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Erle Stanley Gardner--Beyond Mason


Most folks have seen or read at least one Perry Mason adventure, but author Erle Stanley Gardner had a lot of other arrows in his quiver.

A brawler and boxer in his youth, he was supposedly booted out of Valparaiso University in Indiana for slugging a professor. To be fair, it is also said that it was his all-consuming interest in pugilism that interfered with his studies to the point where he was dismissed from the school.

He gained a modicum of legal experience while working as a typist in a California law office and eventually passed the bar in 1911 with only a soupcon of formal legal training, and started his own practice.  Gardner garnered popularity among Mexican and Chinese communities for treating people with respect, which is reflected in his writing, as his ethnic characters are somewhat less stereotyped than most were at the time.

He left the law for a short while and became a tire salesman (!) but missed being a legal eagle and hooked up with another California law firm.

Along about this time he started to write with an ironclad regimen of four thousand words per night.  He finally sold his first story to Black Mask and that opened the floodgates to dozens more. Six of them featured attorney Ken Corning who, in hindsight, acted as a precursor to Mason.

Gardner created at least three dozen different characters for the pulps, and not just the pulps, for his work also appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan among many others. There are collections available of some of his pulp work, see below.

In 1933 the author branched out into novels with the release of The Case of the Velvet Claws, which introduced the world to a certain lawyer. In the early stories, Mason was somewhat unscrupulous, not above bending (or breaking) the law, and was much more hard-boiled than he would later be. Gardner softened the character somewhat, ostensibly to make him more palatable to the editors of the Saturday Evening Post, to which he was eager to be a regular contributor. Which he became, as some of the Mason adventures were serialized not only in the Post, but in Collier’s and Liberty magazines also.  

But for a fun read outside of the courtroom, why not try some of the DA books?  The first, The DA Calls It Murder (1937), sets the tone for the nine-book series when Doug Selby is elected the district attorney of a small California town, with the support of one of the town’s newspapers and the unyielding opposition of the other.  The DA wastes no time in his new position, diving right into an investigation of a murdered clergyman.

And for real fun characters, don’t fail to investigate Bertha Cool & Donald Lam. A comically mismatched pair, Bertha is an extra large widow with an extra large mouth and a world champion tightwad to boot.  Also corrupt, dishonest, and greedy.  And those are her good qualities!  Donald is a shrimpy lawyer who has absolutely no scruples about bending, twisting, evading, subverting and sometimes ignoring the law.  The twenty-nine Cool & Lam novels written by Gardner feature some of the author’s best writing, and might have reached Mason-esque heights of popularity had the 1958 pilot film sold and a television series created.  After all, look what ten years of network exposure did for Perry, Della, Paul, Hamilton, and Tragg!

Pre-Mason tales originally published in Black Mask magazine.


Not enough pulp for you?  Well, here's a hefty dose of hard-boiled action, with some of crime fiction's best known authors, as well as some you might not know.

Ok, so I couldn't resist putting the first Perry Mason adventure here.  So sue me.

Questions/Comments/last-minute confessions?

Written by Ian Kern — August 25, 2016

Specializing in Mystery Fiction and all its subgenres, including Detective, Crime, Hardboiled, Thrillers, Espionage, and Suspense.

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