Hardboiled and Dangerous: The Characters of Erle Stanley Gardner

Jun 15, 2017 by

When the magazine BLACK MASK is discussed, author Dashiell Hammett generally comes into play. But the creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op was far from the most prolific contributor to the greatest of the hard-boiled detective magazines. That honor would go to Erle Stanley Gardner, best known for creating Perry Mason. Gardner would appear in THE BLACK MASK over one hundred times.

A practicing lawyer interested in a better income, Erle Stanley Gardner forced “himself to churn out four thousand words a night. It took two years, but he made his first sale to the pulps. It wouldn’t be the last.” During his fifty-year writing career, Gardner would publish close to twenty million words of fiction and create “no less than 49 unique detectives and adventurers who made two or more appearances in book or magazine form . . .”

According to Bill Pronzini’s introduction to THE DANGER ZONE AND OTHER STORIES published by Crippen & Landru in 2004 — Gardner published 128 novels between 1933 and 1970. Eighty-two of these feature Perry Mason, while Bertha Cool and Donald Lam appear in 29 book-length adventures. Crusading district attorney Doug Selby appears in nine novels, while the remaining eight feature other characters.

“All of Gardner’s other series characters . . . were created for the magazine markets, both pulp-paper and slick-paper, and appear only in novelettes and short stories. Several hundred of these yarns saw print from the 1920s into the 1950s, the preponderance in a ten-year-span from 1926 to 1936 when Gardner lived up to his billing as “King of the Woodpulps” by producing and selling an average of one million words of fiction annually. ARGOSY, BLACK MASK, and DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY were his favorite pulp markets, printing nearly 200 stories among them. Series tales and one-shots also ran regularly in DIME DETECTIVE, CLUES, STREET & SMITH’S DETECTIVE STORY, TOP-NOTCH, BLACK ACES, ALL DETECTIVE, SHORT STORIES, and a host of others . . . .

“Foremost among his amazing array of short-fiction creations are Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook, an outlaw and ‘famous lone wolf’ who lives by his wits and solves crimes unjustly pinned on him by the police, many of which have San Francisco Chinatown settings; and Lester Leith, debonair man-about-town, whose ‘chain lightning mind’ allows him to both outfox criminals and outmaneuver his butler, Scuttle, an undercover police spy. Jenkins appears in 72 novelettes published in BLACK MASK between 1925 and 1943 . . . Leith can be found in 65 novelettes in DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY from 1929 to 1943 . . .”

Other oft-published series characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner include Bob Zane of the “Whispering Sands” tales; Sidney Zoom, master of disguises; Señor Lobo, Mexican soldier of fortune; the Patent Leather Kid; Paul Pry, who steals from crooks; Bob Larkin, an adventurer armed with a billiard cue; attorney Ken Corning; gunslinger Black Barr; and Speed Dash, the Human Fly.

At 8:50 PM on Friday, July 28, PulpFest 2017 welcomes Jeffrey Marks for a discussion of Gardner’s four types of pulp characters: the western miner, the non-Perry lawyers, the traditional pulp loners, and the author’s happy-go-lucky criminals. Marks is a long-time mystery fan and freelance writer. His works include WHO WAS THAT LADY, a biography of mystery writer Craig Rice; ATOMIC RENAISSANCE: WOMEN MYSTERY WRITERS OF THE 1940S/1950S; and PULP ICONS: ERLE STANLEY GARDNER AND HIS PULP MAGAZINE CHARACTERS. His latest work is a biography of mystery author and critic Anthony Boucher entitled ANTHONY BOUCHER. It has been nominated for an Agatha and fittingly, won an Anthony Award.

Jeffrey’s work has won a number of awards including the Barnes and Noble Prize. It has also been nominated for an Edgar Award, three Agathas, two Macavity Awards, and three Anthony Awards. Today, he writes from his home in Cincinnati, which he shares with his partner and two dogs.

Please join us from July 27 through July 30 at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh – Cranberry — just north of Pennsylvania’s “Steel City” — for PulpFest 2017 as we celebrate the hardboiled dicks, dangerous dames, and a few psychos of the pulps. You can join PulpFest by clicking the Register for 2017 button on our home page. And don’t forget to book a room at the DoubleTree. They’re going fast!

(First introduced to BLACK MASK readers with the story, “The Shrieking Skeleton,” published in the December 15, 1923 number under the pseudonym Charles Green, Erle Stanley Gardner quickly established himself as a readers’ favorite. Soon thereafter, he introduced his first series character, Bob Larkin. But it was with the January 1925 number that Gardner truly hit paydirt, introducing Ed Jenkins in “Beyond the Law.” By the end of 1926, Jenkins was garnering the cover spot of the magazine, including the March 1933 issue featuring artwork by J. W. Schlaikjer. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Phantom Crook would appear in 72 novelettes published in BLACK MASK between 1925 and 1943.)