The Case of the Velvet Claws


The Case of the Velvet Claws, Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

Strong. Tough. Ready to duke it out if he has to. Recognize this character? No, it's not Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. It's legal eagle Perry Mason. Perry Mason the way he was originally created long before America's perception of Erle Stanley Gardner's lawyer would stem almost entirely from b&w television re-runs of Perry Mason starring the lumbering Raymond Burr.

In The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, we see an entirely different kind of lawyer than Burr's interpretation. Perry is a strong, broad-shouldered beefcake of a man. Loyal to a fault, he is dedicated to his clients and not afraid to put himself in danger, or throw punches, to see justice done.

The story begins when Perry's pretty secretary, Della Street, shows a new client into the lawyer's office. Mrs. Eva Griffin is a beautiful and sexy woman and she pleads with Perry to help her stop a blackmailer. Mrs. Griffin explains that a muck-raking publisher of a notorious scandal sheet has threatened to expose a romantic relationship she has had with a politician, Harrison Burke. If news of their affair becomes public it will destroy Burke's career and ruin Mrs. Griffin's marriage.

Mason agrees to help this damsel in distress but soon discovers that beneath Mrs. Griffin's velvet exterior are some razor sharp claws and her story is a pack of lies. His client's real name is Eva Belter and the tabloid publisher that she claimed was blackmailing her is really her own husband, George Belter. Soon, Belter is found murdered and the police target Perry Mason as the most likely killer!

It's interesting to note that Gardner was a well-respected lawyer in the seaside city of Oxnard, California before he became famous as the creator of Perry Mason. Gardner was known to take on difficult cases and had a flair for courtroom theatrics. In the early 1920's he began writing short stories for crime magazines under a variety of pseudonyms before publishing his first Perry Mason novel in 1933. His hard-boiled lawyer was an immediate hit. Mason has a never-say-die attitude, ‘I am a paid gladiator', he explains. He will do anything to win a case even if it means bribing a cop, roughing up a witness, or using any trick in his briefcase to acquit his clients.

Murder mystery fans will enjoy this first Perry Mason story immensely. While it fails to have the intricate plot line and deft courtroom drama of Gardner's later Mason adventures, it has a rough-and-tumble pulp fiction quality that makes it a great read.