Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970) became one of the most successful mystery writers of all time. Most of his reputation stems from Perry Mason and other memorable characters that he created. Gardner's best novels offer abundant evidence of his natural storytelling talent.
Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts on July 17, 1889. He spent much of his childhood traveling with his mining-engineer father through the remote regions of California, Oregon, and the Klondike. In his teens he not only boxed for money, but also promoted a number of unlicensed matches. Gardner attended high school in California and graduated from Palo Alto High School 1909. He enrolled at Valparaiso University in Indiana that same year but was soon expelled for striking a professor.
In the practice of law Gardner found the form of combat he seemed born to master. He was admitted to the California bar in 1911 and opened an office in Oxnard, where he practiced law until 1918. As a lawyer he represented the Chinese community and gained a reputation for flamboyant trial tactics. In one case, for instance, he had dozens of Chinese merchants exchange identities so that he could discredit a policeman's identification of a client. Gardner worked as a salesman for the Consolidated Sales Company from 1918 until 1921. He then resumed his legal career in Ventura, California from 1921 until 1933.
In the early 1920s Gardner began to write western and mystery stories for magazines, often under the pseudonyms of A.A. Fair, Carleton Kendrake, and Charles J. Kenny. Eventually he was turning out and selling the equivalent of a short novel every three nights while still practicing law during the business day. With the sale of his first novel in 1933 he gave up the practice of law and devoted himself to full-time writing, or more precisely to dictating. Thanks to the popularity of his series characters—lawyer-detective Perry Mason, his loyal secretary Della Street, his private detective Paul Drake, and the foxy trio of Sergeant Holcomb, Lieutenant Tragg, and District Attorney Hamilton Burger—Gardner became one of the wealthiest mystery writers of all time.
The 82 Mason adventures from The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933) to the posthumously published The Case of the Postponed Murder (1973) contain few of the literary graces. Characterization and description are perfunctory and often reduced to a few lines that are repeated in similar situations book after book. Indeed virtually every word not within quotation marks could be deleted and little would be lost. For what vivifies these novels is the sheer readability, the breakneck pacing, the convoluted plots, the fireworks displays of courtroom tactics (many based on gimmicks Gardner used in his own law practice), and the dialogue, where each line is a jab in a complex form of oral combat.
Perry Mason Novels
The first nine Masons are steeped in the hard-boiled tradition of Black Mask magazine, their taut understated realism leavened with raw wit, sentimentality, and a positive zest for the dog-eat-dog milieu of the free enterprise system during its worst depression. The Mason of these novels is a tiger in the social-Darwinian jungle, totally self-reliant, asking no favors, despising the weaklings who want society to care for them, willing to take any risk for a client no matter how unfairly the client plays the game with him. Asked what he does for a living, he replies: "I fight!" or "I am a paid gladiator." He will bribe policemen for information, loosen a hostile witness's tongue by pretending to frame him for murder, twist the evidence to get a guilty client acquitted and manipulate estate funds to prevent a guilty non-client from obtaining money for his defense. Besides Velvet Claws, perhaps the best early Mason novels are The Case of the Howling Dog and The Case of the Curious Bride (both 1934).
From the late 1930s to the late 1950s the main influence on Gardner was not Black Mask but the Saturday Evening Post, which serialized most of the Masons before book publication. In these novels the tough-guy notes are muted, "love interest" plays a stronger role, and Mason is less willing to play fast and loose with the law. Still the oral combat remains breathlessly exciting, the pace never slackens and the plots are as labyrinthine as before, most of them centering on various sharp-witted and greedy people battling over control of capital. Mason, of course, is Gardner's alter ego throughout the series. In several novels of the second period, however, another author-surrogate arrives on the scene in the person of a philosophical old desert rat or prospector who delights in living alone in the wilderness, discrediting by his example the greed of the urban wealth-and power-hunters. Among the best cases of this period are Lazy Lover; Hesitant Hostess which deals with Mason's breaking down a single prosecution witness; and Lucky Loser and Foot-Loose Doll with their spectacularly complex plots.
Gardner worked without credit as script supervisor for the long-running Perry Mason television series (1957-66), starring Raymond Burr. Within a few years television's restrictive influence had infiltrated the new Mason novels. The lawyer evolved into a ponderous bureaucrat mindful of the law's niceties, just as Burr played him, and the plots became chaotic and the courtroom sequences mediocre, as happened all too often in the television scripts. But by the mid 1960s the libertarian decisions of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warran had already undermined a basic premise of the Mason novels, namely that defendants menaced by the sneaky tactics of police and prosecutors needed a pyrotechnician like Mason in their corner. Once the Court ruled that such tactics required reversal of convictions gained thereby, Mason had lost his raison d'etre.
Several other detective series sprang from Gardner's dictating machine during his peak years. The 29 novels he wrote under the byline of A. A. Fair about diminutive private eye Donald Lam and his huge irascible partner Bertha Cool are often preferred over the Masons because of their fusion of corkscrew plots with fresh writing, characterizations, and humor, the high spots of the series being The Bigger They Come and Beware the Curves. And in his nine books about small-town district attorney Doug Selby, Gardner reversed the polarities of the Mason series, making the prosecutor his hero and the defense lawyer the oft-confounded trickster. But most of Gardner's reputation stems from Perry Mason, and his best novels in both this and other series offer abundant evidence of his natural storytelling talent, which is likely to retain its appeal as long as people read at all.
Gardner was married in 1912 to Natalie Talbert. The couple had one daughter and separated in 1935. Gardner married his second wife, Agnes Jean Bethell, in 1968. He died on March 11, 1970 in Temecula, California.
Hughes, Dorothy B. Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason, Morrow, 1978.
Johnston, Alva. The Case of Erle Stanley Gardner, Morrow, 1947.
Van Dover, J. Kenneth. Murder in the Millions: Erle Stanley Gardner, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Ungar, 1984.