ERLE STANLEYGARDNER (1889-1970)
Although Erie Stanley Gardner didn't turn to writing until he reached the relatively ripe age of thirty-four, when he died at age eighty-one on his California ranch, 141 of his books were in print and 5 more were awaiting publication. By 1986, a staggering 319 million copies of his books had been sold in thirty-seven languages, making him one of the most popular writers of fiction ever. The Mystery Writers of America made it official by declaring him a Grand Master in 1962.
Gardner was born in Maiden, Massachusetts, the son of an engineer whose work moved him to Oregon and then California-a state that the boy loved and the man used as the base of his fiction. As a youth, he boxed professionally and promoted boxing bouts and, reputedly, was expelled from college for slugging a professor. He educated himself by reading law books and helping an attorney, passed the bar exam at twenty-one, and established a reputation as a canny defence attorney. He learned the writing trade in the same way-reading and studying the work of others in the field.
Gardner had been writing prolifically for ten years before he published the first of the Perry Mason series. His huge output for the pulps introduced numerous characters, including Speed Dash, a detective who can scale the sides of buildings in the event that a door is locked, and the armchair detective Lester Leith, whose specialty is solving jewel thefts by means of reading newspaper accounts.
Mason is introduced in «The Case of the Velvet Claws.» In this novel, Mason deduces that dampness around an umbrella stand means that a witness was at the murder scene when he said he was. He thereby saves an obnoxious character and makes the point that justice and law are more important than personal considerations. Gardner 's knowledge of and respect for criminal law form a thread that runs through all the Mason books.
Gardner created other series characters with legal connections. Middle-aged sleuth Bertha Cool teams up with Donald Lam, a disbarred attorney whose legal advice helps to solve cases. Gardner used district attorney Doug Selby to illustrate his appreciation of the prosecution's outlook on crime.
«Leg Man» also features a character from the world of law. The story is unusual in that it puts the legal assistant at centre stage as protagonist. It is typical of Gardner 's work in its use of canny tricks and an eye for detail to solve the mystery.