S.T. Karnick thinks he knows why Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) is still popular and important:
- This code of ethics is part of something bigger: Gardner’s view of religious faith. Characters pray, and their prayers are answered. In the Ed Jenkins novelette “In Full of Account,” the narrator-protagonist, in a tight fix, says, “So I prayed a short prayer that I was acting on the right hunch and slipped away in the dark shadows of the yard.” His decision proves correct. Gardner’s tales are also peppered with religious allusions and images, and the Christian theme of self-sacrifice runs throughout his fiction.
Perry Mason himself has a spiritual side, though it usually remains hidden. In Chapter 17 of “The Case of the Haunted Husband”–one of the best single chapters in all of mystery fiction–Mason comforts a woman who is depressed because of her husband’s death. He says, “If only we had the vision to see the whole pattern of life, we’d see death as something benign.” Then, through what he describes as “simply the application of what you might call legal logic to the scheme of existence,” he shows her how nature indicates that the human soul lasts beyond death. The woman says, “I guess I’m getting my faith back.” Characters in quite a few of Gardner’s tales talk explicitly about God and the strength they can draw from him, as in the D.A. Doug Selby novel “The D.A. Calls It Murder” and the Whispering Sands story “The Whip Hand.” The latter, in fact, ends with the words, “‘I guess there’s a God after all,’ she said softly.”
A good plot is a very pleasing thing, but the pervasive recognition that God is watching, that justice will ultimately be done, and that there are good and unselfish people in the world was a rare thing in twentieth-century popular fiction. That is probably the real reason Erle Stanley Gardner became one of the bestselling authors of all time and why, for all their deficiencies, his books are still in print and still worth reading. [The Weekly Standard]