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The Man Behind Perry Mason: Erle Stanley Gardner

How His Real Life Informed His Writing

By William Shelton • February 02, 2021

In the age before the television series Law & Order, in all its various iterations, there was a literary way to binge on courtroom drama.

Starting in 1923 a young attorney, who was suspended from Law school for boxing, and found the actual practice of law mundane and boring, began typing out with two fingers hair raising legal yarns involving the most salacious of crimes. Clients who lived in the grey area between right and wrong, plot twists that would have made Agatha Christie look amateur at best, sexual situations that shocked the mores of the day, all combined to make novels that simply could not be put down. Behind it all was an author who was more courageous and did more to defend the rights of the downtrodden than his literary creation, Perry Mason, the incomparable Erle Stanley Gardner.

Erle Stanley Gardner, when asked why his novels were so rich with detail and delved so deeply into the nuances and intricacies of the legal profession, always answered that he was paid 3 cents per word, and that writing about attorneys was the best way to ensure maximum word use. However, this was no armchair dreamer, penning novels to enliven empty hours between clients.

Early in his legal career, Gardner decided that he would focus his efforts on defending the poor, especially Chinese and Mexican migrant workers who were hindered in their understanding of the complex California legal codes by the language barrier, and in many cases, the lack of funds to retain an attorney. Since his clients were often destitute, he financed his legal practice through writing for pulp magazines, and later books. Like many crime writers, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote under various pen names, and created a host of sleuths, both defenders of the law, and scofflaws, to better illustrate that each legal situation is open to many interpretations.

More so than any of his published work, Gardner was most proud of his founding of The Court of Last Resort, an organization dedicated to defending clients who were imprisoned unfairly. Through this organization Erle Stanley Gardner employed former police officers, private detectives, and other professional experts to examine the cases of convicts whose appeals were exhausted, yet who maintained their innocence.

He wrote a monthly column that appeared in various newspapers, and magazines, that shared the details of the cases they were investigating and covered some of these cases in the book The Court of Last Resort. This publicity stirred public interest and developed into a television program of the same name, wherein the background of each crime, the police investigation, and the courtroom prosecution of the defendant was dramatized. Sound familiar? The Court of Last Resort series ran from 1957 until 1960 and was subsequently overshadowed by the Perry Mason television series.

Gardner died a few years before my birth, but like most kids of the late 1970s I grew up watching afternoon reruns of Perry Mason. At that age the episodes were mostly nap inducing. However, when I entered law school and began working for older attorneys I discovered that Erle Stanley Gardner novels were the secret indulgence of the profession. Like bottles of bourbon or scotch, there usually was a Perry Mason novel furtively tucked into a desk drawer, to be pulled out and relished in rare moments of refreshment from labor.

When I joined the ThriftBooks team and had access to rare examples of Erle Stanley Gardner books, long out of print, I began reading them on business flights, and inevitably would be asked by another passenger if they could have the book when I was finished reading it. Though he has been dead for fifty years, Erle Stanley Gardner's blending of nail-biting drama, legal intrigue, and seedier examples of human behavior, can hold its own in an age of crime dramas, and reality tv.

Our Collectibles team spent concerted time listing Erle Stanley Gardner titles, considering this piece, to help identify and introduce numerous options of both mass-market paperback and hardcovers editions. You can browse all of our Collectible Erle Stanley Gardner titles here.

Gardner's Perry Mason and the Cool and Lam (written as A.A. Fair) series are always welcome inventory and we continually update our listings, so if the specific title you are hoping for is not available now, there is always a great chance it may be found over time and we will always be on the lookout. Thank you and we hope you enjoy!

Staff favorites includes from the Perry Mason series:

From the Cool and Lam series, written under the name A. A. Fair:

Read more by William Shelton

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