Erle Stanley Gardner

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Erle Stanley Gardner
Erle Stanley Gardner.png
Gardner in 1966
Born (1889-07-17)July 17, 1889
Malden, Massachusetts, U.S.[1]
Died March 11, 1970(1970-03-11) (aged 80)
Temecula, California, U.S.
Pen name Kyle Corning, A.A. Fair, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Robert Parr, Les Tillray
Occupation Lawyer, writer
Education Palo Alto High School (1909)
Valparaiso University School of Law (1 month)
Genre Detective fiction, true crime, travel writing
Notable works Perry Mason
Cool and Lam
Doug Selby
Notable awards Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America
Edgar Award


Erle Stanley Gardner (July 17, 1889 – March 11, 1970) was an American lawyer and author. Though best known for the Perry Mason series of detective stories, he wrote numerous other novels and shorter pieces, as well as a series of non-fiction books, mostly narrations of his travels through Baja California and other regions in Mexico. The best-selling American author of the twentieth century at the time of his death,[2] he also published under numerous pseudonyms, including A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray and Robert Parr.

Life and work[edit]

Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Gardner graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1909 and enrolled at Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana, but was suspended after approximately one month when his interest in boxing became a distraction. He moved to California, pursued his legal education on his own, and passed the state bar exam in 1911. In 1912 he wed Natalie Frances Talbert; they had a daughter, Grace.

Gardner opened his first law office in Merced in 1917, but closed it after accepting a position at a sales agency. In 1921 he returned to law as a member of the Ventura firm Sheridan, Orr, Drapeau and Gardner,[3] where he remained until 1933.[4]

The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933), 1953 U.S. paperback edition

Gardner enjoyed litigation and the development of trial strategy, but was otherwise bored by legal practice. In his spare time he began writing for pulp magazines; his first story was published in 1923. He created many series characters for the pulps, including the ingenious Lester Leith, a parody of the "gentleman thief" in the tradition of A. J. Raffles; and Ken Corning, crusading lawyer, crime sleuth, and archetype for his most successful creation, Perry Mason. In his early years writing for the pulp magazine market Gardner set himself a quota of 1,200,000 words a year.[5] (When asked why his heroes always defeated villains with the last bullet in their guns Gardner answered, "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".[6]) Early on he typed his stories himself using two fingers, but later dictated them to a team of secretaries.

Under the pen name A. A. Fair, Gardner wrote a series of novels about the private detective firm of Cool and Lam. In another series, District Attorney Doug Selby litigated against attorney Alphonse Baker Carr in an inversion of the Perry Mason scenario. Prosecutor Selby is portrayed as a courageous and imaginative crime solver; his antagonist A.B. Carr is a wily shyster whose clients are invariably "as guilty as hell".

Gardner remained with Sheridan, Orr, Drapeau and Gardner until 1933, when The Case of the Velvet Claws was published. Much of that story is set at the historic Pierpont Inn, just down the road from his law office.[4] With the success of the Mason series, which eventually ran to over 80 novels, Gardner gradually reduced his contributions to the pulp magazines until the medium itself died in the 1950s. Thereafter he published a few short stories in the "glossies" such as Collier's, Sports Afield, and Look,[7] but the majority of his postwar magazine contributions were non-fiction articles on travel, western history, and forensic science. Gardner's readership was a broad and international one, and included the English novelist Evelyn Waugh, who in 1949 called Gardner the best living American writer.[8][9]

Gardner, wife and friend Sam Hicks, Dutch Slough, Oakley CA, 1969.

Gardner also created characters for various radio programs, including Christopher London (1950), starring Glenn Ford, and A Life in Your Hands (1949–1952).[10] He created Perry Mason as a recurring character for a series of Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s, and then for a titular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955. In 1954 CBS proposed transforming Mason into a television soap opera. When Gardner opposed the idea CBS created The Edge of Night, featuring John Larkin — who voiced Mason on the radio show — as a thinly-veiled imitation of the Mason character.[11] Eventually Perry Mason became a long-running TV series starring Raymond Burr in the title role. Though Burr originally auditioned for the role of district attorney Hamilton Burger, Gardner reportedly insisted that he be cast as Mason.[12] Gardner made an uncredited appearance as a judge in "The Case of the Final Fade-Out", the last episode of the original series.[13] In the late 1980s and early 1990s Mason was revived for a series of made-for-TV movies featuring Burr, Barbara Hale (as Della Street), and other surviving members of the original cast.

