Saturday, January 22, 2011


Careers: Erle Stanley Gardner
(from 2006)

I've never been able to figure out why Raymond Chandler felt he owed such a literary debt to Erle Stanley Gardner. He told Gardner that he'd once copied a Gardner story so closely that he couldn't submit it for publication. I guess he felt it would look like plagiarism. But what did he learn from Gardner? Certainly not style. Certainly not dialogue. Certainly not structure. Writers learn from unlikely sources, true enough. But Chandler seemed to lavish so much praise on Gardner you have to wonder what inspired him exactly.

But Chandler was a snob and when you examine the nature of his praise, you get a sense he was being condescending. He said that only when you wrote at great speed (as Gardner did) could you make such unbeleivable plot turns palatable to otherwise sensible readers. I've always wondered what Gardner made of that. He was no fool.

All this comes to mind because I had several doctor appointments in the past few weeks and I'm always careful to bring fast and uncomplicated reads along with me. For the last few doc visits I brought along Perry Mason novels. Early Perry Mason novels, I should note, when Mason was still a creature of Black Mask rather than The Saturday Evening Post. Throughout his career he was wise enough to recognize one of the great true American boogeymen, big business. His social conscience came fom his days as a lawyer when he represented Native Americans, black Americans and Latino Americans in towns that did not want them.

I still find the Masons good reads. True, Gardner worked with stereotypes--The Bad Wife, The Crooked Cop, The Loyal Servant--and he told his stories largely through (sometimes interminable) dialogue but while I'm reading them I'm almost always caught up in the puzzle he's given us. Nobody is what they claim to be. Everybody has a secret, usually a nasty one, the exception being the tortured person Mason has agreed to take on as a client, usually while shunning much more lucrative work.

The early Masons were written before Gardner decided to make his work "timeless." There is little place description in the later books. He didn't want to "date" them. I like the history I get from the first dozen Masons, from all of the Doug Selbys and even from the A.A. Fairs written during the war years. I enjoy sitting in the tea rooms, bars, mansions, hotels and trains of the Thirties and early Forties. His work became far less interesting when it was shorn of any physical specificity.

The Masons owe much more to the Golden Age than most critics seem to have noticed. Their plot pieces are no less unlikely, the clues no less exotic and the conclusions no less bombastic. But I'm not complaining. Most Golden Age stuff except for John Dickson Carr is difficult for me to gak down. But somehow Perry, Della and Paul make it all fun again. I'm a Gardner fan for life.

PS When I first published this Brendan DuBois wrote to tell me that his middle school nun used to assign Perry Masons for book reports. Very cool nun.


Peter L. Winkler said...

What Chandler said is that he took apart a Gardner story, and rewrote it in his own style, using only the story structure, as an instructional exercise in writing.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Back when I started dipping into Gardner's oeuvre, I was concerned that they wouldn't measure up to the Raymond Burr TV series. Boy, were my worries misplaced. As fondly as I remember "Perry Mason," Gardner's novels are far better than just about anything that show depicted. Yes, his plots are sometimes overly complicated, but they never cease to entertain.

I've read most of the Cool/Lam novels, about half of the Selby books, maybe a couple dozen of the early Mason novels (which are tighter and more interesting than those produced later), and assorted short stories by Gardner. I don't know whether I shall ever complete my reading of his fiction, but I'll be happy to give it a shot.


Brendan DuBois said...

Ed, thanks for the shout-out, and yes, Sister Stella of St. Mary's Academy in Dover, N.H., was one cool nun... she used to order paperbacks in bulk from Scholastic Books to pass out to the class... really emphasized us to read.

And I remember one controversy... one of the paperbacks showed a blonde gal with an exposed belly and navel.. some parents complained (this was in the early 1970's) and Sister Stella promptly recalled all of the paperbacks...

And then used a black marker to ink in the offending exposed skin, and passed the books back out... one cool and tough nun...



Matt Paust said...

A friend was reporting for The Princetonian when Einstein died. The great man had an office at Princeton,and my friend, who was one of the first to get the word, dashed up to the office, blocked the door with a chair and started looking frantically for something to give him a unique story. He found it in one of the bookcases. Reaching behind some tomes on physics, Bill's hand grasped a couple of paperbacks. He pulled them out. Perry Mason. Ah, yes.

Kevin said...


This has nothing to do with the Mason books, but when I sent this question to the email address linked on the blog page it came back undeliverable.

I just discovered you as a western writer and wondered why none of the titles are listed in the bibliography on your home page?



Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

I have read one or two Masons and liked them okay. I think I never read more because they must have been the latter novels you described.

I think I will definitely look up the earlier ones, however. They sound like something I would like to read very much. :)