I've always been a Perry Mason fan--well ever since I was twelve, and bored, and found a paperback copy of "The Case of the Substitute Face" in the glove compartment of a friend's pickup truck. The court cases were a large part of my education in political science, logic, and vocabulary. At least I learned the meaning of "incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial."
That was long ago. Recently a friend of mine recommended the online classic television series, which stars Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale and takes place in a nostalgic black and white fifties setting. So, for the last few weeks, Claye and I have been watching one episode every night and then discussing it to death.
While taking my "much scaled down" exercise this evening, striding through the cool gray evening streets, I pondered one of life's mysteries: Why are fictional TV detectives so dumb?
No. No. Don't protest that they see every callus and speck of orange mud on a suspect's trousers and manage to win their cases due to brilliant ploys and sudden insights. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about scenes like this:
Detective-(picks up ringing telephone in the safety of his well-lit office) Hello. This is the office of the detective you just called.
Anonymous-(whispering in a sinister, muffled, obviously disguised voice) I have some information that will win this case for you. No. I can't give it over the phone. I think your phone is tapped. You know the bus station? Good. There is a row of phone booths along the left wall. At 8:15 the phone in the middle one will ring. Pick it up and I'll give you further instructions.
Detective-Who is this?
Anonymous-Just be there. Oh, and be careful. I think you are being followed.
Whereupon, the detective grabs his hat and hightails it down to the seedy-looking, dimly-lit bus station. Just think about this. If his phone is tapped and he is being followed, what's to stop anyone from : a. intercepting the call, b. waiting in the booth to hit the detective, and/or c. following the detective to the newly arranged meeting place where he will be just in time to witness the detective's descent into a cleverly laid trap.
Or scenes like this? "Hmm. A secret compartment in her purse...and there's white powder in it. I don't think it's face powder. Let me taste it. Sure enough. (Licks finger) It's heroin." Not too bright, I'd say. It could have been: cyanide, ptomaine, arsenic, chalk, dust mites, laxative, high fructose corn syrup--any one of an infinite selection of noxious substances. And I also wonder just how much heroin this guy has tasted in his lifetime?
His clients are even less intelligent: "Oh no. Here is a dead body of somebody I knew and hated. There's a gun beside the body. Quickly, let me snatch it up and walk away before anyone finds it and proves that it was mine. Let me see. How can I make up a good alibi?"
Fortunately for them, Perry Mason is on the job, figuring out a legal way to get rid of the weapon, find the true criminal, badger him or her in court, and extract a confession that is nothing short of incredulous.
Of course, the same plot in the original book was three times as long, made a lot more sense, had a different murderer, and revealed a much more probable scenario. I'm convinced, however, that the TV script writers considered that irrelevant, and immaterial. We won't talk about "incompetent".