Crack the case of the literary lawyer

The defense attorney has the witness stammering. No, shewasn't in town the night of the murder. Eyeing her from theircourtroom seats are the agitated bookkeeper, the motherlynurse―and the innocent defendant on trial. A figure in backleaps to his feet. "I did it," he shouts. "And I'm glad." PerryMason has won again.

If you've ever picked up a paperback Mason mystery in a usedbookstore or found yourself watching Raymond Burr on late-night TV,you know the appeal of the suave Perry, savvy secretary DellaStreet, dapper private investigator Paul Drake, and even theirprosecutorial nemesis, D.A. Hamilton Burger. You may not know thatthey and their creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, share SouthernCalifornia roots: specifically, in Ventura, a town that's nowmaking the most of its claim to mystery fame.

"If Gardner came back to downtown Ventura, he'd find very littlechanged," says Richard Senate, Ventura's city historian, who leadswalking tours devoted to the writer.

Gardner arrived in Ventura County in 1910, an ambitious21-year-old lawyer. Appropriately, Senate's tours begin at VenturaCity Hall, the former county courthouse where Gardner honed hislegal skills. "He was a top-notch attorney," says Senate, who dateshis enthusiasm for the writer to a youthful meeting with Gardner."He could teach Johnnie Cochran a thing or two." From here Senateleads his groups through downtown. As he shows off landmarks likethe building that housed Gardner's law office, he tells how theattorney sold stories to pulp magazines in the 1920s and publishedthe first of 86 Perry Mason novels ― The Case of the VelvetClaws ― in 1933.

Gardner had no illusions of literary greatness, says Senate."When people asked him if he was a writer, he said, 'No, I'm aplotter.'" Still, he was astonishingly productive, churning out asmany as 30,000 words a week. And he was a man of varied interests,from archeology to cooking. Therefore, Senate's final stop issweet: the Atelier de Chocolat, where you sample chocolate-coveredhoneycomb inspired by a Gardner recipe.

You can enjoy more substantial fare at two stops not on Senate'stour. Jonathan's at Peirano's serves Mediterranean cuisine in ahistoric grocery where Gardner used to shop. On a bluff overlookingthe Pacific, the Pierpont Inn was Gardner's favorite hangout;renamed the Wedgewood Inn in the books, it was where Perry wouldrepair after courtroom triumphs. The Craftsman-style inn has beennicely restored (there's a new, swell 1950s-themed suite that wouldfit wonderfully in the Mason TV show), and there's a small,engaging exhibit on Gardner in the lobby.

So sit down, order a drink, imagine that you've saved yourclient's life. A woman appears. She's in trouble. Falsely accused.Can you help?

You know the rest.

PERRY'S PATH

For general information contact the Ventura Visitors &Convention Bureau (www.ventura-usa.com or800/333-2989).

Tours. Senate's next walks are slated for Jan 18 and Mar 29.Cost is $9; for reservations call (805) 658-4726. Or pick upSenate's guidebook, Erle Stanley Gardner's Ventura, from thePhantom Bookshop (www.phantoms.com or805/641-3844).

Atelier de Chocolat. Closed Mon. 442 E. Main St.; (805)648-5937.

Jonathan's at Peirano's. Closed Mon. 204 E. Main; (805)648-4853.

Pierpont Inn. From $115. Offers breakfast, lunch, and dinnerdaily. 550 Sanjon Rd.; www.pierpontinn.com or (805)643-6144.

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