Friday, May 12, 2017

Forgotten Books: THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS by Erle Stanley Gardner (1933)


Perry Mason books are the potato chips of mystery fiction. It’s damn near impossible to read just one.

The first time I read TCOT Velvet Claws—the first in the seriesthirty-odd years ago, I got hooked and went on to read the whole dang thing. 82 books. Do I want to do that again? I don’t know. Will I be able to resist? We’ll see.

If you’re only acquainted with Perry from the TV series, or later books in the series, the guy in this book might surprise you. He doesn’t carry a gun—his gun is the law—but he’d have been tough enough to walk the pages of Black Mask, had Erle Stanley Gardner chosen to send him there. Gardner, in fact, was the number one contributor to that fabled magazine, making 103 appearances. (Raoul Whitfield came in second with 90, while Fredrick Nebel had 67, Carroll John Daly 60 and Dashiell Hammett 45).

When his client asks what sets him apart from other attorneys, Perry puts it into two words: “I fight.” And he means it. “I’m a paid gladiator,” he elaborates later. “I fight for my clients.”

After an unpleasant conversation with the editor of a blackmail sheet, the editor says, “Well, there’s no hard feelings.” Perry’s answer? “The hell there ain’t.”

After an equally unpleasant conversation with the editor’s boss, the boss tells his butler, “Take a good look at this man, Digley. If you ever see him on the place again, throw him out. Call a cop if you have to.” Perry’s response? “Better call two cops, Digley. You might need ‘em.”

When a “reporter” for the blackmail sheet tries to “interview” Mason, we get this little exchange:

     Slowly, deliberately, Perry Mason took his hand from the automobile door catch, turned around on his heel, and surveyed the man.
     “So,” he said, “that’s the kind of tactics you folks are going to use, is it?”
     Crandall continued to stare with his impudent eyes.
     “Don’t get hard,” he said, “because it won’t buy you anything.”
     “The hell it won’t,” said Perry Mason. “He measured the distance, and slammed a straight left full into the grinning mouth. Crandall’s head shot back. He staggered two steps, then went down like a sack of meal.

Throughout the book, Perry is violence in motion. He slams door, slams down telephone receivers, and even drives savagely. Dealing with blackmailers, he’s not above doing a little blackmailing himself. And his dedication to his client is almost suicidal. Even after she tries to frame him for the murder—then subsequently confesses—he insists on defending her.

But when she tries to vamp him, it’s another story:

     “Somehow,” she says, “you inspire me with confidence. You’re the only man I ever knew who could stand up to my husband. I feel as though I could cling to you and you’d protect me.”
     She tilted her face so that her lips were close to his, and her eyes were staring into his. Her body was quite close to his.
     He took her elbow in long, strong fingers and turned her away from him.
     “I’ll protect you,” he said, “just as long as you pay cash.”

This Della Street isn’t the one we meet on TV, either. She distrusts Mason’s client right from the start, and provides the book’s title:

     “I hate her!” Della Street said fervently. “I wish you’d never seen her. She isn’t worth the money. If we made ten times as much money out of it, she still wouldn’t be worth it. I told you just what she was—all velvet and claws!”

And it seems Della is more than just a secretary. Near the end he scoops her up in his arms and plants a smooch on her lips, smearing his face with lipstick. When his client walks in, suggesting he wipe the lipstick off his mouth, Perry says, “That lipstick can stay there.”

It’s that kind of stuff that make these books so hard to resist, and Gardner makes it even tougher by cleverly introducing the client of the next book, The Case of the Sulky Girl, in the final pages of this one. Looks like I’m doomed to repeat myself.

10 comments:

oscar case said...

I read a number of Perry Mason Cases and liked 'em all.

Bill: a retired bookman said...

Thanks for this posting. As a young high school student, my dad got me into reading Perry Mason mysteries. Dad had been an English major in college, went on to law school and by that time was a chief judge in the city court. we used to sit at the kitchen table after dinner, read, exchange books, and talk about them. This is one of my fondest memories when growing up. Now, I'm considering teach a course on a history of lawyers in mystery novels for the College for Seniors (part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute - OLLI) at our local university.

Evan Lewis said...

The Mason novels were out of print for a long while, but have now returned via the publishing arm of the American Bar Association. Must be good propaganda for them.

Shay said...

When the Indian branch of archive.org did a major download three months ago that included a number of detective/mystery ebooks that are still under copyright here in the US. The dump included twelve Masons - I copied as many as I could.

Evan Lewis said...

I have an Word version of this one if you'd like it, Shay. Just shoot me an email at delewis1@hotmail.com

Rick Robinson said...

I've read this one two or three times, and like it a lot. I like this tougher Mason, though I sure like the later one who is more focused on facts, clues and outsmarting the D.A. I can only read a couple at a time before I kind of get burned out, some plots are quite similar. I have a lot of favorites, but #29, The Case of the Fan Dancer's Horse (1947) is near the top of the list.

George said...

One of my retirement projects is to read all the Perry Masons in order. I agree with Rick, THE CASE OF THE FAN DANCER'S HORSE is very good!

Steve said...

I wish I could find time to take on a project like that, reading all of the Mason books in order. I've been re-reading a number of them, but I've been very hot and miss as far as dates are concerned.

But I did read this one this past week, quite coincidentally, and reviewed it on my blog. Very very enjoyable.

Cap'n Bob said...

Now you've got me wanting to read another. Curse you, Red Baron!

Shay said...

Well, I found THE CASE OF THE FAN DANCER'S HORSE on Open Library, so now I have another excuse not to walk the dog.