Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Erle Stanley Gardner)

I got hooked on Perry Mason mysteries because my dad was a fan of the TV series starring Raymond Burr. When I was younger, Papa always talked about how this lawyer could solve even the most complicated of problems. I was in high school when I read my first Erle Stanley Gardner mystery, but only started collecting them in college. Unfortunately, there are so many mysteries to read and they're not as readily available as Agatha Christie's or Raymond Chandler's work. What few books in my library were bought at Goodwill Bookstore or Booksale. Recently though, a friend of mine generously lent me her collection, enabling me to read the very first Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Velvet Claws.

It's a case filled with blackmail, adultery, double-cross, and murder. Harrison Burke is at a hotel during a robbery, but he's not alone. He's with the already-married Eva Griffin, who asks Perry Mason to handle a tabloid that's threatening to run this story. Mason digs a little deeper and discovers that not everything is what it seems.

It's hard to write a review of such a classic work. You can't fault Mr Gardner's characters for being stereotypes when these were some of the tropes that helped define the genre. Instead I'll just note what differences I found between this first case and his later works.

I found him more hot-headed and impulsive here. When I usually read about Perry Mason, I get the sense that he knows how his clients will react or how the prosecution and the police will attack. Since he's often able to anticipate these movements, he manages to pull some tricks out. I'm no legal mind nor am I a chess player, but Mason's strategies are always entertaining and exciting to a layman like me. While Velvet Claws still had its twists and turns, I felt that Mason wasn't on top of the situation this. There was an unusual amount of blind faith -- and dare I say it, naivete? -- in his client that complicated things for him as well. It humanized Perry Mason a bit: from a man who could manipulate seemingly impossible cases to someone who made mistakes every now and then.

I also got a bit of insight into Della Street's past. Usually Della is just described as Mason's efficient secretary (and to shippers like me, a little bit more). But in the first few pages, Mason recounts things we don't know about Della: "You're different. Your family was rich. Then they lost their money. You went to work. Lots of women wouldn't have done that (p15)." Della doesn't appreciate the stroll down memory lane so the subject is dropped. I would love to read more about Della's personal life and while I haven't finished all the Perry Mason books, I still harbor hope that I'd come across more information in the later books.

Also missing for me this time was the presence of the ubiquitous court scenes. Most Perry Mason books work by-the-numbers for me: 1) Client approaches Mason for help; 2) Mason asks detective Paul Drake to investigate; 3) Client is implicated in a murder; 4) Police investigates and a case is filed; 5) Case is tried. Most of the Mason magic is revealed during the court trial, but it is largely absent in Velvet Claws. Even without this, the mystery is revolved to much satisfaction. By-the-numbers, I tell you: 6) Mason solves the mystery and lives to fight another day.

No comments: