The Case of the Comical Commonplace Collection: guest post by Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, founder of the Della Street Irregulars

Editor’s Note: These Erle Stanley Gardner snippets appear more or less in the order in which I unearthed them, which in many cases does not reflect the order of publication of the Perry Mason novels. I did not always reference which book each quotation came from (which I would have if I’d anticipated the scope of this project), and for that I apologize. All the excerpted passages are Gardner’s, apart from the spoof excerpts that are duly attributed to me (and my occasional little faux-Gardner asides whose inauthenticity will, I trust, be obvious in the context). All the commentary is my own.

—Jonathan Caws-Elwitt


Dear Mr. Gardner:
1. You really, really don’t have to give us a major character’s first AND last names every time you mention her, page after page.
2. Have you every heard of this nifty word called “she”?

“The telephone on Della Street’s desk rang and Della Street, picking up the receiver, said…”


Readers who aren’t familiar with the signs of imminent rain: Erle Stanley Gardner has your backs! (Actual plausible explanation: This novel was originally a magazine serial, so maybe paid by the word.)

[Perry and Della are about to leave the building.]

“How’s the weather, Della*?”
“It looks like rain. It’s dark as a pocket and there are heavy clouds with a south wind. It may start raining any minute. Feels like it, too. The air’s damp and heavy.”

[*They are the only two people present, and they’ve been interacting off and on all day long, for however many years they’ve been working together. So naturally he has to address her by name.]

“You’re late, Mr. Mason.”
“I’m sorry. I made the mistake of asking Della Street what the weather was like.”
[^ not actual dialogue from the book (afaik, having not finished the book yet)]

You know what they say: If you don’t like the weather, ask Della about the weather. By the time you’ve finished listening to her report, the weather will probably have changed.


Perry Mason, resister of rhetorical inflation:

“Mr. Mason… You can count on my loyalty one hundred percent. One thousand percent!”
“One hundred is enough.”
—The Case of the Lonely Heiress

I wonder what she’s going to do with the other 900 percent now. I wish she’d said, “Great, then I can still go and be loyal to nine more people.”


Slammed UP the telephone??

“‘Goodbye,’ she said, and slammed up the telephone.”
—The Case of the Lonely Heiress

The author himself offers a workaround a few pages later: “He slammed the receiver back on the telephone.”

(Incidentally, this may be the phone-slammiest novel I’ve ever read.)


I suppose it’s too much to hope that Erle Stanley Gardner was actually writing this way on purpose, just to pull our legs?

“Most of his personal papers were kept in this pigeon-hole in the safe,” said Graves, indicating a pigeon-hole.

I do appreciate that Gardner, like his protagonist, was trained as a lawyer. To the layperson’s ears, saying “this pigeon-hole” might imply that the speaker was indicating a pigeon-hole; but, I ask you, would such an inference amount to admissible evidence?

“Most of his personal papers were kept in this pigeon-hole in the safe,” said Graves, indicating a Nerf basketball covered in Hello Kitty decals.



As previously discussed here, Erle Stanley Gardner couldn’t manage to write in a telephone without having one of his characters slam it down or (more often) up. Here’s a real tour de force (and I do mean FORCE) of an example, from the ESG I’m currently reading:

“[He] banged the receiver down on the hook so hard that it seemed as though the hook would be ripped off the telephone.”


Erle Stanley Gardner has used the word “pretentious” twice within about ten pages (to describe two different, unrelated buildings). Based on a Google Books search, it doesn’t look like he used the word very often overall. Personally, I think it’s a bit pretentious to show off with a word you’ve just learned by overusing it in your current work. (Maybe he didn’t realize the “use it three times and it’s yours” rule isn’t intended as writing advice?)


I’m a third of the way through this Perry Mason book, and the protagonist’s mannerisms are in a dead heat:

thumbs hooked in armholes of vest: 3x
standing with feet planted far apart: 3x

Which mannerism will win?? Mr. Gardner sure knows how to build suspense!!

OK, I’ve now finished the book, and the winner is… thumbs hooked in armholes of vest. But it was close! There was only one more thumbs/armholes, while there was also one more case of PM’s planted feet—but it didn’t explicitly say that they were far apart. (I was tempted to interpret the planted feet as being, presumably, far apart… but that would be calling for a conclusion on the part of the witness, and PM would undoubtedly object.)

Meanwhile, for dialogue-tag fans, I will note that in the lengthy, climactic courtroom scene, there was an overabundance of snapping on the part of the various principals: e.g., “the judge snapped” instead of “the judge said.”


In the Perry Mason book I’m currently reading, there seems to be an epidemic of people metaphorically putting their “cards on the table.” You’re gonna need a bigger table, Perry!


Perry Mason at Applebee’s

by JC-E

“I sure am hungry, Chief,” said Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary and assistant, to Perry Mason.

“It’s a good thing that we’re here at Applebee’s restaurant,” said Perry Mason to Della Street. “Although the food is generic and mediocre, this Applebee’s location is convenient to the building in which we have our offices.”

“That’s why we come here so often,” Della Street added. “There is only one other building and one parking lot in between this Applebee’s restaurant and our building.”

She used one hand to grasp the handle of the outer door to the restaurant. She opened it so that they could get inside. Then, having made certain that she and Perry Mason were both inside the foyer, she repeated the process with the inner door, so that she and Perry Mason could enter the restaurant without colliding with either door.

The hostess was speaking on a telephone, taking a reservation. When she had finished, she slammed up the receiver and handed two menus to Perry Mason and Della Street, one to each of them.

Once they were seated at their usual table, Perry Mason raised his water glass to his lips and took a gulp, then another. The water in the glass floated around several large cubes of ice, and the lawyer remarked on this to Della Street. “The restaurant staff have placed some ice cubes in this glass of water,” he said.

“I have ice cubes in my glass of water too,” Della Street informed Perry Mason.

A few minutes later, the waiter approached their table. He carried a small pad for the purpose of taking down dinner orders, and he opened the pad as he spoke to Perry Mason. “Welcome to Applebee’s, Mr. Mason.”

“This is my secretary and assistant, Della Street,” Perry Mason explained.

“Yes, I recognize Miss Street from when I served you both lunch earlier today,” said the waiter. “I apologize for the delay in waiting on you tonight, but it’s that gentleman’s birthday, and he is having a big party.”

