"The Case of the Velvet Claws"
by Erle Stanley Gardner
published March 1933
A married woman named Eva has been having an affair with a local politician. Their presence at a crime scene recently has threatened to expose their relationship to her husband and the politician's constituents. Eva comes to Perry Mason because he's good at getting people out of tight spots. She wants him to use his contacts in the press and the police to keep this quiet. Unfortunately before he can even complete that task, her husband is murdered. She first asks Perry's help to remove anything at the crime scene that might implicate her, which he refuses, then she moves on to implicating him for the crime. Not because she wants to frame him as much as she wants him to have skin in the game; in digging himself out the hole, he will end up digging her out as well.
This was a pretty good read, Mason comes out fully-formed. He doesn't suffer any nonsense, sees through lies and is quick to figure out the next action to take. This book reads less like most novels I've read and more like a play, it's extremely dialogue-heavy. As much as the details and machinations of all this business is interesting, halfway through the book I was kind of hoping Perry would stop explaining everything and just get on with it. The last half is helped by a third-act twist. When someone confesses to the murder in chapter 15, I was wondering what we were going to do for 5 more chapters, but there is still more to come!
Still, Perry seems to have the finger on the pulse of his town. He knows who to bribe, who to trade favors with, who to strongarm and isn't above resorting to blackmail. The thing that left a little question in my mind is his relationship to Detective Paul Drake. Is Drake a police detective or private detective? It seems like police, but he also seems to be on Mason's payroll. Mason must call on him six or eight times during this book to do some legwork for him and Drake is always ready to jump when he gets the call. Late in the book it's revealed that their offices are located in the same building, which is not the police station.
Mason's secretary Della Street is opinionated and vocal. Like some sort of Greek chorus she kind of tells us what's ahead of us during the first chapter. She tells Mason that everything Eva is saying is a lie and she's going to double-cross him. At every step her hunches seem to be true. Mason even confirms this at the end when they discuss the possibilities of the next case to take.
The other takeaway is Mason's sense of loyalty to his client. Even after Eva frames him for the murder, as soon as he's cleared himself, he goes back to work to get her out of it. When Della questions him as to how he can still be loyal to her, he just says he couldn't help her when he was under suspicion, now that he's out, he can be of help to her again. He knows many of his clients are probably guilty, he just tries to give them the best defense he can regardless.
I like some of Gardner's diction. At one point Mason punches out a troublemaker and "he goes down like a sack of meal." The author also keeps referring to cars as 'machines.' Like "he jumped in his machine, turned the key, and hit the gas." On the other hand there are some racial slurs that wouldn't fly quite so loosely today. Not used by any of the hero characters, of course.
The thing I was really reminded of when reading this was not so much Perry Mason, the courtroom hero I remember from TV, but Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files. He's always getting in and out of jams and comes up with all sorts of machinations to get himself out. And he always makes sure he gets paid along the way, both characters make sure of that.
The Case of the Velvet Claws
was made into the fourth Perry Mason feature film from Warner Bros. in 1936 featuring Warren William as Mason. It was also made into a sixth season episode of the Raymond Burr series. I may have to track those down next!
"The Case of the Restless Redhead"
Season 1 Episode 1
aired Sept. 21, 1957
This show comes out of the gates pretty well formed. Raymond Burr seems to have no question about how to handle the character of Perry Mason, the half-lawyer, half-detective. The character had been in print for 24 years by the time this show premiered so I suppose he was pretty well known to the public even if only through cultural osmosis.
A woman named Evelyn discovers a pistol planted in her hotel room; she takes it and drives away looking for help. In what must have seemed like a slasher film nightmare, her car is chased through a country highway at night by a man wearing a white hood with holes cut out for eyes. As he tries to run her off the road, she takes a shot at him and gets away. She winds up at the door of Perry Mason. Soon the man who was chasing her is found dead in his car, and she's accused of killing him during the chase, but she swears she didn't come close to hitting him.
Mason is now on the job, trying to figure out who owns the gun that was planted on her, why it was planted, whether the dead man in the white hood is the same guy who chased Evelyn or just a poor patsy, and who really killed him. Everywhere he turns he runs into hard cases who admit nothing and threaten him for even asking the questions.
It all ends up in the courtroom and Mason plays some semi-dirty pool by planting some bonus bullets at the crime scene to fool the forensics, tampering with evidence by swapping guns with a suspect, but it is all in pursuit of the truth so I guess that's okay?
This pilot episode was based on the 45th Perry Mason novel which was published three years earlier. I'm not sure why this episode was chosen for the first but it works. My only real complaint would be that Mason's stalwart secretary, Della Street, doesn't get much to do. In the first novel she doesn't necessarily do much either but she has a lot of thoughts and isn't shy about speaking them.
I usually wouldn't say anything against the black-and-white presentation but it took me a minute to figure out that Evelyn was indeed the redhead of the title. At the end she says something to another woman about being "a redhead like me" but the audience would never have known it.