ERLE STANLEY GARDNER by William F. Nolan
Page Number Six
Gardner worked hard to eliminate the taint of pulp; he refined his lawyer-protagonist and toned down his overall writing style. Della Street, Mason's ever-loyal secretary, was originally characterized (in "Reasonable Doubt ) as being nearly as tough as her boss:
"She's got that snobby complex." Stark grinned at her. "You're jealous," he said.
Della Street's face flushed. "The hell I am," she said, and slammed the door behind her as she flounced back into the outer office. (Fugate, p. 187)
Contrast this scene with its revised version (as published in The Case of the Velvet Claws):
"She's got that snobby complex."
"Lots of people are like that, Della."
"I know, but she's different... . She'd turn on you in a second if it would be to her advantage.
Perry Mason's face was thoughtful. "It wouldn't be to her advantage," he remarked, his voice preoccupied.
Della Street stared at him for a moment, then softly closed the door and left him alone. (Fugate, p. 187)
In a letter to his publisher, Gardner explained just what he wanted to do with Mason. "The character I am trying to create for him is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience. He tries to jockey his [legal) enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch (Hughes, p. 103). In The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason describes himself as "a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients.. . . I have to shoot square with them (but] I can't always expect them to shoot square with me (Fugate, p. 186).
Mason was not the first of his fictional attorneys. Gardner was, however, for a number of years, reluctant to use a lawyer as a series protagonist, feeling that (as a fiction writer) he was too close to the material. In 1932, for Black Mask, he decided he was ready for a series on Ken Corning, the character many critics point to as the prototype for Perry Mason. Corning was a young fighting attorney from New York. He first appeared in November 1932 in the pages of Mask and was featured in five more issues into August of 1933. By then, Perry Mason was established in The Case of the Velvet Claws, and Gardner dropped the Corning series. Gardner was forty-three when Velvet Claws was published and had been a practicing lawyer for twenty-two years. In 1933, after the release of his first book, he finally stepped back from the profession, making himself available only on a consulting basis.
After being confined for so many years in a law office, Gardner yearned for an active outdoor life. In line with this interest, he had a camp wagon custom-built to his specifications, stocked it with equipment and food supplies, and happily took off for the high desert, accompanied by Rip, his German shep-. herd. For the palps, Gardner wrote a series of modern westerns, which he dubbed his "Whispering Sands series. His deep feelings for the terrain surfaced in a lyrical description quoted in his collection Pay Dirt (1983):
"There it lies, miles on miles of it, dry lake beds, twisted mountains of volcanic rock, sloping sage-covered hills, clumps of Joshua trees, thickets of mesquite, bunches of giant cactus. It has the moods of a woman, and the treachery of a big cat (p. 11)."
Gardner claimed that the desert shaped character better than any other thing on earth. "The spell of the desert will grip you [as you drift off to sleep, lulled by the sound of sand whispering to sand (Pay Dirt, pp. 12-13)." His daughter recalled that her father loved sleeping under the stars, that he felt "confined" indoors. A roof over his head was not natural to him-he wanted the sky for his roof. Relaxing under this open sky, Gardner was able to dictate up to fifteen thousand words a day. And having "refined" his prose, he finally achieved a breakthrough into the "slicks" (the higher- paying slick-paper magazines) when Liberty bought three of his Mason novels to run as serials.