Perry Mason's Ventura

Crack the case of the literary lawyer
Peter Fish

The defense attorney has the witness stammering. No, she wasn't in town the night of the murder. Eyeing her from their courtroom seats are the agitated bookkeeper, the motherly nurse―and the innocent defendant on trial. A figure in back leaps to his feet. "I did it," he shouts. "And I'm glad." Perry Mason has won again.

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

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

Gardner arrived in Ventura County in 1910, an ambitious 21-year-old lawyer. Appropriately, Senate's tours begin at Ventura City Hall, the former county courthouse where Gardner honed his legal skills. "He was a top-notch attorney," says Senate, who dates his enthusiasm for the writer to a youthful meeting with Gardner. "He could teach Johnnie Cochran a thing or two." From here Senate leads his groups through downtown. As he shows off landmarks like the building that housed Gardner's law office, he tells how the attorney sold stories to pulp magazines in the 1920s and published the first of 86 Perry Mason novels ― The Case of the Velvet Claws ― 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 a plotter.'" Still, he was astonishingly productive, churning out as many as 30,000 words a week. And he was a man of varied interests, from archeology to cooking. Therefore, Senate's final stop is sweet: the Atelier de Chocolat, where you sample chocolate-covered honeycomb inspired by a Gardner recipe.

You can enjoy more substantial fare at two stops not on Senate's tour. Jonathan's at Peirano's serves Mediterranean cuisine in a historic grocery where Gardner used to shop. On a bluff overlooking the Pacific, the Pierpont Inn was Gardner's favorite hangout; renamed the Wedgewood Inn in the books, it was where Perry would repair after courtroom triumphs. The Craftsman-style inn has been nicely restored (there's a new, swell 1950s-themed suite that would fit 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 your client'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 or 800/333-2989).

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

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 dinner daily. 550 Sanjon Rd.; www.pierpontinn.com or (805) 643-6144.