Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Self-Taught Lawyer

Mar 10, 2010

Murray, KY – As WKMS signed onto air 40 years ago, many mourned the death of author Erle Stanley Gardner, best known for the popular Perry Mason series. Mystery fan Michael Cohen takes a look at the life and work of the uncommon author in this commentary, which he calls "The Case of the Self Taught Lawyer."

Is there any one of Erle Stanley Gardner's 80-plus Perry Mason mysteries that could be called uncommon? They all seem pressed from a common mold. The same adversaries, Perry Mason and District Attorney Hamilton Burger, face each other in the courtroom. The same team of Della Street and private detective Paul Drake backs Mason up. And always there are courtroom fireworks, Mason's client is acquitted just when conviction seemed most certain, and the real culprit is unmasked. Or almost always: Mason loses The Case of the Terrified Typist; in the TV series, Raymond Burr's Perry Mason loses a second one, The Case of the Deadly Verdict.

Perhaps the book we should single out is The Case of the Velvet Claws, the very first Perry Mason novel in 1933, not because it differs from the others, but because it establishes just what is new and uncommon about the Perry Mason stories.

Certainly their creator was uncommon enough. Gardner spent only one month in a law school, but by working in a law firm as a clerk and cramming in his spare time, he managed to pass the California bar exam. His first clients were Chinese and Mexican immigrants ethnic groups who were never treated stereotypically in Gardner's fiction. Eventually he wrote not only eighty-two Perry Mason books but dozens of others under various pen names, and he was at one time the best-selling author in the world.

The real novelty here is that by uniting his detective with a criminal defense lawyer, Gardner gave Americans what they wanted to believe about American criminal justice. As formulaic and stylized as the Perry Mason stories are, they are far closer to perceived truth than the myths underlying traditional detective stories. Few people imagine they can find a real person much like Sherlock Holmes to do their investigating for them, but many people believe that they could find a Perry Mason if they were accused of a crime and had the money to hire the best lawyer available. Brilliant and unbeatable criminal defense lawyers have been an American institution since Abraham Lincoln successfully defended a man accused of murder by using an almanac to discredit the eyewitness's report of seeing the killing by the full moon.

The police bring to bear all their institutional machinery upon a case against those they accuse, but the odds can be made approximately equal if those people can find the right combination of lawyer, private detective, and support crew. Perry Mason makes this defense machinery look homey as well as efficient, almost like a family operation, and that is not the least of his claims to still high popularity forty years after Gardner's death.