The waiter lifted his arm to point toward a distinguished-looking, white-haired gentleman who was seated at the head of a long table. His clothes were well cut, his eyes were alert, and he wore a monogrammed handkerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket.

Perry Mason glanced quickly at the white-haired, well-dressed gentleman, then back at the waiter. “Were you present at that gentleman’s birth?” he asked.

“What? No, of course not,” the young man replied. He looked from Perry Mason to Della Street in confusion.

“But you have examined his driver license, passport, or other reliable piece of identification?”

“Why, no, Mr. Mason, I have not,” said the waiter.

“Then how do you know it’s his birthday?” said the lawyer.

“Well, I just—that is, I—” the waiter stammered.

“I sure am hungry, Chief,” said Della Street. “Would it be all right if we ordered some food?”

“What would you like, Miss Street?” the waiter asked, visibly relieved to be back on more familiar ground. He mopped some beads of sweat from his brow using a white handkerchief, then took a ballpoint pen from his pocket and poised it over his order pad.

“To start with, please bring me an order of mozzarella sticks to eat,” Della Street said to the waiter.

“That is a great choice,” said the waiter to Della Street. “Another customer ordered some mozzarella sticks a few minutes ago, and—”

“How many minutes ago was it?” asked Perry Mason.

The waiter tapped his forehead with his ballpoint pen. “I can’t say for sure, Mr. Mason. I heard Mary Robinson—she’s one of the other servers here—I heard Mary call out to the kitchen for an order of mozzarella sticks, and it must have been when I was—”

“Never mind what you heard someone else say. Did you see these mozzarella sticks?”

“Yes, sir, that’s what I wanted to tell Miss Street. I saw the mozzarella sticks in the kitchen, and they looked especially good tonight.”

“You say you saw mozzarella sticks. What, exactly, did you see?”

“But I don’t . . . You know, mozzarella sticks. They’re long and breaded and crispy.”

“Did you see any mozzarella?”

“Huh? Well, I guess not, now that you put it that way. I just saw the breaded sticks, and I—”

“And you assumed there was mozzarella inside them. Is that it?”



I see that Erle Stanley Gardner’s hand-holding attitude toward his readers sometimes extends to the chapter numbering. We might not understand what “Chapter 2” means, so he helps us out by employing the more legally precise “Chapter Number 2.”

[BONUS: A rare Perry Mason witticism! “Through the front door.” I wonder how many times Della Street has heard that one.]

Holy cow, Perry Mason is really cutting up here in chapter number 2!

Mason walked over to the bust of Blackstone and placed his hat on the marble head at a rakish angle. He stepped back to survey the effect, then, moving up, adjusted the hat so that it was sloping backward.

Just came across this later on in the book: “A safety chain which was designed to keep the door from being pushed open held the opening to a narrow crack.” Cf. Rex Stout, “I shut it and put the chain bolt on.”


As Perry Mason and Della Street try to revive somebody, the author explains about coffee for his core readership of extraterrestrials:

“And how about coffee, Della?”
“Coffee?” she asked.
“The caffeine. It’s a stimulant. You might put a big pot of coffee on the stove. Make it heavy and black.”

Don’t worry, extraterrestrials! Boiling water is covered on the following page…

“Well, here’s the kettle coming to a boil.”
They watched as the spout of the kettle, after a few preliminary spurts, gave forth a steady stream of steam.
Della Street turned down the gas flame so as to hold the water at the boiling point.


In the chapter I’ve just finished, Della Street goes undercover and uses the name “Della Smith.” Yeah, that is certain to fool the crooks who have been monitoring the activities of celebrated attorney Perry Mason and his ever-present, frequently name-checked assistant Della Street.

(This is in The Case of the Hesitant Hostess. It comes right before The Case of the Alliterative Allegation, and right after The Case of the Assonant Astronaut. The Case of the Consonant Consulate comes later in the series.)


JC-E: Whenever Perry Mason makes an anonymous phone call, Gardner describes him as using a high-pitched, “querulous” voice.
Hilary Caws-Elwitt: [laughter]
JC-E: I imagine him sounding like John Fiedler. [adopting JF voice] “Hello, this is Perry Mason speaking. Whoops, I wasn’t supposed to say that.”
HC-E: [more laughter]
HC-E: [with emphasis] Thank you.


Once again, Erle Stanley Gardner looks after his core readership of extraterrestrials:

“She says she’s got to see you at once. She’s crying.”
“Crying?” Mason asked.
Della Street nodded. “Her eyes are red and tears are streaming down her face.”


This is why Della Street earns the big bucks…

“If this [typist] is good, Della, you might arrange to keep her on for a week or two. We can keep her busy, can’t we?”
“I’ll say.”
“Better ring up Miss Mosher and tell her.”
Della Street hesitated. “Would it be all right if we waited until we’ve had a chance to study her work? She’s fast, all right, but we’d better be sure she’s accurate.”
Mason nodded, said, “Good idea, Della. Let’s wait and see.”
—The Case of the Terrified Typist

Next chapter:

Mason looked at the typewritten sheets, gave a low whistle and said, “Now that’s what I call typing!”


Oh, THOSE car rental agencies!

“Have you checked the car rental agencies, Paul?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the drive-yourself automobiles where a person rents an automobile, drives it himself, pays so much a day and so much a mile?”
—The Case of the Terrified Typist


More Cliffs Notes for extraterrestrial readers from Erle Stanley Gardner. Today’s topic: How earthlings dispose of used paper towels.

“You didn’t find anything in the restroom?”
Della Street said, “I became a scavenger. I dug down into the container that they use for soiled paper towels—you know, they have a big metal box with a wedge-shaped cover on top that swings back and forth and you can shove towels in from each side.”


Good Lord! I can’t believe Paul Drake is calling in on the phone line that he’s always calling in on!

The private, unlisted phone jangled sharply.
“Good Lord,” Della Street said, “that must be Paul now. He’s the only other one who has that number.”

Also, if your phone is jangling sharply, I can recommend a good piano tuner.



Now, here’s a twist: Perry Mason is once again explaining things that don’t need to be explained (except to extraterrestrials), but in this case it’s clear from the context that he’s doing so as a deliberate strategy of evading a question. “Never mind the window dressing,” eh, Mr. Gardner? We’ll remember that!

