Gardner, who took his first gasping breath in Massachusetts but moved west with his family when he was just 10 years old, was born on this date back in 1889. For most of his life, he would identify himself as a Californian. After just a month’s stint in 1909 at Indiana’s Valparaiso University School of Law (he was suspended for boxing in the dormitory), Gardner returned to California and taught himself to be an attorney. In 1911, he passed the state bar exam and soon joined a firm in Oxnard, north of L.A. Easily bored with the routines of practicing law (he was excited only by trial work), Gardner moonlighted between cases as a hard-boiled writer, contributing stories to Black Mask and other “pulp magazines” of the 1920s and ’30s, and creating dozens of characters. As Kevin Burton Smith explains at his Thrilling Detective Web Site,
In his pulp days, Gardner was notorious for killing off the final heavies with the last bullet in the hero’s gun, which led to some editors teasing him about how all his good guys seemed to be such bad shots. Gardner’s alleged explanation? “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.”Perry Mason never made an appearance in the pages of Black Mask, but a rather similar Gardner-created attorney did: Ken Corning, who, according to Thrilling Detective, was “a slick, crusading lawyer ... who fought against injustice in a corrupt city.” While followers of Gardner’s early stories thought he might be remembered best for his creation, under the pseudonym “A.A. Fair,” of a private eye duo, Bertha Cool and Donald Lam (who star in the 2004 Hard Case Crime reissue, Top of the Heap), it was Mason who captured the reading public’s attention and held it mostly strongly. It didn’t take long before Gardner gave up legal practice in favor of novel-writing.
The noted English crime novelist H.R.F. Keating, who included Mason’s second adventure, The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933), in his perforce discriminating volume, Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987), has opined that Gardner wasn’t a great stylist, but he made one crucial decision about the Mason tales: that the reader should always be able to outguess his protagonist. The trick was to see Mason add credibility and concreteness to conjecture.
“Usually in the beginning of a story,” explains the Web literary database Books & Writers, “a client enters Mason’s office: ‘A man came into the room who radiated restlessness. He was a thin man, with a very pointed nose and large ears. He walked with nervous, jerky steps. He was in his late twenties or early thirties.’ (from The Case of the Sulky Girl) Mason of course gets more attention in the story--he ‘gave the impression of bigness; not the bigness of fat, but the bigness of strength. He was broad-shouldered and rugged-faced, and his eyes were steady and patient. Frequently those eyes changed expression, but the face never changed its expression of rugged patience.’” Nonetheless, Mason wasn’t a two-fisted bulldog, like so many of the heroes of early hard-boiled fiction. “The character I am trying to create for him,” Gardner told his publisher, “is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience.”
Transferring Perry Mason from printed page to silver screen was a lightning-fast process. Just a year after The Case of the Velvet Claws reached bookstores, the first Mason picture--The Case of the Howling Dog--started showing in theaters. Five more movies would be made over the next four years, most of them starring Warren William (who’d previously played S.S. Van Dine’s detective, Philo Vance.) But it wasn’t until the Eisenhower era that Perry made it to the small screen. Interestingly, Raymond Burr was not the original choice to play Gardner’s investigating-attorney: versatile film actor Fred MacMurray was offered the job first, but turned it down. (He’d later take top billing in My Three Sons). The Canadian-born Burr, who had starred with Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and the 1956 U.S. adaptation of that Japanese monster classic, Godzilla, was allowed to audition for the Mason part--but only if he also read for the role of L.A. district attorney Hamilton Burger. According to Wikipedia, “Erle Stanley Gardner happened to be sitting in on the auditions that day and excitedly shouted, ‘That’s Perry Mason’ upon seeing Burr. Gardner later made a cameo as a judge in the last episode of the original series.”
Burr would go on to film almost all of the 271 episodes that were made over nine years, with the exception of several that had to be shot while he was recovering from surgery in 1963. (Bette Davis and Hugh O’Brian were brought in to pitch-hit for him.) A 1973 revival of the show, The New Perry Mason, starring actor Monte Markham as the legendary trial attorney, debuted to great fanfare, but was canceled 15 episodes and numerous catcalls later. Then, nearly two decades after the original show went off the air, and following the run of his second successful series, Ironside (1967-1975), Burr--now sporting more weight and a full beard--returned to the courtroom to shoot 26 Mason teleflicks, beginning with 1985’s Perry Mason Returns. His death in 1993 obviously ended his involvement, but a quartet of “Perry Mason Mystery Movies,” with other actors “subbing” for Perry, were broadcast over the next couple of years.
In other words, the on-screen Mason outlasted his creator by almost a quarter of a century. Erle Stanley Gardner died of cancer in 1970 at his home in Temecula, California, southeast of Los Angeles, and his cremated remains were apparently scattered across “his beloved Baja Peninsula,” Mexico. The posthumously published Case of the Postponed Murder (1973) was Gardner’s final Perry Mason outing, although a pair of new books featuring the character, The Case of the Burning Bequest and The Case of Too Many Murders, were penned by Thomas Chastain and published in 1990.
Nowadays, there are probably few people in the English-speaking world who don’t recognize the name “Perry Mason.” There is no more famous defense attorney in fiction. It seems likely, as publisher Hobson promised so long ago, that we will “meet him again” in some other incarnation, some other time. And yet, in one respect Gardner failed to accomplish the job he’d set out to do. A remarkable Web site called The Perry Mason TV Show Book, put together by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill, recalls that the California novelist “always believed that lawyers in general were treated unfairly.
In an article in TV Guide dealing with the state of television, he wrote that there were “two classes of persons who automatically enjoy poor public relations: the attorney at law and the mother in law.” In many ways, the Perry Mason character let the lawyers, at least, fight back. “Perry Mason represents a member of the legal profession who is fighting for human rights and liberties,” he wrote in the same article. “I am hoping that people who see him [on TV] will learn to appreciate the importance of the law and the necessity for fearless, intelligent lawyers who are, above all, primarily loyal to their clients.”Mason himself has earned the public’s respect. But more than 70 years after Gardner’s man tackled his first case, lawyers--along with politicians, reporters, and in some quarters, Catholic priests--continue to be looked upon with suspicion. Reforming his profession’s reputation may be one rare case Perry Mason can’t win.
READ MORE: “Erle Stanley Gardner Update,” by Bill Crider (Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine); “Review: The Case of the Terrified Typist,” by Steve Lewis (Mystery*File); “Review: The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges).