Perry Mason: The Case of the Velvet Claws, by Erle Stanley Gardner

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I’ve really enjoyed watching episodes of the 1950s Perry Mason TV series on DVD (see an early review on this site of one such episode) but I’ve not been able to read any of Erle Stanley Gardner’s 82 original Perry Mason novellas before now as they’ve seemed to be largely out of print. As it happens I was recently lent a scruffy second hand copy of the very first Mason story, “The Case of the Velvet Claws” and by coincidence it seems as though more Mason novels are now slowly trickling out in Kindle format.

I’m happy to say that I was certainly not disappointed by my first taste of the literary version of the famous defence attorney. This story was originally written for newspapers and pulp fiction magazines, so they are classics of the kind: lean, mean and direct. Wonderfully so.

Most of the story is told through dialogue and through action, with little time spent distracted on any other details except as far as they are needed for basic character- and scene-setting. If there’s a seemingly extravagant detail in the text then it’s there because it’s a key clue that will prove vital to Perry in solving the murder case and freeing his client – an economy and surety of style rather like Agatha Christie’s own contemporary crime writing. Despite the sparse prose there’s as strong a sense of unmistakable time and place (Depression-era California) as there is in literary works that spend pages and whole chapters setting up its milieu; and yet at the same time there’s a classic timeless quality to the tales which means that modern readers won’t have to make allowances for how long ago it was written while they’re reading it. The only thing that really dates it is the lack of mobile phones and computers: what hoops character had to jump through in the old days before those two pieces of technology became available available!

It’s an easy and very short, quick read – but for all that also a sharply intelligent one underneath its veneer of simplicity. It’s fast moving and you need to keep up, as everyone is lying and scheming against everyone else and trying to obscure facts to their advantage and get one over on everyone else. That includes Perry himself, who uses all sorts of moves that these days would likely be utterly illegal (brazenly ‘coaching the witness’ in a deception intended for the police the least of his offences) but who displays imaginative quick thinking in finding out information that others want kept hidden. You quickly wonder if Gardner – himself a lawyer before his writing career took off – wasn’t pretty much the real life Mason who had himself already exploited many such tricks in his time in real life cases.

It’s just as well Mason isn’t a goody-two-shoes, because here he’s involved with a client who only lies each and every time she opens her mouth and who clearly intends to use her lawyer as a fall guy should the need arise. She originally comes to him to buy off a salacious tabloid which is hot on the trail of her affair with a high profile local politician, but soon her tyrannical husband is dead and it’s question of whether she, the politician or Perry go down for the homicide. Add to that other characters (servants, relatives, employees and policeman) all up to their own manipulations often not remotely connected to the actual case Mason is working and you have a delightfully complicated and always enjoyable rich stew of rapid-speed plotting.

Perry is perhaps harder and a touch more brutal in this first book than he was eventually portrayed in the TV series (although that said, Raymond Burr certainly played him with a bit of a harsh, almost ‘thuggish’ edge when needed) but Della Street is just the sort of loyal super-capable secretary that Barbara Hale brought to the screen nearly 20 years after this book was published. The short novel itself feels like it’s a ready-made screenplay for one of those classic one-hour 1930/40s B-movie series and which would also be easy to adapt for the TV at a moment’s notice – most of Gardner’s source novellas were indeed adapted at least once if not more by the TV series – and the story virtually custom written to make it easy to finesse into a 50 minute time slot with the minimum of changes. As a result it’s hard to read one of these books without imagining it on screen, with Burr and Hale duly in the lead roles.

All of which is fine by me. Yes, such books aren’t going to win any literary awards, but they deliver what they promise and hit the target on the nose almost every time. “The Case of the Velvet Claws” is certainly one of those that’s on target and makes for a fast, bracing and very satisfying entertainment with which to cleanse the palette of more worthy, heavier tomes.

“The Case of the Velvet Claws” is among around a dozen of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books currently available for the Kindle from Amazon.co.uk. Also available are DVD boxsets of the first two seasons of the 1950s black and white TV serial.

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