“We can’t talk about this on the phone”

I ran across a variant on this phrase again last night, in The Case of the Queenly Contestant by Erle Stanley Gardner. (Cold night, warm house, drowsy, tired, a Perry Mason mystery to complete my contentment.) Perry M had something important to tell a client. He needed to see her, even though he had her phone number and the lines were not tapped — this point was mentioned specifically. The news was not tragic, just important.

Somewhere in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from the 1970s, Roy Neary is having an anguished conversation with his wife. “We can’t talk about this on the phone!” he cries.

There are many other examples, none of which I can recall exactly, but the idea that you don’t discuss important things on the telephone seemed to once be a given: a basic truth no one questioned.

Sometimes people need to be together to give and receive comfort or share joy, but something else was going on. Phone talk was chatter; face-to-face talk was the real deal, the stuff of life.

Why was that?

Was there something faintly troubling about phone conversation? A sense of this is not how it is supposed to be? 

There is a difference between hearing music at home, even on a spectacular sound system, and hearing it performed live. If you don’t think so, you have never heard music performed live. It is not the same music. Perhaps a similar awareness was the basis of the belief about phones.

Now, phones are secondary means of communication and computers are primary. The day of the land line is passing, I think.  But this question still remains, in fact is more relevant than ever:

What is gained and what is lost when you talk at a distance?

When I first learned how to talk on the Internet back in the 1990s (yes, it is a skill), the thing I compared it to was learning how to move around in zero gravity. At first you overdid things. You did not end up where you intended to go. Small gestures produced big results. Eventually, you figure out how to say what you intended to say.

What about people who spend large parts of the day typing messages to one another? Is is very strange to come back to earth? Part of being there for real is reading faces, gestures, body language, and intonations of speech. Do these abilities get less sharp as the zero-gravity abilities get more sharp?

I am not writing this blog to provide answers. But when I came across the line in The Case of the Queenly Contestant about not talking about important things on the phone, I realized that I haven’t heard anybody say this in a long time.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s infinite playlist

Erle Stanley Gardner is my favorite hack novelist, and I don’t use the word “hack” pejoratively. It’s a word that should be rehabilitated.

His writing career began in 1921, when he was thirty-two. It ended in 1973 with the 82nd Perry Mason novel. He taught himself to write by churning out pulp fiction at night after coming home from his job as a trial attorney in Ventura County, California. He called himself a “fiction factory.”

Early on he set a goal for himself of 100,000 words a month. By the end of his career, he had sold 300,000,000 books.

If I tried to write 100,000 words a month, I would not sell 300,000,000 books. I would need rest and medication.

He also had a life, although this seems hard to believe. He enjoyed travel and wrote thirteen books about places he visited. He had a wide circle of friends. He married twice, had a child. He was pen pals with Marlene Dietrich. And Raymond Chandler was a fan.

Chandler said he always had a stack of books by the bed side, but found himself reaching for a Perry Mason novel over and over. I understand the impulse.

Mason’s clients always are innocent. Della Street always is shrewd and courageous. Paul Drake always will uncover a significant clue. And at some point, Mason will eat a shrimp cocktail, a steak broiled rare, and either a baked potato with sour cream or french bread with garlic butter. With a couple of stiff drinks before.

All Perry Mason novels sound the same—a function of dictation. Yet they are not the same. Some are considerably better than others. I’m partial to the 1950s ones, for reasons I could discuss in the unlikely event I ever meet anyone else who has read them.

Gardner  had a real feeling for places. Do you want to see Los Angeles in the 1940s? San Francisco in the 1930s? He was there. He can take you there, too.

Tone, voice, and structure are fixed. There are pages and pages of procedural courtroom drama at the end, which I tend to skip. By the time the murderer is revealed, I’ve lost interest.

Lack of interest in the murderer’s identity is a beautiful element, by the way.  If the revelation of the murderer is an anticlimax, the books become infinitely re-readable.

Why re-read them? Because children aren’t the only ones who appreciate consistency in their bedtime stories.