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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A wonderfully atmospheric Perry Mason reboot

One of crime fiction’s most popular sleuths gets a back story in his latest screen avatar

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
August 23, 2020 6:20:26 am
Shubhra Gupta, Eye Spy, Perry Mason, Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Timothy Van Patten, Deniz Gamze ErgüvenSet in the Los Angeles of the early ’30s, we get everything that matches the period.

Perry Mason regarded her with calm appraisal, as though considering just what sort of an impression she would make on the witness stand. ‘Tell me more, Thelma,’ he said. ‘I was out with a boyfriend,’ she told him. The mask of patient tranquillity dropped from Mason… (1934, The Case Of The Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner). For those familiar with the pulpy, grungy universe of Gardner, the bestselling author whose fictional lawyer Perry Mason solved practically every case he took on, with a mix of sleuthing acumen and slick courtroom moves, these lines would evoke instant nostalgia. Each case (Gardner was prolific and wrote more than 80 novels and short stories) held out the promise of a juicy mystery full of dodgy characters, confusing red herrings and an end blazing with clarity, where Mason exonerated the innocent and got the guilty to confess.

The latest HBO eight-episode drama (streaming on Disney+Hotstar), co-directed by Tim Van Patten and Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and, called simply, Perry Mason, can quite legitimately be termed The Case Of The Reimagined Lawyer. There’s been a Perry Mason around, in radio, TV and cinema, for the past 90 years. But this one is different, not just because it is fashioned as a prequel, which gives us the character’s backstory till he reaches his designated spot: the court room. It’s also different because Gardner’s works, that were published in the ’30s, were written in strictly serviceable prose, mostly focussed on the twists. Here, we get beautifully delineated characters and their arcs. The result is an immediate connection.

The first episode starts like a whodunnit, and it’s quite a kicker — a missing baby, distraught parents, a shockingly gruesome murder. Assigned to the case is a fallen-upon-bad-days gumshoe, slight of build, unremarkable of mien. Something about this character’s low-rent, hard-scrabble life reminded me of my most favourite hard-boiled private eye, Philip Marlowe, written by Raymond Chandler. But where was Mason, the legal eagle?

As it went along, wonderfully atmospheric, I started warming up to this latest version. By the fourth episode, I was fully invested. Set in the Los Angeles of the early ’30s, we get everything that matches the period. We get interesting characters, especially women. There’s a charismatic peroxide-blonde preacher, Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany, electric), who believes in miracles; a young mother (Gayle Rankin, effective), who tearily claims her innocences. In a smart move, a couple of familiar characters, Della Street and Paul Drake, are given makeovers: Street, played by the excellent Juliet Rylance, moves from being a secretary to a confident partner; Drake, a close associate, played by Chris Chalk, is Black. Matthew Rhys (in picture) takes over Mason, and makes him, his. Barring a few hiccups, it all stays fully engaging. It may have been set so many years ago, but it speaks to the world today — race, discrimination, religion, moral turpitude, different sexual orientation, feminism, all wrapped up in a cracking mystery. We wait, in anticipation, for the second season.

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