The X-word Files #1 – ERLE

Wikipedia defines “crosswordese” as “the group of words frequently found in crossword puzzles but seldom found in everyday conversation”. But here at Chris Words, knowledge is power, and everyone deserves a second chance. In these interviews, we learn more about the words that make up crosswordese, and what makes them so great.

Edition #1: ERLE
(has appeared 498 times in the NYT, 168 in the Shortz Era)


In this first edition of “The X-word Files”, we learn more about Erle Stanley Gardner, the American detective author best remembered for his Perry Mason books. To learn more about this famed author, we talked to Steve Williamson, a Museum Specialist at the Temecula Valley Museum in California. Temecula was the home of Erle Stanley Gardner for 33 years, and the museum has a vast collection of photographs and memorabilia of Gardner. We asked Steve Williamson nine questions, and here’s what he sent us:

1. Where does the name “Erle” come from? The only other prominent Erles in American history are oilman Erle Halliburton and director Erle C. Kenton.

SW: The best answer appears in the Dorothy Hughes book, The Case of the Real Perry Mason, p. 36. Gardner’s parents gave him the name “Erle”. In grade school, he was teased about it and began using his own spelling—at times “Earl”, other times “Earle”. By high school he reverted to using “Erle”.

2. Gardner was cErleStanleyGardner2ertainly a prolific writer, who penned 82 Perry Mason mysteries, 28 Cool and Lam novels, and also the Doug Selby and Terry Clane books, plus all the other fiction and non-fiction he wrote. What was an average day for Gardner? How did he manage his time?

SW: He often said that it took him 2 ½ days to write a book—the first half day to conceive of the plot, then 2 days of dictation. He was used to dictating into the wee hours of the night. Then, in the morning he’d take the recorded disc into the secretarial pool and ask, “Who wants to type this story?” So, the early part of his typical day was getting his secretaries started with a typing project. He was quite demanding in terms of productivity. He had high expectations of his secretaries. Even when traveling, he continued to work, although the lines between “work” and “play” became quite blurry. I get the general impression that he was a bit of a “night owl.” At least he often worked into the night.

3. How much of the character Perry Mason was based on Gardner? Both were California lawyers, so I imagine Perry Mason was largely inspired by his own experiences.

SW: Although he denied it, there is no doubt that the fictional character “Perry Mason” and secretary “Della Street” were patterned after himself and his own secretary, Jean Bethell. The fictional character was very “clever”, as was Erle. Perry Mason always won his cases because that was how Erle perceived himself. Della Street was loyal, efficient and responsible, as was Jean.

pmb_p16t4. How involved was Gardner on the set of the show “Perry Mason”? On IMDb, Gardner’s only acting credit is his cameo as a judge on the series finale of the show. Was he involved with episode writing, directing, etc.?

SW: Erle was not involved on the set. I understand that he reserved the right to approve scripts. That was so he had control over the shows’ content. But he knew nothing about filming or directing. He only provided plots and story content.

5. Unequivocally, Erle Stanley Gardner loved Baja California. He set most of his non-fiction pieces there, and his ashes were scattered there in 1970. What drew Gardner to Baja California?

SW: In high school geography class he saw a map of Baja California with coastal towns identified and the entire interior was marked “UNEXPLORED.” This ignited the “explorer” instinct in him.

6. A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, and Carleton Kendrake were just some of the pseudonyms he wrote under. How did he come up with these names?

SW: The early names were invented by Erle because he was somewhat embarrassed by the quality of the writing. His writing improved with time and experience. By the time he wrote his first novels, his agent recommended using his own name. He created “A.A. Fair “ for any novels other than “Perry Mason” because by that time, his name had become branded with Perry Mason.

7. How much has the works of Gardner influenced modern crime/mystery writing, as well as how much has the show “Perry Mason” influenced modern crime dramas?

SW: He struggled to create his own style that would be unique and not be associated with the other mystery writers of his own time. His style and story formula became so famous that even to this day, a shocking fact introduced in a real-life court room setting is still referred to as a “Perry Mason Moment.”120373

8. What’s a fun fact about Erle Stanley Gardner that you wouldn’t see in most biographies? 

SW: When asked by critics whether there was any “Hanky-Panky” between Perry Mason and Della Street, Erle recognized this as their attempt to pry into a possible relationship between himself and Jean Bethell. His answer was “That depends on how you define “hanky” and how you define “panky.”

9. If you wanted to introduce someone to the works of Erle Stanley Gardner, which specific work would you suggest?

SW: “The Case of the Stuttering Bishop” was drama, intrigue, red herring and blind alleys, and of course, Perry Mason “pinning down” the true killer in the end.

Chris Words would like to thank Steve Williamson and the Temecula Valley Museum for answering our questions. We hope you’ve enjoyed our interview, and we hope you’ll appreciate seeing this piece of crosswordese in a future puzzle.

Chris Words will be back next week with a new puzzle.


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