Sunday, July 17, 2016

Birthday: with his plot wheel, Erle Gardner never got stuck.


Asked why his heroes always defeated villains with the last bullet in their guns, Gardner answered, "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".

Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970)
Novelist, short story writer
Recipient, Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, 1952

The English novelist Anthony Trollope has come in for heavy weather from critics for his “writing machine” quota of 2,500 words  put on paper before he went to work each day, but Trollope had nothing on Erle Stanley Gardner.

Bored practicing law in small-town Southern California, Gardner looked at the infinitely-expanding range of pulp fiction magazines and determined he could make a better, easier living feeding them with pulp fiction. He published his first story in 1923, and over the next decade cranked out 4-5,000 words a day; 100,000 per month; as many as 1.2 million a year.

On the side, he started producing detective novels under half a dozen pseudonyms. In 1933 he introduced LA criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason. 81 more novels followed over the next four decades.

As his fortune grew- he made $20,000 in 1932, the equivalent of $320,000 today, Gardner went from two-fingered typing to dictation to a pool of secretaries. He had nine “plot wheels” whose dials he spun to create his stories. The University of Texas has four: “Wheel of Complicating Circumstances,” “Wheel of Minor Characters Who Function in Making Complications for Hero”, “Wheel of Blind Trails By Which Hero is Misled or Confused,” and “Solutions.”

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Gardner expanded the Mason franchise into a string of 1930s films and a 1943-55 radio serial; when CBS proposed a Perry Mason soap opera in 1954, Gardner drew the line. Peeved, CBS rolled out The Edge of Night as a thinly-veiled Mason vehicle; it ran from 1956 to 1984. Gardner and CBS kissed and made up, and the prime time drama Perry Mason debuted in 1957. Actor Raymond Burr auditioned to  play DA Hamilton Burger, but Gardner proclaimed the wooden Burr the embodiment of his plotwheeled hero.

In the 1950s, as the pulps died off, Gardner shifted to historical and travel pieces for the higher-end glossy magazines. His book, The Court of Last Resort, documented scores of cases of miscarriages of justice in which the criminal justice system failed to do its job; the nonfiction work won the author his only Edgar. Though he separated in the 1930s, Gardner waited until his wife died to marry one of his secretaries, who had worked for him thirty years, in 1968. Perry Mason’s Della Street is a composite of the second wife and her two sisters, who also worked for Gardner's word factory.

Evelyn Waugh, who admired tight plotting and volume production, called Gardner the best American writer of the day; he said the same of P.G. Wodehouse in the UK. Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout meowed that Gardner books could barely be called novels at all. Gardner simply wanted to make give people maximum entertainment for a maximum fee. To one editor, he wrote, “It’s a damn good story. Place any comments on the back of the check.”

Because of the odd spelling of the first name, Erle Stanley Gardner is one of the most common clues in The New York Times crossword puzzle. He appeared as the judge in the final, 1966 episode of Perry Mason. He died four years later.

Related sites:

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Plot Wheel, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

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