Perry Mason’s Return

Erle Stanley Gardner’s most famous character Perry Mason has returned to TV. This is in a new series on HBO which is about to conclude its first run tonight. Philip Martin has written a background article on the earlier CBS TV series from the 1950-60s as well as the novels, other TV adaptations and the HBO series just ending. This appears in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He also discusses Waugh’s admiration for Gardner’s novels which was considered in an earlier posting. Here’s an excerpt from his article:

… I never read the Perry Mason novels and, as I grew, I came to think of them in that faintly dismissive way we have of remembering the enthusiasms of old maid aunts. Gardner was a best-selling writer of serial detective fiction, that was all I thought I needed to know.

Evelyn Waugh once called Gardner “the best American writer,” and lest his interviewer think he was kidding, added, “Do I really mean that? By all means.” Waugh and Gardner had a brief exchange of letters in which Waugh claimed he was one of Gardner’s “keenest admirers,” though the purpose of the letter was to correct Gardner, who in one of his books had referred to a piece of sofa-like furniture as a “davenport.” Waugh suggested that Gardner in fact meant “chesterfield.

Gardner stuck up for himself, arguing that in America, “davenport” could indeed be a synonym for “sofa,” but allowed that he was thrilled that the author of “The Loved One” read his books. Later, when American scholar Alfred Borrello wrote about these letters for the “Evelyn Waugh Newsletter ” [EWN, 4.3, Winter 1970] he harbored some residual doubt about  Waugh’s sincerity. With Waugh and Gardner having passed on, he approached Waugh’s widow, Laura, who told him that her husband had devoured every book Gardner had written. (Gardner wrote more than 80 novels that featured Perry Mason, nine that featured prosecutor Doug Selby, another 30 under the pen name A.A. Fair about the Cool and Lam detective agency, and a few others under his own name and various pseudonyms.)

“Is it … out of character that Waugh should be attracted to and take delight in the work of another author who is, though some may doubt that he is anything else, a superb craftsman?” Borrello wrote. “One only need to read Perry Mason’s adventures in any of the novels in which he appears to realize the author knows what he’s about.”

The latest series has at least one storyline about a character with a Waugh connection. In this, a character named Sister Alice McKeegan is obviously based on Aimee Semple Macpherson, a popular evangelist in interwar Hollywood who in turn inspires characters in two Waugh novels. She is credited as being the original for Mrs Ape in Vile Bodies (1930). In Waugh’s Hollywood novel The Loved One (1948), Aimee Thanatogenos explains that she is named after the evangelist Aimee Macpherson at the Four Square Gospel Church where her father had been swindled out of all his savings. That was the name of Macpherson’s church. Aimee Thanatogenos’s father wanted to change her name after the swindle, but she finally decided it was easier just to keep it as it was.

The final episode of the current series of 8 airs tonight on HBO in North America. The first series received a favorable notice in the Democrat-Gazette, and a second has been commissioned by HBO. In the UK, it is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

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