“Some client of yours been there?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say. I have quite a few clients, you know, and I presume some of them stay at motels rather frequently. It’s quite convenient when you’re traveling by auto. You can get at your baggage when you want it and—”
“Never mind the window dressing,” Tragg said.


Yeah, I can totally understand how this might happen by accident…

Suddenly Mrs. Balfour uttered an exclamation of annoyance, crumpled the paper, threw it to the floor, jumped from the chair, and stamped a high-heeled shoe on the paper. Then abruptly she caught herself.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”

—The Case of the Lucky Loser

Next time I savagely and willfully destroy an offending document right before the eyes of the person it belongs to, I’ll be sure to use #sorryididntrealize.


Della Street is feeling stressed and run-down, and Perry Mason tells her to go home and rest until the next day—that there’s nothing she can do to help the case right now, anyway. And if she feels she’s getting sick, she should see a doctor. This discussion takes about TWO FULL PAGES. It’s not an argument; they’re just sort of talking in circles (I’m really wiped out you should go home yeah I’m really wiped out well you should go home yeah because I’m really wiped out…). Actually, it’s rather verisimilitudinous: a lot of people really do converse in this manner, ime.


“Don’t waive extradition,” Mason warned.
“I won’t waive anything except my hands.”

That’s cute, Erle Stanley Gardner, but I must say my version (thought up independently, though decades later, I admit) was wittier: “I recognized my friend the lawyer from across the room and gave her the ‘hi’ sign. She saw me and waived her fee.”


Another lesson for extraterrestrial readers, courtesy of Erle Stanley Gardner: How to Use a Restaurant.

Mason and Della Street entered the dimly lit interior of the cocktail lounge.

“Well,” Della Street said with a sigh, “this is a welcome and relaxing atmosphere after the tense strain of working on a case.”

Mason nodded. “We’ll sit and relax, have a couple of cocktails, then get a nice steak dinner with baked potato and all the fixings.”


“And,” she told him, “I take it the plot thickens?”

Mason frowned and said, “Yes, it thickens like the gravy I made on my last camping trip—all in a bunch of lumps, which don’t seem to be smoothing out.”

She laughed up at him and said, “Did you apologize for the gravy, Chief?”

“Hell, no!” he told her. “I told the boys that it was the latest thing out, something I’d learned from the chef in a famous New York restaurant; that it was Thousand-Island Gravy.”

—The Case of the Stuttering Bishop


Della Street can’t even repeat a seven-word sentence without paraphrasing—and we’re supposed to trust her with all that legal stenography?

Mason whispered, “Wait a minute, Paul. I’ve got an idea.” He said to Della Street, “Call out, ‘Open the door, Janice, this is I.'”

Della Street nodded, placed her mouth close to the door and said, “Open up, Janice. It’s I.”


Today in word-count-bloating Perry Mason passages: OK, I can see the extended, rather eloquent descriptions of the rainy weather… but I could have done without the nose-blow-by-nose-blow account of Paul Drake’s resulting cold.


Whenever the judge in an Erle Stanley Gardner book instructs Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger to stop “indulging in personalities,” I want them to respond by doing a soft-shoe across the courtroom singing, “Cause…we’ve…got…personality…” So far it has not happened.


He’s on the phone right now, and it’s urgent. Also, his call has occurred just now. Also, it could be important. [P.S. For anybody shocked by that “she said,” rest assured that Della Street’s full name has been given in the paragraph immediately preceding this excerpt.]

“Listen,” she said, “Paul Drake’s on the private line and he says he must talk with you right away.”

Mason’s long legs added another few inches to his quick stride. “How long ago did he call?”

“He’s on the line, just this minute. I recognized the sound of your steps in the corridor.”

“This his first call?”


Mason said, “It may be important, Della.”

—The Case of the Lame Canary


I’m inclined to think that even in 1937, the concept of “amnesia” had already been demystified in popular fiction. But, of course, it’s the extraterrestrial readers that Erle Stanley Gardner is looking out for—and ETs may not have had comprehensive access to twentieth-century literature.

The doctor favored Drake with a condescending smile and said, “Pardon. I didn’t intend to use technical terminology. Amnesia is a loss of memory. Victims of amnesia know nothing of their past, cannot tell their names or anything about themselves[….]”

“Let’s see if I understand you. Doctor,” Mason said. “When Packard regained consciousness he had an impaired memory—is that right?”


We’re getting a little giddy in Mr. Mason’s office. (We’re even referring to Della in the third person without her surname!)

“Well, it goes like this,” Della said. “Because you’ve come in the room, you must have been the person going out of the room. Therefore, having gone out of the room while you were coming into the room, someone who saw you in the corridor coming into the room, would have known you were going out of the room, and—”
“Oh, I see,” Drake said, “like a puppy chasing his tail, huh?”
“Exactly,” Della agreed, “only the puppy catches his tail. Then, having swallowed himself, he becomes, so to speak, completely self-contained.”
—The Case of the Lame Canary


It has been suggested that Perry Mason has telescoping legs. Now we find that Paul Drake apparently has no torso!

His long legs lifted his face, with its filmy, expressionless eyes, and droll grin, over the heads of the crowd which pushed against the customs barrier.

—The Case of the Substitute Face


I’d be pessimistic too, if I were “thin” in the height dimension—meaning short?—but, paradoxically, also “tall.” I’d lose all faith in the author’s powers of description!

Paul Drake, head of the Drake Detective Agency, was tall, thin in stature, and perpetually pessimistic in outlook.

—The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

Or maybe “thin in stature” is another way of saying someone’s legs go straight up to his chin. (See above.)


Remind me next time not to share a taxi with these people…

“You might hoist a drink or two, but it would run off your back like water off a duck’s stomach.” Lone Bedford laughed gleefully. Della Street turned on her reproachfully. “I didn’t say that accidentally,” she said. “I said it on purpose. It was a wisecrack.”

“I know it, dearie. That’s why I laughed.”

Della Street said, “No, one woman doesn’t laugh that way at another woman’s wisecracks—not when there’s a man in the party. She laughs courteously and politely. You didn’t laugh politely. You thought I was trying to say that his drinks ran off his back. … Oh, skip it. It isn’t important. Who wants to waste drinks on a duck’s back?”