In 1937 Gardner moved to Temecula, California, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1968 he married his long-time secretary Agnes Jean Bethell (1902–2002), "the real Della Street".[14] He held a lifelong fascination with Baja California and wrote a series of non-fiction travel documentaries describing his extensive explorations of the peninsula by boat, truck, airplane and helicopter. Gardner devoted thousands of hours to "The Court of Last Resort", in collaboration with his many friends in the forensic, legal, and investigative communities. The project sought to review and, when appropriate, reverse miscarriages of justice against criminal defendants who had been convicted due to poor legal representation, abuse or misinterpretation of forensic evidence, or careless or malicious actions of police or prosecutors. The resulting 1952 book earned Gardner his only Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category.[15]

Death and legacy[edit]

Gardner died on March 11, 1970, at his ranch in Temecula.[2][16] His remains were cremated, and the ashes scattered over his beloved Baja California peninsula.[17] The ranch, known as Rancho del Paisano at the time, was sold after his death, then resold in 2001 to the Pechanga Indians, renamed Great Oak Ranch, and eventually joined to the Pechanga reservation.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center houses Gardner's manuscripts, and contains a miniaturized reproduction of his study room.[18]

In 2003 Temecula Valley Unified School District named a newly opened middle school after Gardner.


Major mystery series[edit]

Terry Clane mysteries[edit]

  • Murder up my Sleeve (1937)[19]
  • The Case of the Backward Mule (1946)[19]

Gramps Wiggins mysteries[edit]

  • The Case of the Turning Tide (1941)[19]
  • The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943)[19]

Other fiction[edit]

  • This is Murder (1935)[19]
  • The Clue of the Forgotten Murder (1935) (criminologist Sidney Griff)[19]
  • Over the Hump (1945; a different version of this novella is also included in The Case of the Murderer's Bride under the title "Death Rides a Boxcar")[19]
  • Two Clues (1947) (two novelets about Sheriff Bill Eldon, The Clue of the Runaway Blonde and The Clue of the Hungry Horse)[19] A third Eldon novelet, The Clue of the Screaming Woman, was published and reprinted in the 1979 anthology Ellery Queen's Secrets of Mystery.
  • The Case of the Musical Cow (1950)[19]
  • The Case of the Murderer's Bride (1969; includes various short stories and novelettes)[19]

Posthumous Collections (mostly reprints of stories originally printed in the pulps):

  • The Bird in the Hand (1969; includes five Lester Leith stories)
  • The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith (1980; five Lester Leith stories, three duplicated from previous collection)[19]
  • Whispering Sands – Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert (1981; nine stories—seven feature Bob Zane)[19]
  • The Human Zero (1981; seven science fiction stories)[19]
  • Pay Dirt and Other Whispering Sands Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert (1983; nine Bob Zane stories)[19]
  • The Adventures of Paul Pry (nine Paul Pry stories)[19]
  • Dead Men's Letters (1990; a compilation of six Ed Jenkins novelettes)[19]
  • The Blonde in Lower Six (1990; a compilation of four Ed Jenkins stories)[19]
  • Honest Money (1991; the six Ken Corning stories)[19]
  • The Danger Zone and Other Stories (2004; ten miscellaneous stories)
  • The Casebook of Sidney Zoom (2006; ten Sidney Zoom stories)
  • All Detective Magazine (2009; seven stories originally published in All Detective Magazine in 1933)
  • The Exploits of the Patent Leather Kid (2010)



  • The Land of Shorter Shadows (1948)
  • Neighborhood Frontiers (1954)
  • Hunting the Desert Whale (1960)
  • Hovering Over Baja (1961)
  • The Hidden Heart of Baja (1962)
  • The Desert is Yours (1963)
  • The World of Water (1965)
  • Hunting Lost Mines by Helicopter (1965)
  • Off the Beaten Track in Baja (1967)
  • Gypsy Days on the Delta (1967)
  • Mexico's Magic Square (1968)
  • Drifting Down the Delta (1969)
  • Host With the Big Hat (1969)


  • The Court of Last Resort (1952) (revised and enlarged paperback edition in 1954)
  • Cops on Campus and Crime in the Streets (1970)

In popular culture[edit]

Gardner appears in William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch, 1959, page 72. He is mentioned in relation to a psychotic disorder known as Bang-utot and thought related to Koto.

