Sunday, December 9, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner

After the wedding I wrote about last week we went to Temecula, California to spend Thanksgiving with our new in-laws.  What a great family holiday that was, we got to meet a slew of new relatives and had a delicious meal.  After dinner we played celebrity!


Needless to say, we had to check out the local museum which was naturally about the growth of the town that was only incorporated in 1989.  Every small town touts their Native Sons and Temecula did as well.  It turned out to be one of my favorite authors from my youth, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970).



In a corner upstairs at the museum was the recreated study in Gardner’s ranch house in Temecula where he lived from 1937 until his death.  Should the name not ring a bell, he wrote all the Perry Mason mysteries which were eventually turned into radio shows and then appeared on television.  Gardner was a self-taught lawyer who started as a typist in a law firm and then passed the Bar without ever having any formal training.  After passing the Bar he joined a well-known law firm where he was a litigator, often in criminal trials.


After a while the law began to bore him, and he also wanted to make some more money, so he started writing stories for pulp magazines producing 600 in all.  In this way he honed his writing skills.  When he was teased that his good guys always being killed off the heavies with their last bullet, so they must have been very bad shots, he is said to have responded “At three cents a word, every time I say “Bang” in the story I get three cents.  If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts.”  What adds credence to that story is that in 1932, his last year of writing exclusively for the pulps, he earned $20,000, the equivalent of over $300,000 today.

Although he is now best remembered for the TV show that ran from 1957-1966, I became interested in Perry Mason on the radio.  It ran as a 15-minute continuing series from 1943 to 1955 on CBS Radio.  I must have caught on in the late 40’s.  I began reading the novels around 1953-54.  How, you might ask, can you remember that? It is actually very simple:  In 5th grade I had a French, French teacher, Monsieur Turgeon. I know he was French since aside from his accent he said to me one day…”Tomorrow is parents day and I must try not to touch all the mothers!”  Can you imagine the reaction today to what was then the way many Europeans spoke using their hands and touching.  Monsieur Turgeon was also planning his return to France and had to give up some of his home clutter.  Knowing I was interested in Perry Mason since I was already planning to grow up and become a great criminal defense lawyer (Yeh! Right!). Monsieur Turgeon gave me all his Perry Mason mysteries.  There must have been at least a dozen.  I wonder if he read them to learn the American vernacular?

Gardner wrote other mysteries as well, but it was the Mason publications that brought him fame and fortune.  In all 119 were published. For the most part dictated by Gardner and typed up by his seven secretaries.   Perry Mason went from book to radio to a long running TV series starring Raymond Burr, here portrayed on the museum’s television together with his nemesis, the homicide detective on the show, Lieutenant Arthur Tragg.  His other memorable characters were Della Street who was a compilation of three sisters among his secretaries (one of whom he married); Paul Drake, his detective whom Mason depended on for the evidence to find his clients innocent; and Hamilton Burger the inveterate prosecutor who lost almost every case to Mason.  There was not much to learn about any of Gardner’s characters background from the novels themselves and that is probably why I remember the TV characters best.


Still today the Perry Mason series ranks third in the top ten best-selling book series.  For that reason in 2015, the American Bar Association's publishing imprint, Ankerwycke, began reissuing Gardner's Perry Mason books, which had been out of print in the United States.  Or maybe they just want to inspire more young people to become lawyers after all the bad press they get!

If you wish to delve further into this subject I found, but have not yet read, “Erle Stanley Gardner : The Case of the Real Perry Mason” by Dorothy B. Hughes.

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