—The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe

Then again, riding with them does have its rewards:

The two girls, in high spirits, made hilarious comment on the cars they passed, the electric signs, and such other matters as came to their attention.


Oh, I never realized it was a characteristic gesture! I mean, he only does it about four times per book…

Mason got to his feet, pushed his thumbs through the armholes of his vest in a characteristic gesture, and started pacing the floor of the office, his chin sunk in thought.

—The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe


A methodical man, and a repetitive one.

“Here is a retainer check, together with a letter stating that you are acting as my lawyer and are to have access to any and all of the property left by my father.”

Mason took the letter and check. “I see,” he said, “that you are a methodical man.”

“I try to be,” Sabin told him. “The check will be in the nature of a retainer.”

—The Case of the Perjured Parrot


Again with the Thousand Island gag.

“Look like the plot’s thickening?” she asked.

“Positively curdled,” he agreed, cheerfully. “It’s like Thousand Island dressing… Almost as bad as the cream gravy I tried to make on that hunting trip last fall.”

—The Case of the Baited Hook


Mason loves it when Della Street calls him Goosy.

“You mean,” Mason asked, “that you think Adelle Hastings got her inside information as to what was going on from Robert Peltham?”

She said, “Goosy, wake up. I mean that Adelle Hastings holds the other half of the ten-thousand-dollar bill which we have in the safe.”

Mason sat bolt upright in his chair. “Now,” he said, “you have got something.”

—The Case of the Baited Hook

By the way, the only Google result for “Goosy, wake up” comes from the passage above. #goosywakeup


“This,” said Mason, “is how Mr. Gardner likes to break up his sentences.”

“What,” Paul Drake asked, “do you mean?”

“He means,” Della Street answered, “those dialogue tags plunked in the middle there.”



Della (what happened to “Street”?!) did not stick her tongue out at Paul Drake. She did not—I repeat, not—put her tongue out at Paul Drake. She ran out her tongue at Paul Drake, if you please.

“Be your own sweet self,” Drake supplemented.

Della ran out her tongue at him.

—The Case of the Baited Hook

I imagine it rolling out like one of those snappy little measuring tapes. (“Or,” he added, “the tongue of a snappy little anteater.”)


Make up your mind, Perry!

“Let’s quite playing ring-around-the-rosy. What’s your alibi for Monday night?”

[Later on in the same conversation.]

“Now listen,” he said, “we’ve played ring-around-the-rosy and button-button-who’s-got-the button until I’m sick of it.”

[And two paragraphs on, as the convo continues.]

“Forget it,” Mason said. “I’m tired of playing horse.”

—The Case of the Baited Hook

“Now listen, sister, you can play Triple Yahtzee with me only so long before I walk out, you understand? That’s right, I’m telling you I’ve had it with this game of Careers, and I want some answers. Quit stalling, you hear me? Not a single round more of Tip-It, or you’ll never see me again.”




This time WE were the extraterrestrials! A character in a Perry Mason novel from ca. 1940 was talking about putting fruit up in “cans,” and I assumed that “cans” in this context meant canning jars—that actual tin cans would have been used only in an industrial context. Hilary Caws-Elwitt had the same impression; but she looked it up, and we learned that there were indeed home canning devices that used metal cans.

Then I continued reading the novel, and Mr. Gardner made sure to clarify things (not knowing, of course, that his future readers would have Wikipedia at their disposal):

“There wasn’t any label on that tin, and it had been sealed up-you know, crimped over, the way you seal preserves in a can.”

“You have one of those sealing machines here?” Mason asked.

“Yes. We put up a good deal of fruit and vegetables. Some we put up in jars, and some we put up in tins. We have a sealing machine which crimps the top on.”

—from The Case of the Empty Tin [which would have clued me in, only I’d already forgotten the title of the book I was reading! (:v>]


“You can always tell the way Mr. Gentrie opens a can. He never runs the opener all the way around. He stops just before he cuts the lid entirely free. He always leaves a strip of tin of about a sixteenth of an inch, then twists the lid off.”

“That’s right,” Mrs. Gentrie confirmed. “He says that if you go farther than that, the top of the can falls down on the inside. I always hold up the lid and then finish cutting. Arthur twists.”


“For instance, the first word in the code message would be the nineteenth word from the top in the A column on page 192.”

“And the A column would be the first one?”

“That’s right. The one on the left.”

—The Case of the Empty Tin


In a diner scene in an Erle Stanley Gardner book, Perry Mason has just ordered “plenty of” french fries and “lots of” coffee. Did diner staff in the 1940s actually accept orders like that? (Did the menu say, “French fried potatoes: small 5 cents; large 10 cents; plenty 15 cents”?)


I find there’s something endearing about those moments when Erle Stanley Gardner applies his dry, elephantine style to a comical interlude. In this thoroughly silly and yet almost humorless passage from The Case of the Crooked Candle, Perry Mason has secreted himself in the pantry of someone he’s just met, in order to avoid an encounter with his frenemy from the police department.

Mason gently closed the pantry door, went back to his position on the stool, let his eyes rove around in an appraisal of the food on the pantry shelves, and eventually yielded to the temptation of a carton of crisp soda crackers.

The lawyer raised the lid, thrust in his hand and, locking his heels in the rungs of the stool, started munching soda crackers.

A few moments later he spied a jar of peanut butter. He spread the creamy, golden mixture on crackers with his pocket knife, and was fairly well covered with crumbs by the time the pantry door was jerked open.

Mason didn’t glance up until he had finished spreading peanut butter on the soda cracker he was holding.

Lieutenant Tragg said, “It’s okay, Mason. You can come out now.”

“Thanks,” Mason said nonchalantly, “I’ve been wanting a glass of milk.”


This might play more smoothly in the movies, I suppose…

Mason said, “And then again …” He broke off to push his tongue against his cheek so that it made a big lump.

“What’s that,” Della asked, “chewing tobacco?”

“No. Just to show you that I have my tongue in my cheek.”

—The Case of the Crooked Candle


And yet one can’t help admiring his gift for subtle characterization…

The proprietor, a huge florid figure of a lusty man, attired in a chef’s cap and apron, came in to give them a welcome.

“Ah—ze great Perry MASON! And zat so charming Della Strit! Welcome! Pierre weeth hees own hands cooks you ze food an’ serves you ze dreenks!”