Erle Stanley Gardner's name is well-known among avid crossword puzzle solvers, due to his first name's containing an unusual pattern of common letters, and few other famous people have the name Erle. As of January 2012, he is noted for having the highest ratio (5.31) of mentions in the The New York Times crossword puzzle to mentions in the rest of the newspaper among all other people since 1993.[20]

In 2001 Huell Howser Productions, in association with KCET/Los Angeles, featured Gardner's Temecula Rancho del Paisano in California's Gold; the 30 minute program is available as a VHS videorecording.[21]


  1. ^ "Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841–1910". New England Historic Genealogical Society. Retrieved 4 August 2010. 
  2. ^ a b "'The Fiction Factory'. Erle Stanley Gardner, Author of Mystery novels, Is Dead at 80". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-19. As the best-selling American author of the century, Erle Stanley Gardner often ... 
  3. ^ Senate, Richard. "Erle Stanley Gardner". Benton, Orr, Duval, & Buckingham. Retrieved 1 August 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Current Biography 1944, pp. 224–226
  5. ^ Hughes, Dorothy Belle (1978) Erle Stanley Gardner: the case of the real Perry Mason, pg. 13, Morrow, ISBN 0-688-03282-6
  6. ^ Maher, Jimmy (2014-06-05). "Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder". The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Erle Stanley Gardner Bibliography". Retrieved 2013-06-20. 
  8. ^ Stannard, Martin (1992) Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966, p. 240, Norton, ISBN 0-393-03412-7
  9. ^ Borello, A. Evelyn Waugh and Earl Stanley Gardner. Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 3 (1970). Retrieved October 15, 2014.
  10. ^ Cox, Jim, Radio Crime Fighters, 2002, pp. 10, 157, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, ISBN 0-7864-1390-5
  11. ^ Cox, Jim, Radio Crime Fighters, 2002, pp. 199–201, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, ISBN 0-7864-1390-5
  12. ^ Podolsky, JD and Bacon, D: The Defense Rests. People Magazine archive. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  13. ^ "Perry Mason TV Series". Retrieved 2008-09-14. 
  14. ^ "Erle Stanley Gardner Weds". New York Times. August 9, 1968. Retrieved 2013-12-19. Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of fictional Perry Mason, married Agnes Jean Bethell, his secretary of 40 years, last night at the home of a former Nevada State ... 
  15. ^ "Interesting Facts About Erle Stanley Gardner". Phantom Bookshop. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  16. ^ "Erle Stanley Gardner, Author of Perry Mason Stories, Dies". Los Angeles Times. March 12, 1970. Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason mysteries made him the world's best selling author, died Wednesday at his ranch home at Temecula in Riverside County. 
  17. ^ Hughes, Dorothy Belle (1978) Erle Stanley Gardner: the case of the real Perry Mason, Morrow, ISBN 0-688-03282-6
  18. ^ Duffy, Jill; Rachel Howarth. "Law-Related Resources at the Harry Ransom Center". Jamail Center for Legal Research. Archived from the original on 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Hubin, Allen J. (1984). Crime fiction, 1749–1980: a comprehensive bibliography. New York: Garland Pub. ISBN 0-8240-9219-8. 
  20. ^ Matt Gaffney (2012-01-27). "The Shortz List of Crossword Celebrities". Slate. Retrieved 2012-02-27. 
  21. ^ OCLC 53175485

Further reading[edit]

  • Mundell, E. H. Erle Stanley Gardner: A Checklist. Kent State University Press, 1968. ISBN 0873380347.
  • Senate, Richard L. Erle Stanley Gardner's Ventura: Birthplace of Perry Mason. Ventura, California: Citation Press. ISBN 0-9640065-5-3.
  • Fugate, Francis L. & Roberta B. Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer: The Story Telling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner. New York, William Morrow & Co. 1980. ISBN 0-688-03701-1.
  • Hughes, Dorothy B.. Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York, William Morrow & Co. 1978. ISBN 0-688-03282-6.
  • Johnston, Alva. The Case of Erle Stanley Gardner. New York, William Morrow & Co., 1947.

External links[edit]