Erle Stanley Gardner Writer of Perry Mason Mystery Stories Formula Story
Erle Stanley Gardner
Perry Mason Book and Radio
The creator of Perry Mason was a trial lawyer, hard-boiled pulp fiction writer, natural story teller and possibly the most prolific and successful writer of crime fiction in America.
Mystery writer Max Allan Collins places Gardner among hard boiled writers he much admires. He said that Gardner has “huge success but scant respect.”
Perry Mason had been portrayed in magazines, books and movies before I ever heard of him or his creator.
I was in college in the 1950’s when the enormously popular “Perry Mason” series was on television along with articles in mainstream magazines, a well as the stories being now published in such magazines. At the time, I was a mystery fan with hopes of being a mystery writer myself. Needless to say, I became a Perry Mason fan.
Born in Malden, Massachusetts July 17, 1889 his early life was spent traveling with his father to remote regions of California, Oregon and the Klondike.
In High School he took up boxing but later found that law was the only form of combat he thrived on. He practiced law until 1918. For awhile he went to the Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana, but later studied law on his own. In those days the practice of “reading law” which was usually done under the guidance of a practicing lawyer was still common.
After awhile he started writing mysteries and submitting them to pulp publications. They were called pulps because they were published on cheap paper known as pulp paper.
The television version of “Perry Mason” which was and still is my image of Mason (and just about everyone else’s) was a rather cleaned up image.. The Mason of the books, radio and movies was a more hardboiled character and was not adverse to skirting the law if it suited his purpose.
One article I read suggested that Mason was somewhat modeled after himself in the flamboyant courtroom tactics he used. Television and Raymond Burr gave Perry Mason a face. The author did not use a lot of description in the books, so the TV Mason became what audiences remember. Even in later Mason stories he started to look like the TV version.
Gardner sold his first novel in 1933 and gave up his law practice to be a full time writer. He dictated his stories to a secretary and worked eight hours a day writing. He became one of the wealthiest mystery writers of all time. He wrote 82 Mason adventures The Case of the Postponed Murder was his last and published in 1973 after his death.
The Mason of the first nine novels is very much in the hard-boiled tradition of Black Mask magazine, which was a major pulp fiction magazine at the time. They have a taught understated realism with raw wit, sentimentality and real feel for the Darwinian battle of survival in a depression dominated time. Mason in these novels is totally self reliant, willing to take extreme risks for his clients. He describes himself as a gladiator, much as Chandler’s Phillip Marlow describes himself as a “tarnished knight.”
The Saturday Evening Post serialized most of the Mason stories before they were published in book form the late 1930’s to the late 1950’s. In these stories there was less of the tough PI image and more “love interest” and the hero does not play as fast and loose with the law. The oral combat ,however, does not lose its edge, the pace remains fast and the plots are as complex as ever. According to book rags.com Mason is the author’s alter ego throughout.
Mason was in several movies of the 1930’s and 40’s and a radio program from 1943 to 1955. A second TV series in the 1980’s and early 1990’s with much of the same cast as the original series. Several radio shows were imitations of Mason.
In addition to the Mason series Gardner wrote 29 novels under the name of A.A. Fair about PI Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. These stories had more humor than the Mason series and some prefer them to the Masons.. Other pseudonyms he wrote under are: Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charkas J. Kenny Les Tillray and Robert Parr. In addition to his fiction he also wrote articles on travel, Western history and forensic science.
“The Court of Last Resort” absorbed thousand of hours or his time. With friends in forensics, legal and investigative communities the project sought to review and try to reverse miscarriages of justice. A book was published in 1952 and earned Gardner his one Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime category. I was only aware of this project through a television show based on it.
He married Natalie Frances Talbert in 1912 and had a daughter, Grace. In 1937 He moved to Temecula, California where he spent the rest of his life. In 1968 he married his secretary Agnes Jean Bethall upon whom the character of Della Street, Masons secretary, was based.
Gardner died March 11, 1970 in Temecula, California.