## Death of a Lawyer: Perry Mason 2020, S01 Ep 4

Death of a Lawyer: Perry Mason 2020, S01 Ep 4

Perry Mason

Earle Stanley Gardner was an American lawyer, novelist and creator of Perry Mason, a crime-fighting lawyer who jumped from the novels to radio, film and finally a hit television series in 1957 starring Raymond Burr. Mason’s adventures were informed by Gardner’s work as a practicing attorney. The character was re-introduced in a new HBO television series that premiered during the pandemic.

Gardner never gave his readers Mason’s origin story; that story is the basis for the new series. Gardner went to law school in Indiana but never finished; he read for the law and took the bar exam in California, a state which then as now allows postulants to qualify without a law degree.

The new series is set in 1932. Mason is a private detective working for a newly invented character, a 74 year-old lawyer named “E.B. Jonathan” who is played by John Lithgow.

Jonathan and Mason are working on the defense of a sensational case, the kidnapping-murder of a young boy. Newspaper reporters constantly interrupt their work, but savvy Jonathan knows that playing the press is part of the defense. The district attorney grandstanded the arrest of their client while she was attending her own son’s funeral amidst a press riot. Jonathan must, as best as he can, present his client as an innocent victim as well.

At first, talking about the great California jurist and Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jonathan flaunts his own youth in comparison. Jonathan is 16 years younger than the 90 year old Holmes. In his own mind, Jonathan is younger still. He still very much has his wits about him.

But no matter. Old age stalks him. He has health problems, foreshadowed in previous episodes; feet that swell at night. Mason teases him by pointing out that he doesn’t suffer from the same ailments, to which Jonathan replies, “but you will.” Jonathan has fallen asleep in his clothes in his office; he asks Mason to help him with his shoes. The two men reminisce over their first meeting; Mason’s father had a property dispute; Jonathan’s office was between a blacksmith’s and a saddle maker’s. Those trades are gone, but Jonathan remembers the past fondly. He complains to Mason, just wait till “half your friends are in the cemetery and a million strangers on the street.”

Unfortunately, the wealthy grandfather of the victim who hired them has cut them off, now that he believes the child’s mother was involved in the crime. Jonathan moans that they have gone from being well-funded to defending the case pro bono. The Latin term, short for pro bono publico means, “for the public good.” What people do not understand is that the phrase also means, “the lawyer pays.”

Jonathan’s practice is not what it was. Time has taken away not only friends, but clients. The strangers in the street do not find their way to his office to seek a solution to their legal problems. While Jonathan still insists that his secretary answer the phone with both his name and the phrase, “and associates,” Jonathan knows that there are no more associates. He is the only lawyer in the office. But Jonathan knows how a case must be defended and how to defend a notorious case.

In a previous episode, Jonathan visited a colleague to ask for a loan. That colleague turned him away. When you need money, no one has it. Worse, the colleague reminds him of decades-old questionable financial maneuvering at the time of the First World War.

Jonathan has raided his savings to keep his office afloat. Unlike others, he was not destroyed by the 1929 Depression, but those events are still taking their toll. He has a payroll to meet, and Mason is not the only investigator he has working the case. With the loss of his client’s funding, he goes to his bank to seek a “measly” four month loan so that he can finance the case, his office, his secretary and the two investigators. But his bank officer, his friend Howard, is no longer with the bank and has retired. The new bank officer assigned to his file is unfamiliar with his business and sees only that Jonathan’s assets that survived the Crash are already mortgaged. There will be no bank loan.

Meanwhile, the district attorney has learned of the financial irregularities—to keep the lights on during the war, Jonathan “borrowed” from his trust account, though he replaced the funds and no client was harmed. For many years lawyers have been taught to view such conduct with horror, but a century ago the relationship between lawyers and banks was symbiotic in a way unimaginable today. Lawyers kept interest-free trust accounts at banks, which provided free banking services to the lawyer, such as covering checks that might otherwise bounce and providing automatic lines of credit. The district attorney threatens Jonathan with disbarment if he does not try the case or take a plea. The DA doesn’t want his investigator, Perry Mason to keep nosing around, either.

With no money to finance the case, Jonathan visits his client in jail to suggest a plea, which would at least give them both a way out. She would avoid the electric chair and he would be free of the case. In explaining the plea to her, he explains that sometimes when the power of the government is aligned against you, there is little you can do. Believing herself innocent, the mother refuses the plea. Jonathan gives a short inspirational speech, “we’ll fight then.”

But he doesn’t have the money to fight the case and now he cannot withdraw discreetly and honorably. If he withdraws, the newspapers will be merciless. The DA is threatening him with a very public disbarment. His life as a lawyer will be over.

Jonathan goes home to sleep and to think about the best course of action. The next morning he dresses as if to go to court. An old newspaper protects his kitchen table, displaying a story featuring a case he was once involved with, a reminder of ephimeral past glory. He arranges a chair, puts a towel under the kitchen door, turns the gas on and sits down.

This episode is not about Jonathan, not about the difficulties of practicing as a solo, not about the personal threats suffered by those who practice criminal law, not about the danger of getting involved in notorious cases or the thanklessness of pro bono work and certainly is not about the danger posed by trust accounts.

Or is it?

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