HBO has brought back the hard-boiler defense lawyer Perry Mason in a drama series starring Matthew Rhys, of The Americans fame, in the title role.
I never saw the long-running CBS drama series starring Raymond Burr (1957-66), but I did read most of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels on which the characters and stories are based. Matthew Rhys’ Mason isn’t as smooth as the one from the novels, but this is a prequel. Set in 1932 Los Angeles, at the depth of the Great Depression, is tells the story of how Mason became a lawyer and took over the practice of his mentor, E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow).
Like the novels, which typically feature a (female) client falsely accused of murder, the HBO series stars Gayle Rankin as Emily Dodson, who is charged with kidnapping and murdering her baby son by a district attorney played brilliantly by Stephen Root (whom dieselpunk fans may recognize as Hawthorne Abendsen from Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle).
Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk complete the cast as Mason’s loyal secretary, Della Street, and ally, detective Paul Drake.
Street, who in the novels rejects Mason’s playful advances, is cleverly reinvented as lesbian while Drake, who in the novels is white, is black in the series, allowing this Perry Mason to explore the lives of gay and African Americans in the 1930s.
There is a prominent role for Sister Alice McKeegan (Tatiana Maslany), a preacher and leader of the Radiant Assembly of God based on the real-world evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Friend of the blog Larry Amyett has more about McPherson. It doesn’t become clear until midway through the season how McKeegan and the Radiant Assembly connect with Dodson, but it’s expertly unwrapped.
Stylistically, this series is neo-noir at its finest with beautiful shots of Depression-era Los Angeles. If you’re into midcentury detective fiction, definitively give this a watch.
If it convinces you to read some of Gardner’s books, even better!