Few episodes depict such a multi-faceted view of Perry Mason and Hamilton Burger’s relationship as does The Sun-Bather’s Diary, from season 1. So far, the only one I’ve found that can begin to compare is The Curious Bride, from season 2. Both episodes run the full gamut, with Mr. Burger frustrated to no end over Perry’s antics while showing both lawyers extending friendlier feelings towards each other.
The Sun-Bather’s Diary is the infamous “window blind” episode, in which Perry gets himself in hot water by concealing in said blind suspicious money sent to him. Unfortunately for him, someone else was in the house after him and also used the blind, for more nefarious purposes. The police, staking out the house, mistake the fleeing suspect as Perry.
Mr. Burger is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. (Quoth Perry: “Burger is out to get me.”) While it certainly looks bad for Perry, and there seems to be no doubt that he was the one at the window, Mr. Burger declares that he doesn’t want to think the worst, that Perry was actually signaling an accomplice to come commit murder in the house. He does, however, believe that Perry is perjuring himself on the witness stand and charges him likewise.
One thing I highly admire about Mr. Burger is that, in spite of his aggravation over Perry’s “legal tightrope walking”, and his desire to catch Perry on such charges, he doesn’t let those feelings get in the way of the bigger picture. Time and again he puts aside his frustrations and rescinds his objections when it looks like Perry is on to something. If he were outright hateful towards Perry (which this version of the character is not), it would have been so easy to pursue the angle that Perry was an accessory to murder far more than he did. But that was not what happened; Mr. Burger just wanted to get at the truth, whatever the truth happened to be. I believe he was sincere when he said he did not want to think that Perry could be guilty of so gross a crime.
Perry has been shown to have the greatest respect for Mr. Burger and his work. But he is understandably discouraged and frustrated by the events of this episode, as is shown by his more cool and clipped behavior when talking with Mr. Burger in court. The infamous and amusing epilogue also depicts this, albeit in a different manner.
The Sun-Bather’s Diary is not the first episode in which the lawyers call each other by their first names; they had a fairly congenial scene in Mr. Burger’s office during The Crooked Candle (in complete contrast to a colder scene, on Mr. Burger’s part, in the episode before that—The Run-Away Corpse). It’s also not the first episode in which they dine together, as, on Mr. Burger’s invitation, Perry joins him and Lieutenant Tragg for lunch in The Crimson Kiss. However, that lunch had an ulterior motive.
The epilogue of The Sun-Bather’s Diary is much different and far more intriguing. It opens with Perry and Della having lunch at a restaurant. Soon a friendly Mr. Burger comes in and slides in at their booth to talk with Perry. He is not apparently expected, but Perry and Della accept and welcome him.
Mr. Burger tells Perry that all charges of perjury have been dropped (as Perry has been shown to have told the truth). Perry is gratified and offers to buy him lunch. Mr. Burger accepts, and Perry stops the waitress. With eyes twinkling in mischief he says, “One order of crow for the gentleman.” Poor Mr. Burger. His expression of shock is classic. Perry adds, “He’ll eat it here,” and chuckles good-naturedly. One last dig at what he was put through during the episode.
Aired as episode #17, this may have been one of the audience’s first glimpses at how different this Mr. Burger was going to be in comparison to the original book character. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to comprehend the one-dimensional and bitter prosecutor that Erle Stanley Gardner created ever coming to Perry so congenial. Not to mention just looking so shocked in response to the teasing, rather than growing outraged and furious.
The teasing in itself is also a surprise. I’ll confess to not being aware of whether Perry teases Mr. Burger in the books, but I would rather doubt it. The few times teasing has come up on the show, it seems to actually be an indication of how close the two are in spite of their clashes in court. When Perry gets in a good-natured rib during the season 3 episode The Prudent Prosecutor, Mr. Burger recognizes it for what it is and it puts him at ease, whereas prior to that he was quite nervous and awkward about asking Perry to defend his friend in court. (This episode will get its own post later, as it should be discussed in more detail.)
By season 6, Mr. Burger feels relaxed enough to tease Perry at least once, in The Shoplifter’s Shoe. (Actually, he seems quite relaxed in season 6 in general, if his calmer attitude in court is any indication.) After they have utilized some wonderful teamwork to trap the guilty party together, Mr. Burger looks to Perry and says that maybe, just once, he was wrong. “On this case,” he adds quickly. He has a mischievous smile/smirk as they turn to go. Perry seems amused as well. I find it difficult to picture this ever happening during season 1, when Mr. Burger was far more uptight for the most part!
Anyone in doubt that there was character development throughout the series has only to look at the evolving dynamic between Perry and Mr. Burger as the seasons went on. They never ceased to be professional rivals, but they developed and cultivated a very unique friendship at the same time. It’s the very facts that their rivalry continued and Mr. Burger still became frustrated at times that add to the intrigue of this friendship existing. When did it begin? That is unknown; the series never shows us their first encounters, and the books, while giving us that, definitely had no such element as a friendship.
All I know for an absolute certainty is that the seeds of that friendship were present as early as season 1, and The Sun-Bather’s Diary, for all of its intense conflict, does a great deal in furthering that.