Erle Stanley Gardner created many series characters in his long career: Perry Mason, Bertha Lam and Donald Cool, Doug Selby, Gramps Wiggins, Lester Leith, Ed Jenkins, Terry Clane, Jerry Bane, Bob Larkin, The Old Walrus, Buck Riley, Peter Wennick, Jerry Marr, Senor Arnez de Lobo, Barney Killigen, Bob Crowder, Dred Bart, Rex Kane, Whispering Story, Ken Corning, Steve Rainey, El Paisano, Sidney Zoom, Dudley Bell, Paul Pry, Jax Bowman, Helen Chadwick, Ngat T'oy, Black Barr, Speed Dash (the Human Fly), Sheriff Bill Eldon, Perry Burke, Major Brane (no relation to Donald Trump!), Norma Gay, Dane Skarle, Dick Bentley, Denny Clay, Phil "Go Get 'Em" Garver, Sam Selby, Sheriff Billy Bales, Ye Dooey Wah, Ed "The Headache" Migrane, Dave Barker, Sid Ranger, The Patent Leather Kid, Fish Mouth McGinnis, Key-Clew Clark, The Man in the Silver Mask, The Man Who Couldn't Forget, Mr. Manse, Big Bill Delano, Double Decker, Jax Leen, Lui Sing Fong, Lee Sparler, Bald Pete, and Small, Weston & Burke. That's a lot of character and that's a lot of writing, but Gardner was a "Fiction Factory." after all. Many of these characters you have probably never heard of, lost to the chipped and yellowed pages of pulp heaven, although who knows? Many of the old pulps are being made available on-line; perhaps these tales will someday also be be.
One series character I did not mention above is Pete Quint, a fast-talking, optimistic sales man who appeared in three stories in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941. Gardner's only other fictional appearances in SEP were with serialized novels about Perry Mason and D.A. Doug Selby, making Quint a special case. Most likely modeled on the success of the Alexander Botts/Earthworm Tractors stories by William Hazlett Upton, who appeared in 98 SEP stories from 1927 to 1974, Quint was soon jettisoned by Gardner and SEP for more popular characters. Yer there remains a certain charm about Quint and his partner Ed Feldon; quick thinking, complicated action, and a little bit of luck was all it took to put quint on top and Gardner's typical now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, all-balls-juggled-in-the-air plotting is in full force. You know Quint will succeed, but you jst don't know how he is going to do it.
The first story, "The Last Bell on the Street" (5/3/41) has Quint and Felton down on their luck, out of gas, and with just enough money to buy a couple of hamburgers. Quint coasts their car to a gas pump outside an old diner attached to a store selling reclaimed tires. The owner of the gas pump, the diner, and the tire business is George Fox, who had been conned into signing a unreasonable contract by a tire distribution company. Fox is two months in arrears to the distribution company and is also about to be foreclosed by the local bank.
Ed Felton explains: "Pete figures an individual financial depression is because Lady Luck has taken a powder. Pete calls he 'The Dame.' He says she runs out on a guy once in a while just to see if he can take it. Just keep your chin up and keep pushing doorbells until you come to the last bell on the street, and she'll come back, Pete claims." And George Fox is the last bell on the street. Pete begins his sales talk, because sees an opportunity and (just maybe) because Fox has a pretty red-haired daughter. In turning George Fox's (and his own) fortunes around, Pete has to deal with a recalcitrant banker, local business who expect cash rather than talk, and a trumped-up jail sentence. But Pete has a secret weapon (beside his wits) -- an army of young local boys.
In "That's a Woman for You!" (5/3/41), the tire business is expanding rapidly -- so rapidly that Pete is running out of operating capital. Looking for a good sideline that would bring in an influx of cash, Pet strikes a deal with a bottle-making company: if he can talk hard-nosed Jim Halloran into buying their machine instead of their competitor's, Pete will be granted a three-state sales territory. While eating at a lunch counter before seeing Halloran, Pete strikes up a conversation with a pretty real estate agent trying to make a deal with a very deaf customer. Pete gives her some sales hints that appears to help. The meeting with Halloran does not go as well; Hlloran kicks Pete and ed out of his office. Undaunted, Pete comes up with a plan that might turn the tide, only to be sabotaged by the competition. The unscrupulous Halloran, meanwhile, has no plans to buy from either bottle manufacturer. He plans to sell his land to a wildcat oil company. Without Halloran, Pete seems up a creek with no sales in sight. With a bit of salesmanship, a bit of luck, and some fancy footwork, Pete lands the contract and gives Halloran his comeuppance.
The final story, "The Big Squeeze" (11/15/41), sees Pete and Ed in Los Angeles hoping to become manufacturers' agents -- something to add to their successful tire and bottle manufacturing businesses. The Puckley Air Conditioning Company's current distributor has too large a territory and urgently needs a representative in the desert, where they are losing business to an inferior competitor. Pete and Ed team up with the daughter of a local mine owner and get to work. The mine owner has had a track record of putting all his eggs in one basket, sometimes going broke on his all or nothing approach and his daughter hopes her commissions might offer a little financial stability. Just as Pete comes to town, word goes out that the mine has suddenly gone bust, hundreds will be put out of work, and within a month the quiet community of Sandyville will become a ghost town. Bad luck indeed for all but the town's most ruthless businessman, who begins to buy up property dirt-cheap; it turns out that he has been arranging for an explosive manufacturer to use the town's remote location as a testing site -- something that will bring prosperity back to Sandyville, which he, in effect, owns.
Gardner had always had a love affair with the California desert and its people. In this tale he is able to bring some of his love to the printed page, especially with a character of an old desert rat with a penchant for tall tales -- the type of person Gardner had met many times over in his desert travels. Pete uses this character to turn the situation around, sell a lot of air conditioners, and give the girl and her father financial security they need. Just how he does all this, you have to read for yourself.
Luckily, Internet Archive has made back issues of Saturday Evening Post available online and you can check out all three stories here:
"The Last Bell on the Street" (May 3, 1941:
"That's a Woman for You!" (May 31, 1941):
"The Big Squeeze" (November 15, 1941):
And while you're at it, check out the other issues in the Saturday Evening Post archives. There's a lot of great stories and great authors buried in those pages!