Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”
Almost three years have passed since Matthew Rhys first took on the role of author Erle Stanley Gardner’s intrepid defense attorney, initially presented in the new series not as the lawyer we came to know and love either in Gardner’s novels or, for those of us of a certain age, in the original telecast or reruns of the Raymond Burr TV show of the 1950s and 1960s, but as an alluringly grimy seen-it-all-and-then-some private detective in Depression-era Los Angeles.
One of the show’s attractions is that it looks like a million bucks — in 1930s dollars, not the inflated stuff we pass around today — and viewers can revel in the obvious care that has gone into time-traveling them back to a persuasive past. The attention to historical detail is perhaps not quite so seamless when it comes to the dialogue, though, with the odd bump resulting either from overzealous research or anachronistic inattention.
Admittedly, I’m especially attuned to the rightness of period dialogue as a consequence of my copy-editorial day job: One thing I try to help authors of historical fiction keep an eye on, if they’re so inclined, is the authenticity of their vocabulary.
That’s how I learned, working on a novel set during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863, that in the mid-19th century, a hangover was a katzenjammer (from the German, meaning a cat’s distress, which is painfully apt). And how I learned, working on a novel set in 16th-century Europe, that it’s not such a hot idea to call a Renaissance-era independent-minded iconoclast a maverick, not when Samuel Maverick, the Texas politician and land owner from whom the term derives, wouldn’t even be born till 1803. Nor, in a thriller set in pre-World War II Manhattan, to refer to a woman’s too-too color-coordinated ensemble as “matchy-matchy,” decades before the term came into vogue (or Vogue).
Occasionally the “Perry Mason” writers wear their research a little heavily on their sleeves, which is how I now know that telling someone to “take it on the arches” means ordering them to leave. When I found out that “you shred it, wheat” was genuine 1930s slang meaning “you said it, buddy,” I almost dropped my cereal spoon. I had to roll back over that latter bit of dialogue twice to be sure I’d heard it correctly, turn on the closed captioning to be really sure I’d heard it correctly, and then take a Google moment to fully internalize the whole thing. File this, I’d say, under Too Clever by Half.
Occasional slipups gnarl at the ear as well. So far I’ve taken note of two instances of people “sussing” things out, even though sussing — seeking information, that is — is not only a largely British term but also didn’t show up even on the other side of the big water till the mid-1960s. I paused as well over a reference to a victim as a “vic,” which struck me as terribly “Law & Order” and which I’ve learned, thanks to the invaluable “Green’s Dictionary of Slang,” wasn’t used thus until the late 1960s. But Green’s assures me that calling a perpetrator in the 1930s a “perp,” traceable back to 1889, is hunky-dory (mid-1860s) or even copacetic (1919ish).
On the other hand, I was happily hoist by my own obsessive petard by a passing reference to a “dirty martini.” I was barely halfway through tutting “oh, come now” when I learned that dirty martinis have been with us for well over a century — even if I can’t quite pin down when they were first called that. It’s a reminder that things people say don’t necessarily find their way immediately into print. As for the liberal use in “Perry Mason” of what lyricist Lorenz Hart dubbed “words that do not come from children’s books,” particularly the one that starts with the same letter as fanfare and fandango: It may not have been socially appropriate back in the day, but a Depression-era fly on the wall would be needed, I suppose, to be sure of how extensively it was used in private conversation.
But these concerns just reflect my particular occupational hazard — what my parents might have bemusedly referred to as my mishegoss — as others of my acquaintance watch period dramas and keep their eyes peeled for the wrong cars, the wrong lightbulbs, the wrong hemlines, even the wrong postmarks and newspaper typefaces.
What can I tell you? We all have something. And, I promise you, I come to praise Perry, not to bury Perry, and this coming Monday night I know I’ll be thrilled and rapt once again to escape the realities of 2023 — as who wouldn’t be? — for the sights and almost invariably on-point sounds of the seamy, hard-boiled, California-golden past.