A typical Erle Stanley Gardner story features interesting and engaging characters, fast action that is moved along primarily by dialogue, and a plot with more twists and turns than a bowl of Chinese noodles. Readers are given just enough information to keep them from being totally lost, and somewhere in the welter of material are placed a few details that, properly interpreted, will clear up the mystery and tie up all the loose ends.
Gardner did not come by this pattern or his writing skills by nature, but only after ten years of study and work at his craft. At first he thought that the way to make characters interesting was to make them bizarre, and his early pulp fiction introduces such unusual characters as Señor Lobo, a romantic revolutionist; Ed Jenkins, the phantom crook; El Paisano, a character who could see in the dark; Black Barr, a Western gunfighter; and Speed Dash, a human-fly detective who could climb up the side of buildings to avoid locked doors. Gardner also created the more conventional detective figures Sidney Giff, Sam Moraine, Terry Clane, Sheriff Bill Eldon, and Gramps Wiggins, about each of whom he was to write complete novels later.
Lester Leith is a character from this period who was one of Gardner’s favorites and whose stories reveal typically Gardnerian twists. Leith is a detective who specializes in solving baffling cases of theft (particularly of jewels) merely by reading newspaper accounts of the crimes. Leith steals the missing property from the criminals, sells it, and donates the money he gets to charity, keeping a percentage as a commission that he uses to maintain himself in his luxurious lifestyle (which even includes employing a valet). The fact that the police are never able to pin any crimes on Leith himself is the more remarkable because his valet, Scuttle, is actually a police undercover agent planted in Leith’s home specifically to catch the detective in shady dealings. In the series devoted to this character, Gardner puts an extra spin on the pulp-fiction device of the crime-fighter with a secret identity. Usually, the character with a secret identity must remain outside the law because he has special powers that would create problems if he were revealed (for example, Superman) or must use special extralegal methods (the Green Hornet). In the Lester Leith series, Scuttle, the valet with the secret identity, is a crime-fighter who remains inside the legal system to catch a detective who is so clever that he stays outside the law. A further irony is that Leith, who has amazing intellectual ability, never figures out that he has a spy operating in his own household, a feature that amuses the thoughtful reader.
As Gardner’s career progressed, he abandoned such colorful characters for the more ordinary and believable characters who people his three main series, beginning with Perry Mason, the lawyer who gets defendants out of situations in which they appear headed for the electric chair. With Perry Mason, Gardner returned to the legal ground that he knew best, sometimes using techniques that he had worked out in his own legal practice. For example, the Chinese merchants in Oxnard ran a lottery; Gardner, learning that the law was after them, had them...
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