Erle Stanley Gardner, you either like or dislike.
He's easy to categorize.
If you don't like him, he's a troublemaker, a rebel who gets his kicks by destroying the public's illusions concerning the integrity and intelligence of our district attorneys and police.
As author of more than 100 Perry Mason mystery novels, he's continually belittling these public servants. His man Mason always shows them up.
As a private citizen, Gardner founded the now-famous Court of Last Resort, which, in freeing dozens of innocent men from prison, has proved in fact that our system of justice isn't infallible.
(And when you prove, time after time, that certain prosecutors and police ruined innocent men's lives in their over-zealousness, you're not about to win any popularity contests about law enforcement officials.)
If you like Gardner, he's the champion of the underdog, unafraid to step on anybody's toes.
The other day, however, I sat down with Gardner for a talk -- and walked away an hour later with a new definition of the man.
"Frankly," he told me, launching into one of his favorite subjects, "the basic problem facing law enforcement today is one of public relations.
"People get fed up seeing law enforcement authorities, and particularly prosecutors, take technical advantage of the laws. Laws," he explained, "with usually severe penalties, enacted to curb a usual serious crime situation -- but they apply them to much lesser situations."
Gardner cited the Mann White Slavery Act.
"Years ago," he said, "people became fed up with the pimps and panderers who seduced young girls and forced them into prostitution.
"They passed the Mann Act.
"What happened after that was that a couple of young men took some women, who were ready, willing and able, on a train from Sacramento to Reno. It was the type of weekend trip that is indulged in by young people from time to time and place to place everywhere -- with the single exception that they crossed a state line.
"To the extent that the people had in mind when they passed the law, there was no white slavery involved, but a prosecuting attorney promptly arrested them as white slavers."
Gardner also mentioned a case in which an ordinary auto theft by a bunch of winos on a New Year's Eve was tortured into a kidnapping because the car's owner was passed out drunk on the back seat.
Gardner's dislike of "eager beaver" prosecutors -- D.A.'s who measure their personal success by number of convictions rather than whether they feel justice was done- is passionate.
But he's equally firm in his defense of district attorneys who try to live their role as representatives of the people with honor.
"I know one district attorney who committed political suicide by refusing to prosecute a man he felt was innocent," he said.
"Unless we give law enforcement authorities better tools with which to work," he said, "their hands are tied. They're licked before they start.
Element of Distrust