By Sky Malerba
Erle Stanley Gardner was a powerful force of nature. He was a towering, commanding defense attorney and a prolific author who created the archetype of the fearless defense attorney. And the native city of the man who brought us Perry Mason was Malden, MA.
This week, Erle Stanley Gardner is the subject for Malden Arts Mondays, a two-month long celebration of artists and figures associated with Malden.
In 1899 at 10 years of age, Gardner’s family left their Malden home and moved to Oregon to a mining camp. When he was kicked out of Valparaiso University School of Law in Indiana for brawling with his professor, he pursued legal education in California.
In Oxnard, California, he would become a successful defense attorney defending poor Chinese and Mexican immigrants who police often used as scapegoats for poorly investigated crimes.
Although his legal career provided a steady income, he found it was not stimulating enough and and he turned to writing, particularly for the rakish world of cheap pulp magazines, much to his family’s disapproval. During these years he wrote under such pseudonyms as A.A. Fair, Carleton Kendrake, and Charles J. Kenny.
He would later tell an interviewer, that he began to write during the early years of his childhood in New England, where his mother’s family had lived since the voyage of the Mayflower.
Gardner took both his childhood love of writing and his legal experiences and created his first big success in 1933 with The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first of a prolific series involving attorney Perry Mason, who soon became a household name.
Gardner published over 80 novels; he maintained an impressive quota of writing 1,200,000 words a year.
The Perry Mason series would take on a life of its own with its realistic courtroom scenarios and legal maneuvers, inspiring radio, television and feature film adaptations. Meanwhile, Gardner’s work reached a height of popularity in which he sold an average of 26,000 novels a day. His work inspired the popular CBS TV series “Perry Mason,” which ran from 1957 to 1966, starring Raymond Burr as a Los Angeles defense attorney who almost never lost a case.
His plots tended to have a strong hero versus villain presence in which the hero always vanquished the antagonists with the last bullet in the gun. When asked about this aspect of his writing, Gardner offered this behind-the-scenes insight: “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.”
Eventually Gardner would depart from the legal world to focus on what he would call his “fiction factory.”
Gardner continued to write the Perry Mason series for the rest of his life, and for a short time after his death in 1970, there were posthumous releases written by Thomas Chastain. The character of Perry Mason remains a symbol of the energetic defense attorney who fights for justice for his clients.
For more information about this week’s Malden Arts Mondays program featuring activities related to Erle Stanley Gardner, click here.
The goal of Malden Arts Mondays is to provide Malden residents (particularly families, young children and tweens/teens) with fun activities that help them get to know Malden’s cultural history and contributions, and bring out the creative in all of us. All activities can be done with safe, social distancing during this time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Previous Malden Arts Monday artists and figures are: