone to a cottage of lively female students, and directing the student play, Macbeth.
But mystery and murder are not confined to the stage. Malicious pranks, arson, money troubles, and the apparent suicide of a college official create turmoil at the women’s college. For Concordia, it becomes personal when a family member dies of a mysterious illness, and her best friend is attacked and left for dead.
With her friend still in danger and her beloved school facing certain ruin, Concordia knows that she must act. But uncovering secrets is a dangerous business, and there are some who do not appreciate the unseemly inquiries and bold actions of the young lady professor. Can she discover the ones responsible…before she becomes the next target?
Absorbing in its memorable characters, non-stop plot twists, and depiction of life in a late-nineteenth century women’s college, Dangerous and Unseemly is a suspenseful and engaging contribution to the cozy historical mystery genre. Fans of Harriet Vane and Maisie Dobbs will find in Concordia Wells a new heroine to fall in love with.
Dangerous and Unseemly is now available from the following sellers: