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Mystery, Romance, and Erle Stanley Gardner

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By Marilyn Moore

September 9, 2018

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[Perry] Mason and [Della] Street are an ideal pair in a relationship founded on self-interest, property rights, and consent.

When I’m looking for inspiration and fun, I like to read Erle Stanley Gardner’s popular Perry Mason mysteries or watch Perry Mason on television. The novels and television episodes have held my attention for years because of the enlightened relationship between Perry Mason and Della Street. Mason and Street are an ideal pair in a relationship founded on self-interest, property rights, and consent.

To make my point, I’ll be discussing Erle Stanley Gardner’s mystery The Case of the Silent Partner, for the simple reason that I just finished reading it. I may even have read it before, but Gardner’s fast-paced plots and smart dialogue, along with the chemistry between Mason and Street, make the mysteries a pleasure to read again and again.

 

Self-Interest

Both Mason and Street are refreshingly unconflicted. Mason is the consummate attorney. He does not harbor doubts about his career. To the best of my knowledge, Mason wasn’t pushed into a career in law by a domineering wife or father. Nor did he settle. He isn’t bitter. Mason may have entertained other career options, but once he chose the law, he committed.

On the job, Mason is all business. In the following conversation, Mason explains how he works. He doesn’t take a case until he knows he’s getting paid. Once he gets started, he lets nothing stand in his way.

Mason said,

“Who’s going to pay me for representing her?”

“I am.”

“If I’m representing her, I’ll be representing her alone.”

“Of course.”

“Her interests would come first.”

“That’s what I want.”

“If yours get in the way, you’d be in the position of an adverse party. I’d smash you just as quickly as I would a total stranger.” (96)

Mason’s fee and his success are matters of self-interest. The fee allows him to work and thrive. The success keeps paying customers coming in the door.

 

It is reasonable to think that a woman with Street’s ability, in real life, could have done anything she wanted, even back then. It is refreshing then that Street’s character is happy to be an executive secretary, that she has no regrets about her role.

Della Street is Mason’s secretary. Gardner began publishing the Perry Mason series in 1933. He published The Case of the Silent Partner in 1940. It is reasonable to think that a woman with Street’s ability, in real life, could have done anything she wanted, even back then. It is refreshing then that Street’s character is happy to be an executive secretary, that she has no regrets about her role. She is described as “young, attractive, fast-moving, quick-thinking, alert, and on her toes” (181). This is not to say that women should not aspire. It is just nice to follow a female character who made her career choice voluntarily and who is happy with that choice. Street doesn’t feel cheated, underappreciated, or unfulfilled. She wanted to be part of a team, and she and Mason make a great one. They share a strong work ethic and a love of the game.

Street is as self-interested in the success of the law firm as Mason is. Like him, she works on a court case until the verdict comes in, working long, irregular hours on clerical, accounting, and evidence-gathering tasks. She is willing to take any risk necessary for the firm. To Mason’s credit, he never asks Street to sacrifice herself, and Street always comes to her senses when her devotion upends her reason. For example, at one point in The Case of the Silent Partner, Mason needs Street to cash some travelers checks at a department store in order to protect a client, but in order to keep her “in the clear,” he won’t tell her why he needs the checks cashed. “I don’t want to be kept in the clear,” she scolds at one point. “How many times must I tell you that I’m part of the organization? If you take chances, I want to take chances” (145). But Mason is firm, and Street agrees to do things his way. As she is leaving, Mason admits that he hates to send her. “If there’d been anyone else I could trust . . .” he explains. Street replies, “I’d have hated you the rest of my life” (147).

By current standards, the Mason-Street relationship might elicit cries of sexism. If you are bothered that Mason, a man, is the lawyer, and Street, a woman, is the secretary, consider another famous crime-solving pair: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes and Watson are both male, at least as originally written.

By current standards, the Mason-Street relationship might elicit cries of sexism. If you are bothered that Mason, a man, is the lawyer, and Street, a woman, is the secretary, consider another famous crime-solving pair: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes and Watson are both male, at least as originally written. They are friends, and they work together to solve mysteries. Watson is Holmes’s assistant, but no one wonders if Holmes is exploiting him. The relationship is understood to be mutually beneficial. Without Holmes, Watson’s life would have been dull and conventional. Without Watson, Holmes would have been isolated and lonely.

It is the same for Mason and Street. As I’ve already shown, Mason is careful not to exploit Street. There would be nothing to gain from it. Likewise, Street is careful not to neglect Mason. She “learned to know his various moods.” As Gardner explains, the two work together in an atmosphere of intimacy and trust. They demand a lot from each other, and they expect to get the job done. They tease and flirt too. In the end, they know whose side they are on: “Between them existed that rare companionship which is the outgrowth of two congenial people devoting themselves to a common cause. When the going got rough, they were able to function with the perfect co-ordination of a well-trained football team” (34).

 

Property Rights

I get tired of watching or reading about shady capitalists, incompetent or otherwise compromised bosses, and resentful, scheming employees.

Perry Mason’s name is on the door, and Della Street works for him. She even calls him “Chief,” which again I don’t consider sexist but rather a sign of respect. Most of us want to respect our boss, and Mason is an exemplary one. I get tired of watching or reading about shady capitalists, incompetent or otherwise compromised bosses, and resentful, scheming employees. For Mason and Street, the clients furnish the drama, and the interest comes from the methods Mason and Street use to defend them.

Mason and Street work hard, but Street doesn’t appear to complain about compensation. She seems more than capable of making ends meet, and it is safe to say that she is well-compensated. She functions at a high level and lives an interesting life. She takes care of herself, is well-groomed, and has a fabulous wardrobe without having to be a deadbeat with maxed-out credit cards or an identity thief. She doesn’t even work a second job.

Mason clearly considers Street his greatest asset, next to himself, and he treats her with the respect due a person of high value. He doesn’t give a second thought to letting her hold down the office when he’s out on a case or to letting her act as his agent when he needs to be in two places at once. If he tells her to do something and something goes wrong, he knows she followed his directions and blames himself. When there is trouble, he immediately puts her out of harm’s way. For example, in The Case of the Silent Partner, after Street cashes the travelers checks per Mason’s orders, the police come looking for her. Mason comes to her defense, shielding her and deflecting the police officer’s questions: “Mason slipped his arm protectingly around Della Street’s shoulders, held her to silence by the pressure of his hand on her arm. ‘Meaning the woman who tried to cash the travelers’ check?’ he asked conversationally” (192).

While Mason sends Street on all variety of errands, Della Street is much more than an errand girl. She is Mason’s interlocutor. At some point in the action, Mason, always needs to organize his thoughts. Then he calls Street into the office, saying some variation of “Sit down a while, Della. Let the mail go. I’m in a jam” (141). They then converse at length. It is not a monologue. It is an extended give and take during which they come to terms with the facts. Mason leads and Street follows, offering him insight and friendly banter. “Are you whistling in the dark to keep your courage up?” is just the sort of thing she would say. Mason, grinning, would answer, “Yes” (143).

 

Consent

In addition to being a team of professionals, Mason and Street are also sleeping together. They share a strong and genuine attraction.

In addition to being a team of professionals, Mason and Street are also sleeping together. They share a strong and genuine attraction. Street is frequently described as giving Mason appreciative glances—“Her eyes were eloquent as she flashed him a quick smile,”—although their mutual attraction never interferes with work—“then she slipped out into the corridor” (148). And Mason has been known to kiss her affectionately during office hours, again without losing any billable time. In the following example, Street has just finished cashing those travelers checks mentioned earlier.

He waited for her, pacing the floor, smoking nervously. When he heard her quick steps in the corridor, he flung open the door, circled her in his arms, held her close to him, and patted her shoulder. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he said.

Della pushed her body back a little so she had room to tilt up her head to look into his eyes. “Good Heavens, what’s the matter?”

“It’s all right for me to take chances,” he said, “but I didn’t realize what it meant to me to have you out on the firing line. I’ll not ever do anything like that again, Della—not ever.”

“Goose,” she said, smiling, her lips half parted.

“He kissed her tenderly, then hungrily, released her, walked abruptly back to the desk, said, “That’s the trouble with me, Della. When I get working on a case, I subordinate everything to that case. I become hypnotized with a single purpose. I don’t take any heed of consequences. I only want results.”

“That’s a darn good way to be,” she told him, taking off the little narrow-rimmed hat which perched jauntily on one side of her head, surveying her face in the mirror, calmly applying a touch of lipstick. (163)

 

I am absolutely sure that their romantic relationship is consensual, that Street did not take the job on condition that she sleep with Mason.

I am absolutely sure that their romantic relationship is consensual, that Street did not take the job on condition that she sleep with Mason, that Mason does not threaten to fire her if she should refuse him, that she seldom does refuse him because she loves him, that she is not expecting him to marry her, and that his attraction to her is not a power trip but an affectionate one based on her character, her intelligence, and her good looks.

And that, too, is refreshing, with everything that is going on. I think most of us want to think that we can manage ourselves professionally and in love, that we have our values straight. Perry Mason and Della Street certainly did. It might be going too far to say that self-interest, property rights, and consent are sexy, but I will say this, you can’t have one without the others.

 

 

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