You can’t read pulp fiction, particularly gumshoe detective stories, without stumbling across Erle Stanley Gardner. The guy was such a prolific writer that the eighty, yes EIGHTY, novels he wrote featuring his most famous character, Perry Mason, don’t even account for half of his total bibliography. Holy crap.
Perry Mason is one of the most iconic lawyers in American pop culture. Fun fact: Ozzy Osbourne has a heavy metal song about the character. Before the original tv series run in the 1950s–60s, there were no filmed legal dramas. Of course, you say, because it was the 1950s and there were few tv shows. Yes, but nearly every trope of every legal drama that has come since was copied from the show and the novels upon which it was based. Perry Mason wasn’t just an iconic television legal drama; it was THE archetype for everything from Columbo to Law & Order, from Matlock to LA Law, from Quincy, ME to CSI to Bones.
But Mason wasn’t Gardner’s only creation. He also created Cool & Lam, the anti-hard-boiled heroes. Bertha Cool is a widow in her 60s, overweight and greedy. Donald Lam is a nebbish. If you picture Woody Allen’s or Rick Moranis’ characters, only smarter and less prone to rambling, you’ve almost nailed Lam. I’ve only read a few of the Cool & Lam stories, but I’ll be going back to them again and again as this duo account for thirty more novels in Gardner’s bibliography.
The character I like best after Perry Mason is one Lester Leith. That’s probably because I read E.W. Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman as a kid. I think it was a book my parents got for me after I expressed an interest in more Holmes-like characters. Hornung’s character, A.J. Raffles, is more Moriarty than Holmes, but the comparison still stands, and Gardner’s Leith is essentially Raffles written for an American audience. There are indications that Gardner intended Leith to be a parody, but the stories aren’t parody in the way Saturday Night Live or MAD Magazine are. Rather, I’d consider Leith to be a pastiche or a regional variant (like Zorro is to Robin Hood). If you’re not familiar with either Raffles or Leith, you’d likely still recognize the idea of the gentleman thief1. The Saint, Arsene Lupin, and Danny Ocean (from the Ocean’s Eleven movies) are some other examples. The characters are well-heeled aristocrats who engage in complex burglaries of other well-heeled aristocrats while thumbing their noses at law enforcement who know these guys2 are criminals but can never prove it.
Unfortunately, none of Gardner’s works are in the public domain, but Perry Mason reruns3 are on television quite frequently and his works are pretty widely available for purchase. If all you know of Gardner is Perry Mason, you’ve managed to miss more than half of the prolific author’s output. Honestly, I find much of Mason’s stories to be self-pastiche and overly repetitive, so discovering the other characters in the last few years, particularly Leith, gave me a new appreciation for Gardner as a writer. People who denigrate pulp fiction often decry the repetitive nature of the stories, and there is some merit to that criticism, but most of those critics are either willfully blind to the multitude of stories that aren’t simple rehashes or else woefully ignorant of breadth and depth of variation.
1 For a modern example, I highly recommend Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora.
2 Almost every literary example of a gentleman thief is a man. There are a handful of women, but they are mostly cat burglars, like Catwoman Selina Kyle, and thus represent a different sort of subgenre thief protagonist.
3 CBS has the first ten episodes available to stream for free. If you have CBS All Access, the whole series is available.