—The Case of the Crooked Candle


We know.

Drake said, “J.C. Lassing lives at 6842 La Brea Avenue, Colton. It was a little job tracing him because he’d transposed two of the figures on his license number when he registered at the motel. Lots of people do that even when they’re looking right at a figure, they’ll transpose a couple of the digits in writing it down, and when they’re trying to remember a license number…”

Mason said, “I know.”

—The Case of the Crooked Candle


Notice how master stylist Erle Stanley Gardner deftly inserts a definition of the obscure term “wealthy” for his extraterrestrial fan base.

“Faulkner was wealthy?” Mason asked.

“He had quite a bit of money, yes.”

—The Case of the Gold-Digger’s Purse


Schrödinger’s cat, Erle Stanley Gardner–style.

“There’s no need beating around the bush, Mr. Mason, and no need to be cautious. The cat’s out of the bag”….

“But under the circumstances it will help if you describe the cat so we’ll be perfectly certain we’re talking about the same animal.”

—The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife


I’m pretty sure this Tom Swiftie is unintentional, but I’ll take it.

“Water,” Mason said dryly, “has a habit of evaporating.”
—The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife


In the ESG that I’m currently reading, Paul Drake says “Hell’s bells, Perry” on three separate occasions, after which Mason himself says “Hell’s bells” (once) to somebody else. In the previous book, no one says it at all, so I suspect the “playing with my recently acquired word or phrase like a shiny new toy” mechanism characteristic of second-rate writers. But, if we want to bend over backward for Erle, we can suppose that it’s adroit realism: Drake has picked up a new expression and is consequently overusing it, as people do; and Mason catches it from him, as would also be realistic.


No, Perry, Paul drove you all the way out here to this riding academy because the horse you’re interested in is at a different riding academy.

(On the positive side, I like the hype overkill embodied in “Elite-Acme”! I’ll score that one in ESG’s column, as a nice bit of intentional humor.)

A high board fence carried in green letters a sign which read, Elite-Acme Consolidated Stables and Riding Academy.

“That the place?” Mason asked.

—The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse


Heh. Perry Mason tells a client she must be sure to “emphasize” (his word; or, shall we say, his emphasis) a particular detail when relating what has happened. One page later, he concludes his instructions on this point by reiterating that she should note this detail—but “don’t emphasize it.” Like a boss, Perry!


Here’s one for the typewriter nerds. Elite type specified!

Drake pulled out the letter, typewritten in elite type on a good grade of tinted stationery.
—The Case of the Cautious Coquette

(Apparently ESG’s core readership of extraterrestrials, who need to have things like coffee explained, are presumed to know all about elite vs. pica typewriters.)


Oh, Erle Stanley Gardner, did you do that on purpose?

She had apparently been swimming in the nude with a small waterproof sack tied to her back. From this sack she removed a bath towel with which she dried her slender, athletic body. Then she produced stockings, shoes, and a low-cut evening gown.

Fascinated, Mason shipped his dripping paddle into the rented canoe….

—The Case of the Negligent Nymph

(And who knew that the proverbial “man in the canoe” was Perry Mason!)

I call this metaphor drift (pun semi-intended)… but here’s a coda, from the end of the book:

“That goes double for me,” Della Street said. “It should teach Mr. Mason not to go around picking up nymphs who make passes at his canoe.”


(Whereas before midnight, it shares its individuality with fifteen other cities.)

After midnight the French Quarter of New Orleans takes on an individuality all its own.
—The Case of the Fiery Fingers


Belabored Toad Comparisons dept.

“The man she married is a cold-blooded, scheming, nasty toad. Do I make myself clear?”

Not sure. Let’s hear some more.

[Same character, a little later in the conversation, still speaking about the same person.]

“The pompous, vain-glorious, self-centred, egotistical toad!”

[Later scene. Sister-in-law of character who spoke above is talking about same toadlike person.]

“I felt certain that he’d…I think he’s a toad.”

[Still later, sister-in-law again, same subject.]

“That’s what I told you about him, Mr. Mason, the…the toad, the big, fat toad! That’s all he is, a toad!”
“Take it easy,” Mason said.

—The Case of the Fiery Fingers


Yes, Perry. I’m getting tired of it too, book after book after book.

“This business of getting into court representing a woman and then finding she’s been holding out on you is tough on the nerves.”


Perry Mason, Genealogist-at-Law.

“I don’t like blackmail.”
“You think this is?”
“It’s first cousin to it,” Mason said.
—The Case of the Green-Eyed Sister


“I don’t know him from Adam” meets “you, me, and the lamp post”:

“I don’t know him from a lamp post.”

—The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink


Apparently, Erle Stanley Gardner is now lifting sentences from language-instruction textbooks: “Here’s a chair that is nice for telephoning.”

“It’s all connected with the outside,” he said solicitously. “Here. Here’s a chair that is nice for telephoning.”
—The Case of the Mythical Monkeys

What do you mean? What’s wrong with “Here’s a chair that is nice for telephoning”? That’s totally something that someone would say in real life.
I seriously doubt that.
Come on, people say that all the time! I’m sure it’s in the dialogue of countless other books and plays, in transcripts of actual conversations…everything.
Well, you didn’t have the Internet, Erle, but I have access to this thing called a search engine…and I have to tell you that when I type in “chair that is nice for telephoning,” this book of yours is the only thing that comes up. You will notice that I even went the extra mile and stripped out “here’s a”—just in case someone said “I need some chair that is nice for telephoning,” or something like that—but still no dice.
[Slams up the telephone.]


A new JC-E joke inspired by reading lots of old Perry Mason books: A law practice where the partners are named Incompetent, Irrelevant, and Immaterial.


His fees may be high, but the advice is worth every dollar.

“Mr. Mason,” he said, “I’m sorry I’m late”….

“Sometimes it’s rather difficult to estimate traffic problems,” Mason said. “I usually try to get to my appointments about five or ten minutes early and that leaves me a cushion in case of a traffic jam.”

—The Case of the Duplicate Daughter


Objection! Counsel is being passive-aggressive.

“I smiled at him and that broke the ice.”

“What ice?” Mason asked.

“Well, you know, it gave him a chance to get acquainted.”

“Did you think there was ice?”

“I used the expression as a figure of speech.”

“And I am using it as a figure of speech,” Mason said….“I realized that you referred to ice in a figurative manner of speaking and I used the term in the same sense.”

—The Case of the Shapely Shadow


Good grief, at a certain point I think we just need to call it a “store.”

“At the five-ten-fifteen-twenty-five-cent and dollar store where I work.”
—The Case of the Shapely Shadow


But mostly I read Erle Stanley Gardner just to savor the breathtaking resourcefulness and ingenuity of his characters.

Mason told the waitress, “Fill up two coffee cups and bring a pitcher with coffee in it”….

The waitress left and in a short time returned with two cups of coffee, then brought two small metal pots.

“We use these for hot water, mostly,” she said, “but I’ve filled them up with coffee.”

“That’s fine,” Mason told her.

—The Case of the Reluctant Model


The year is 1962, and ESG has discovered beatniks.

Della Street said, “Don’t be a square, Paul. That’s why he’s going to see the girl.”

“Oh, Lord,” Drake moaned. “You picked up the jargon last night. I’m a square!”

—The Case of the Reluctant Model


[Actual title: The Case of the Amorous Aunt]

“Isn’t it true that you posed as shown in the photo that has been received in evidence because the photographer requested that you do so? And did you not explain to the photographer that you would never normally hold a telephone receiver in that position, halfway behind your head, even if you were attempting to muffle the mouthpiece while registering what is known as a ‘double take’? And isn’t it true that the photographer then instructed you to pose this way regardless, despite its lack of verisimilitude?”



Time to make the doughnut word-count!

“Going to have doughnuts to go with the coffee, Della?”

“Not unless you go down and buy some.”

“I’ll go,” Drake said. “There’s a place around the corner that specializes in fresh doughnuts. I’ll get some with chocolate icing, powdered sugar and—”

“No chocolate icing for me,” Della said.

“Nor me,” Mason chimed in.

“Nor me,” Drake agreed reluctantly. “I just like to talk big.”

—The Case of the Ice-Cold Hands


I’ve decided that when Perry Mason orders steaks with “plenty of” potatoes, he’s succumbing to the “correlation implies causation” fallacy: He always orders that way, and he and Della Street always get plenty of potatoes with their steaks—so clearly it’s cause and effect! Perry doesn’t realize that the steaks are consistently served to all customers with a standard, generous portion of potatoes, and that specifying “plenty” doesn’t affect the quantity. And whenever Della Street visits the restaurant without him, she gets precisely this same amount of potatoes with her steak, just by ordering “steak with potatoes”… and she and the wait staff laugh and laugh about Perry and his “plenty.” This is also why Nero Wolfe never invites Perry Mason to lunch. That, and Mason’s contributions to Wolfe’s scintillating mealtime conversation. Take it, Archie:

“When I’m working for a client,” said Mason, “I’m a fighter. I fight for my client, and I keep on fighting.”

“Pfui,” said Wolfe. “Your principles may be irreproachable, Mr. Mason, but your articulation of them is manifestly redundant.”

Then Mason started comparing the current case to the “Thousand Island gravy” he once made on a camping trip, and Wolfe excused himself to take coffee with his orchids. I wanted to excuse myself too, but I was afraid that would be manifestly redundant.



More Mason-Wolfe mashups by JC-E…
The Dead Dollar, by Rex Stout

“Mr. Mason, do you have a dollar bill?” Wolfe asked.

Mason settled himself more comfortably in the client chair. “I may have.”

“Please give it to Mr. Goodwin. This dollar will serve as a retainer.”

“What dollar?” said Mason.

“Your dollar, Mr. Mason,” said Wolfe.

Mason took a cigarette case out of his breast pocket, lit one, then took two and a half drags before responding. “Who says I have a dollar?”

I stole a glance at Miss Street, wondering if he was always like this. She wouldn’t meet my eye.

Wolfe was frowning at the bottle caps on his desk. “Archie?”

I read from my notes: “Wolfe: ‘Mr. Mason, do you have a dollar bill?’ Mason: ‘I may have.’”

Wolfe scowled at me. “Well?” he said to Mason. “Do you or do you not?”

Mason grinned. “Suppose I do have a dollar bill. So what?”

Wolfe rose. “Archie, you will give Mr. Mason his dollar back. It is evident that this association is not destined to be fruitful.”

“He never gave us the dollar,” I said.

“What dollar?” said Mason.

The Case of the Borrowed Banknote, by Erle Stanley Gardner

“Chief, I have Archie Goodwin on the line, from Nero Wolfe’s office in New York.”

“What,” said Mason, “does he want?”

“He says that Mr. Wolfe wishes to retain your services.”

Mason paced the floor, his brow furrowed in thought, while Della Street waited devotedly with her hand cupped over the telephone receiver so as to muffle any sounds from the office.

Perry Mason’s long-legged strides had carried him to the exit door of his private office and back to his desk several times before he stopped. Then, standing with his feet squarely apart, he picked up the telephone extension on his own desk and immediately slammed up the receiver. Della Street hung up her phone as well.

“What the devil do you suppose Nero Wolfe wants, Della?” said Mason.

“Gosh, I don’t know, Chief. Do you think he might want to retain you?”

“Get Paul Drake on the line.” Mason picked up the phone. “Paul, this is Perry. I want you to take two of your best men, drive to the airport, and charter a plane to New York. You haven’t a moment to lose. You’ll need to go to the airport, and once you’re there I want you to charter a plane. Tell the pilot that you need to fly to New York. I guess you’d better take two men with you. Once you’ve landed, get the first cab you see and drive to Nero Wolfe’s office. Della will give you the address.”

“What do we do when we get there?” asked Drake.

“You’ll need to take a taxi. You’ll find Wolfe at home because he never leaves the house. I want you to get into that house and get a dollar bill from Wolfe. Tell him it will serve as a retainer.”

“Do I give him a receipt?”

“Don’t give him anything,” said Mason.

“Have a heart, Perry. What if he asks me for a match, or a piece of chewing gum?”

“You heard me. Don’t give him anything. Now get going. The address is 454 W. 35th Street. Della will give it to you.”


Sometimes it takes the combined talents of the shrewdest attorney in town AND the most efficient legal secretary in town to place a telephone call.

“Rush through a call to Harlow Bancroft. Try him at the lake house. If he isn’t there, try his office.”


