ERLE STANLEY GARDNER: An Appreciation

Is there any mystery fan who has not read at least one novel featuring Perry Mason, the criminal defense attorney whose clients are always innocent?  Probably not.  Erle Stanley Gardner wrote eighty books featuring Mason, along with Perry’s confidential secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake, district attorney Hamilton Burger, and police lieutenant Arthur Tragg.  The famous television series featured the same characters and ran from 1966 through 1957, staring Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, William Talman, and Ray Collins, respectively.

Gardner was a self-taught lawyer, a student who attended one month of law school in Indiana before moving to California where he passed that state’s bar exam.  He began writing for the pulps in the 1920s; pulps were magazines called after the type of cheap paper on which they were printed.  Many well-known authors in the 1920s and 1930s got their starts in these magazines, Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man) and John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee novels) among them.

In 1933, Gardner published his first Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws.  It was an immediate success, and Gardner began writing full time.  In each of the Perry Mason books, a client comes to the lawyer, willingly or unwillingly, with a story that seems totally unbelievable.  Many of the novels deal with gorgeous women and multiple guns, and Perry is initially lied to by nearly all his clients.  The evidence against every client is so strong that the arrogant district attorney, Hamilton Burger, always strides into court with a pitying look at Perry, knowing that this time the famed defense lawyer cannot win.  But, of course, he does.

Gardner also wrote under various pen names, most famously using A. A. Fair for the Bertha Lam/Donald Cool series.  In addition, Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1948 to investigate cases where he believed the wrong person had been convicted.

There is a delightful piece on YouTube with Gardner appearing as the mystery guest on TV’s “What’s My Line”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJuJZ6KPPBg.  Gardner comes across as charming, down-to-earth, and with a good sense of humor.

As a tribute to Gardner, a middle school in his adopted home town of Temecula, California is named after him.

In today’s world of mysteries with its demented characters and horrifying torture scenes, the Perry Mason series may seem a bit dated.   Most of the crimes in these novels are related to greed or revenge, good old-fashioned motives.  But, in fact, those motives never go out of style, as one knows from reading today’s newspapers.

Erle Stanley Gardner definitely made a place for himself as a writer of detective fiction.  He deserves to be on anyone’s list of masters of the genre.

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