Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

The Murder Mystery

Lawyer Turned Detective

Erle Stanley Gardner

Although Erle Stanley Gardner did not publish his first novel until 1933, in the 1920s his crime stories appeared in Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine in which Dashiell Hammett had first introduced Sam Spade in 1922. Gardner, a prolific writer influenced by Hammett, wrote 82 novels in the Perry Mason series throughout his career.

Key to Gardner's remarkable output was his use of the plot wheels invented and patented by another of his successors, a British crime novelist named Edgar Wallace. By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades.

Gardner's characterization of Perry Mason as a lawyer using detective work to win cases grew out of his own experience as a lawyer in 1920s California. In his practice he often defended Chinese clients who were sometimes convicted of crimes with questionable evidence and without adequate representation. Later in his life Gardner and some of his law enforcement associates set up an organization called "The Court of Last Resort," a group dedicated to reversing such miscarriages of justice.

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Excerpt of "Beyond the Law" from the January 1925 issue of Black Mask
Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett published their early stories in Black Mask, a monthly crime fiction magazine. Debuting in 1920, it was popular throughout the decade. This two-page excerpt of "Beyond the Law" by Erle Stanley Gardner i...

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