Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Innocent Black

"There is, perhaps, nothing of which the layman is so grossly ignorant as of the law. He has grown to depend upon what he is pleased to call common sense. Indeed his refrain, "The law is common sense," has at times been echoed by the judiciary. There was never a graver error. The common sense of the common man is at best a poor guide to the criminal law. It is no guide at all to the civil law"
"The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason"

The blog's been rather legal-mystery-themed lately, now I think about it... 

Randolph Mason is an attorney who recently returned from France to the United States. He used to be a famous, and feared man in the courtroom, but few of his peers remember him after his long stay overseas. Yet, certain kinds of people still finds his way into the offices of Mason. Desperate people. People who are backed up to the wall by Fate herself. Mason offers a way out for these people. A legal way out. Thanks to his enormous knowledge of US law, Randolph Mason can get anyone out of any problem, as long as they have no moral objections to his plans, for while he can always get you past your problems in a legally innocent way, said actions are seldom innocent in the eyes of the public. In Melville Davisson Post’s The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896), we see seven of these schemes.

I first learned of the Randolph Mason series in a column written by Takumi Shuu, creator of the Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) videogame series, who mentioned Mason as one of his childhood heroes. In the Ace Attorney games, you play as a defense attorney who manages to turn desperate situations in the courtroom around and win a Not Guilty verdict. And the Randolph Mason series… I guess it’s also about a defense attorney who manages to turn desperate situations in the courtroom around and win a Not Guilty verdict. The big difference however is that Mason and his clients are morally guilty. In fact, all the stories in this short story collection are about perfect crimes planned by Mason himself for his clients, which can never get them in any legal problem.

I have seen and read my share of courtroom dramas, and of course seen ‘evil’ defense attorneys and prosecutors in those stories, but I think this is the first time I’ve read one where the protagonist is actually the criminal. In a moral way. Mason has plans for all kinds of problems. You need to raise some money quick? Mason has a foolproof plan to cheat the money out of others, which is perfectly fine according to the fine print in legislation. Need to kill someone? Mason teaches you how to do it so the cops and prosecution have no leg to stand on in court. The mystery in each story in this collection is about how Mason and his client are going to get away with their crime in a legal way, because to the eye of the public, they are obviously guilty in any sense of the word.  Oh, and one of the reasons why I decided not to do short write-ups on all seven stories is because you really want to start with each story without any idea of what’s coming. Also: I’m bad at summarizing, so I’m afraid I’d give the whole game away.

While a lot of the courtroom dramas I’ve seen are usually “just” entertainment, without any strong ideas about the legal system itself, it is clear that Melville Davisson Post wrote these stories to show how absurd US law could be. Each story is accompanied by an excerpt of the law that applies to the story in question, and while I don’t know whether those laws still hold nowadays in those states, it appears Post thought them quite ridiculous back in the day, and showed that with his hypothetical case studies in this book. I think people interested in old legal history might find this book also interesting, though I can guarantee you this is very readable as just a piece of mystery fiction.

What is interesting is that neither Mason nor his clients are never really portrayed as sympathetic people. Mason is just someone who wants to challenge Fate, and has no problems with coming up with plans for murder. The motives of his clients to commit the crimes are also often not very sympathetic (“I committed a crime! Now I need to commit another crime to hide my first crime!”) and that’s err, pretty original in courtroom mystery dramas.

I had fun with The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason though. I think I’d describe as it as an upside-down Ace Attorney. It’s a mystery story where an attorney manages to pull of some legal miracles. Only this time, the attorney and his client are actually guilty in a moral sense, and only innocent in the eyes of the law. Recommended reading for people interested in an amusing take on the courtroom mystery drama.


  1. are you sure Takumi wasn't talking about Perry Mason instead ? :p

    1. The first time I read that column, I honestly thought Takumi had simply remembered the name incorrectly, so you can guess how surprised I was when I found out that besides Perry, there was indeed another attorney called Mason in crime fiction, with the name Randolph.

  2. While Post is a relatively well-known mystery writer from the early period of the genre, I never heard or read about this character of his. Or at least, I don't recall any references to Randolph Mason.

    Admittedly, I'm not a fan of Post and really hated his most famous short story, "The Doomsdorf Mystery," but this collection sounds really interesting. And I see you tagged it as an "Impossible Situation." So there's that.

    1. The tag is used here in the meaning of an 'Oh man, they're so obviously guilty, how ever are they going to get out of that' impossibility, not as in a conventional impossible crime, mind you.

      The book is easily available thanks to dear Mr. Gutenberg.

  3. There are three volumes of Randolph Mason stories:
    1. The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896)
    2. The Man of Last Resort (1897)
    3. The Corrector of Destinies (1908)

    All of them are first rate. I would find it to be almost impossible that Gardner did not have Randolph in mind when creating Perry. I also highly recommend the Uncle Abner stories. I found all of them to be of very high quality. The Abner stories can be very dramatic in addition to being surprising.

    All the Post stories I have read display that endless fertility of imagination that was common in Western detective fiction until the 1970s. There is as much story in one of his short stories as modern writers would use for one of their 400 page tomes.

    The volume to get of the Mason stories is The Legal Exploits of Randolph Mason from Coachwhip Publications; it has all three Randolph Mason books in one handy and inexpensive volume.

    1. Thanks for pointing me to The Legal Exploits; I didn't know there was a single volume with all the books!

  4. Have you seen Zootopia ?

    1. Funny, another Anonymous asked me the same question some months back here. Yes, and I really enjoyed it.