Perry and Della in Conflict
May 11, 2019 • Los Angeles
Sometimes when you watch too many Perry Mason reruns, in the background while you’re eating breakfast and reading the news, Perry’s no-nonsense world starts to bleed into your subconscious. Below is a synopsis of an episode that I watched in a dream. In an upcoming Mason Braithwaite book, my plucky protagonist is tasked with running an investigation in the dream world. Perhaps these various factors overlapping and comingling led to The Case of the Swiped Sandwich:
Perry Mason leaves his lunch in the office refrigerator each morning. Remember it’s the 1950s, so it’s wrapped in wax paper, not a plastic sandwich bag. Several times a week, the sandwich goes missing, and despite Perry’s almost preternatural skill at figuring out convoluted stuff, he is unable to determine who is stealing his lunch. Eventually he deduces that it has to be his extraordinarily competent secretary, Della Street. As she is the very picture of professionalism and honesty, Paz can hardly believe it himself—but the evidence doesn’t lie. (“Paz” is the nickname some of the regular characters call Perry; “Paz” is short for “Perry” in the way that “Baz” is short for “Basil” and “Gaz” is short for “Gary.”) Paz sets up several sting operations: one day he douses the sandwich with serrano peppers, but the sandwich doesn’t get stolen that day; another day he watches the fridge through the cracked-open broom-closet door, but the thief doesn’t appear that day either.
Finally Perry must confront Della directly. “I didn’t steal your damn sandwich,” she tells him, totally offended. “Would you be willing to take a lie detector test?” he asks. Della arches her eyebrows and says, “Bring it on.”
Remember that lie detectors were an exciting new technology in the 1950s. When the test administrator appears and wires Della up to the electrodes, she leans back in the chair and closes her eyes, breathing deeply, answering the questions in a breathy semi-whisper. To me that would indicate an attempt at deception, based on having seen lie detectors used on many television programs, but perhaps the technology was still too unfamiliar in that era.
The control questions included “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?” In her breathy voice, Della answers, “Los Angeles.” When the key question comes—“Did you steal Perry’s sandwich?”—she answers with a soft breathy “no-o-o.” Afterward, looking through the spools of paper sensor readouts, the technician can’t find any indication that Della was not telling the truth: “Unfortunately, Perry, I just can’t see it.” Mason frowns, lost in thought. “Back to square one.”
The next day, sometime just before the lunch hour, Della casually strolls into Perry’s office from the kitchen, a sandwich in hand with a bite taken out of it. “Limburger cheese,” she says to him. “Delicious.”
The episode left me with so many questions. Did she eat the sandwich in his face just to rub it in that his accusation was rude? Did she do it because she was emboldened by getting away with sandwich theft lo these many weeks? Perhaps she knew that the pair of them were too codependent for him to ever fire her, no matter how egregious her office snack behavior. Whatever the case, Perry Mason and Della Street remain the greatest of history’s office coworkers.