“May I speak with Mr. Bancroft, please? Tell him it is quite important. This is Mr. Mason’s secretary….Oh, I see. Do you know where I can reach him? Thank you, I’ll try the office. I have the number. Thank you.”

She hung up, said to Mason, “He’s not there. The person who answered thinks he may be at the office.”

“Try that number,” Mason said.

—The Case of the Step-Daughter’s Secret


Selling encyclopedias, explained for extraterrestrials. (Not only did ESG get paid by the word, but Perry is asking these questions on billable time in his office.)

“I’d been foolish enough to think I could support myself by selling encyclopedias on a door-to-door basis.”

“Couldn’t you?” Mason asked.

“I suppose I could,” she said, “if I’d absolutely had to. But I just didn’t have the stamina for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You ring doorbells,” she said. “Someone comes to the door. You only get invited in about once out of five times if you’re really good. If you’re not, you’re apt not to get invited in at all.”

“If you do, what happens?”

“Then you get in and make your sales pitch and answer questions and arrange for a follow-up.”

“A follow-up?” Mason asked.

—The Case of the Mischievous Doll


A good attorney is, first and foremost, a good listener.

“I received an anonymous telephone call that bothered me a lot.”
“Who called?” Mason asked.
—The Case of the Phantom Fortune


Pierre (of course he’s named Pierre) may be the dernier mot in obsequious headwaiters. After delivering a telephone to monsieur’s table, he checks to make sure the fidelity of monsieur’s phone connection satisfied monsieur’s discriminating palate.

The lawyer hung up the phone, scribbled the amount of a tip on a check which the headwaiter had brought him; signed his name and handed the headwaiter ten dollars.
“This is for you, Pierre. Thanks.”
“Oh, thank you so much,” Pierre said. “The call it was all right? It came through nicely?”
—The Case of the Horrified Heirs


The most apropos answer would be, “Duh, Mr. Mason, YOU called ME.”


We have established that the client is in her motel room (to say the least; see above). Next step:

“And your car?”

“It’s outside in the parking lot.”


“And you parked your car?”

“Yes, out in the parking lot.”

—The Case of the Horrified Heirs

The layers of redundancy are pretty deep here, because not only would I say it’s obvious that her car would be in the parking lot (rather than on the motel roof, for instance); I would also say that having been told she’d driven alone to the motel, Mason ought to be able to deduce that her car is on the premises without inquiring about it even once, let alone twice.


Also known as a “parking space.”

Virginia led the way out into the parking lot. “It’s right over—Why, that’s strange. I thought I left it in that other painted oblong.”
—The Case of the Horrified Heirs

But, of course, extraterrestrials might not know what a “parking space” is, so being more concretely descriptive is probably a good idea.

In any event, I will remember “painted oblong” in case I’m ever on that game show where you need to prompt your teammate to guess a common phrase, and I have to come up with creative ways to describe a parking space, without using those words: “OK, this is a place you might put your vehicle…it’s a painted oblong…”


Note to extraterrestrials: Earth telephones of the mid-20th century do not transmit personal appearances.

“I felt that perhaps Virginia had been victimized by the old trick of having some third party identify himself or herself over the telephone and, since the telephone doesn’t transmit the personal appearance of the person talking, it’s a very easy matter to deceive someone in a case of that sort.”
—The Case of the Horrified Heirs


In case readers might worry that our hero was jaywalking.

Mason left the office and walked down the street to the corner, waited for the signal, crossed the street, walked half a block and entered the Grayfrier Building.
—The Case of the Daring Divorcee

The law-abidingness at the street corner may be related to Mason’s conversion, somewhere along the line, from reckless driving to speed-limit scrupulousness. Perhaps ESG felt he didn’t want to be a bad influence on his readers when they got behind the wheels of their own spacecraft.


This is not an unreasonable explanation for a book published in 1964—except that we’ve already had essentially this same explanation 25 pages earlier.

“The long distance operator says a tape recording connection is on. That’s an answering service Garvin has when you call and a voice answers stating it’s a tape recording, that you will have thirty seconds after the voice ceases talking to transmit any message you may wish, that the message will be recorded on the tape so it can be played back when the subscriber returns to answer the telephone personally.”
—The Case of the Daring Divorcee


Attn. Della Street Irregulars: It’s game time!

Mr. Gardner has taken care to tell us all about a particular line of sunglasses, including their pricing strategy vis-a-vis sales tax. So here’s my question, if you want to play along:

As I continue reading The Case of the Daring Divorcee, will I find that

1) The pricing strategy of the sunglasses becomes a critical plot point later on, justifying its exposition here (if not the typically clumsy manner in which it’s been done)? The novel is set in both California and Nevada, so conceivably it might arise that a pair of these glasses had a price sticker or receipt showing a California base price as opposed to a Nevada base price, or vice versa—if these two states had different sales-tax percentages at the time—and the place of purchase would become an important clue.


2) This was just a random, space-filling bit of gratuitous dialogue with no bearing on the story?

I note also that if it turns out to be (2), there would be both possibility (2a), in which ESG meant to return to the sunglasses-sales-tax motif as a plot point, but forgot all about it; and “classic” ESG (2b), in which it was simply pure babbling bloatage all along.

“They’re the Willikens Glasses, Number 24-X. That’s the code number indicating the large lenses and the heavy coloring. They cost ten dollars.”

“And tax?” Mason asked.

“No, they’re priced at an odd figure so that the ten dollars includes the sales tax. That’s true everywhere. No matter what the tax is, the glasses cost ten dollars.”

And we’re back! I have now finished the book; and while much ado was made about sunglasses, there was no further reference to sales tax, pricing, or place of purchase. Congratulations to all of you who so shrewdly bet against ESG having a coherent plan!


After all your excessive, extraneous rambling, Erle, you’re going coy on me NOW? Seriously? You’re just going to drop the phrase “special mustard” without giving me any further details? Don’t you realize how much I care about mustard?

The lawyer passed the jar of special mustard to Della, then helped himself—spreading the condiment liberally over the corned beef.
—The Case of the Worried Waitress

Sigh. If I have to do it myself, I’ll do it myself…

“Della, there’s nothing like a special mustard to complement a nice corned beef. This mustard has plenty of strong mustard seed, vinegar, some turmeric, a little bit of tarragon, and plenty of horseradish. It’s a strong mustard, hot and heavily seasoned. I wouldn’t dream of eating corned beef without a good strong mustard.”

“Chief,” Della Street asked, “are you going to have some of that mustard on your corned beef?”

“I am,” Mason replied. “That,” he said, “is why I asked our waitress to bring some special mustard with my corned beef.”

“And she brought it,” said Della Street.

“I asked her to bring me mustard, and she brought some mustard. I think I’ll use it on my corned beef.”

As for the corned beef, here’s the intro paragraph from the Wikipedia article. Give me a minute, and I’ll see if I can ESG-ize it. First, direct from Wikipedia:

Corned beef is a salt-cured beef product. The term comes from the treatment of the meat with large-grained rock salt, also called “corns” of salt. It is featured as an ingredient in many cuisines.

And now, my rewrite:

“Chief, said Della Street, “is that corned beef on your plate?”

“That’s right,” said Mason. “I ordered corned beef for lunch, and when the waitress served us, there was corned beef on my plate.”

“What,” said Della Street, “is corned beef?”

Mason grinned. He cut into his sandwich using the knife that the waitress had brought. “Corned beef,” he said, “is a salt-cured beef product. I have some here on my plate.”

“‘Salt-cured’?” asked Della Street. “Does that mean it’s cured with salt?”

“Exactly,” said the lawyer. “The term comes from the treatment of the meat with large-grained rock salt, also called ‘corns’ of salt. The meat is prepared with salt in the form of ‘corns,’ so it’s called ‘corned beef.’ It’s named after the fact that corns of salt are used.”

“So the ‘corns’ are salt?”

“That’s right. The meat is cured using salt. They take the beef and use salt to cure it. Then they call it corned beef.”


Never fear, extraterrestrials! What you lost on the mustard and corned beef, you gained on the lemonade. [This is real ESG again, not JC-E spoofing…]

“We’ll have a sour lemonade made with carbonated water.”

“Cheat on mine,” Della Street said, “and put some sugar in it.”

“Sugar in both of them,” Mason said.

They seated themselves in the bar. Mason gave the order, and they had their lemonades about half consumed when the loudspeaker said, “Mr. Mason’s table is ready.”

Della Street looked longingly at the lemonade—then using the straw, fished out the cherry and the slice of orange.

Mason paused to finish his drink, then escorted Della into the restaurant.


Stop presses! “As I said before”? Wait, you’re actually acknowledging that one of your characters is repeating something he’s already said one or ten or twenty pages earlier, to the same person? Better late than never, Erle. Now, if you really want to up your word count, go back and add “as I said before” every place it applies in all the books.

“Paul, how do you keep in touch with your men on a job of this kind?” Mason asked.

“As I said before, some of the cars have field telephones in them.”

—The Case of the Worried Waitress


The Case of the Careless Cupid is one of the last few books in the Perry Mason series, and Gardner is pulling out all the stops. In most of these novels, Mason angrily and unceremoniously ejects no more than one unwelcome visitor from his office. In this story, he’s done it twice, to two different visitors in two different scenes!

“You’re going to regret this. I …”
“Very well,” Bolton said. “Your actions convince me that there was no suicide, that William Anson was murdered, and that you know it, and that you’re trying to protect …”
“Out!” Mason shouted, and moved aggressively forward.


Mason made a threatening step forward. “Out!”
Findlay caught the look in the lawyer’s eyes, turned, started for the exit door. “You’ll regret this as long as you live,” he said.
“Out!” Mason said.

Maybe in the next book, every scene will end with “Out!”


More pulling out of stops in the final Perry Mason books. I’m not used to getting the bushy eyebrows and the thin, straight line of a mouth all at once on the same face.

A moment later a door in the back part of the room opened and a heavy-set, chunky individual came striding out, a man in his late thirties, with dark hair which had receded well back from his temples, bushy black eyebrows, keen gray eyes, and tortoise-shell glasses. His mouth was a straight line of thin determination.
—The Case of the Fabulous Fake

That’s the nephew, by the way. Here’s the uncle:

Franklin Gage gave him a hand which seemed cushioned with flesh, as though the man’s body had built up a layer of insulation in the right hand.

He’s the only member of the family who can get by without an oven mitt.

But wait, there’s more! Perry returns to the office and reports to Della Street about the insulated hand:

“When he shakes hands with you you feel there’s a cushion of flesh on his hand, a sort of sponge-rubber insulation that he uses to keep any magnetic current from penetrating.”

And for the extraterrestrials:

“Shaking hands is a peculiar custom. It consists in clasping a part of two bodies together so that a vibration or magnetism or whatever you want to call it is exchanged from one to the other…. Well, we’d better go to work.”



Counselor Mason got straight A’s in law school; but back in elementary, he missed the day when they explained the implications of plural v. singular nouns.

“Women came to see him from time to time.”
“The same woman or different women?”
—The Case of the Fabulous Fake


Motion to strike testimony that appends a gratuitous botany lecture to a yes/no answer. Author is grandstanding.

“Could you see the swimming pool or the house while you were running down the trail?”

“No. The hill is covered with brush, a chaparral I guess it is—and I believe there’s some greasewood in it. I don’t know just what the nature of the brush is, but it’s the kind of brush that you see all over the Southern California foothills.”

—The Case of the Fenced-In Woman

Mr. Gardner’s prose by Botany 500 Words.


I have now completed my journey through Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. Thank you so much for riding along with me!

No more financially reckless “plungers.” No more people who establish residence in Nevada but then fake their divorces. No more strong-willed types with bushy eyebrows, or cold-blooded individuals with thin lines for mouths. No more judges who comment dryly that “this Court wasn’t born yesterday,” or prosecutors consistently making “one of the briefest opening statements” ever. No more mother-of-pearl doorbell buttons. No more of the fat being in the fire, and no more sewing vests on buttons. No more hitting the high points of what happened because we may not have much time. No more slammed-up telephones, best dinners in town on the expense account, or soggy “hamburger sandwiches.” Adios, Perry, Della [Street], and Paul [Drake, of the Drake Detective Agency, whose offices are on the same floor and are open twenty-four hours a day]!


One thought on “The Case of the Comical Commonplace Collection: guest post by Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, founder of the Della Street Irregulars

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