welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason is one of the more iconic figures in crime fiction. One could argue that this series in part paved the way for the modern legal mystery. And if you’ve seen it, who could forget Raymond Burr in the role of Mason in the U.S. television series? This feature would be less without a Perry Mason story so let’s rectify that today. Let’s take a closer look at Perry Mason’s first outing, The Case of the Velvet Claws.
This novel begins when Mason gets a visit from a new client who calls herself Eva Griffin. She’s in a delicate situation and wants Mason’s help to get out of it. She and a “friend” up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke were at dinner at the Beechwood Inn when it was held up. Now Griffin is worried because a gossip tabloid called Spicy Bits has proof that Griffin, who is married, was there with Burke. Frank Locke’s the reporter who’s been following that story and he is blackmailing Griffin; if she doesn’t pay up, he’ll publish her relationship with Burke in the tabloid. Griffin wants Mason to stop the blackmailing and prevent the story from being published. Mason agrees and begins to look into the matter.
The problem he finds almost as soon as he does is that Eva Griffin is not who she says she is. She hasn’t told him the truth about several things – not even her real surname which is Belter – and when he taxes her with that, she manages to appear the injured innocent. But she is Mason’s client, so he pursues the case. Then late one night, Mason gets a frantic call from Griffin. She tells Mason that someone has just shot her husband George Belter and that she needs his help. Mason goes to the scene of the crime and finds that Belter has indeed been shot and is dead.
The police begin to investigate and Eva becomes a likely suspect. It turns out that she had a strong motive to kill, and that there is evidence against her. Mason himself becomes a suspect, too, when Eva tells the police that she heard his voice arguing with her husband just before her husband was shot. Now Mason has to clear both his name and that of his client and the only way to do that is to find out who really killed powerful George Belter and why. With help from his assistant Della Street and private investigator Paul Drake, Mason pulls aside the layers of lies his client has told him and gets to the truth about Belter’s death.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the character of Eva Belter. She does everything she can to manipulate people and situations and the reader has the powerful urge to tell Mason to drop this dangerous, lying manipulative client. Mason is no fool and knows exactly the kind of person Eva is. He even tells her:
“Every time you come here, you lie to me. You’re one of those baby-faced little liars that always gets by by deceit. Just because you’re beautiful, you’ve managed to get by with it. You’ve deceived every man that ever loved you, every man you ever loved. Now you’re in trouble and you’re deceiving me.”
He’s right, too. But Eva’s habit of dishonesty doesn’t mean that she is a murderer and besides, she is Mason’s client and he is determined to do whatever it takes to protect her interests. It’s actually a fascinating study in personal/professional conflict. How do you represent a client whom you know is deceitful and who has even tried to frame you?
We also see in this novel the beginning of the development of Perry Mason’s character. He isn’t as fully fleshed out as he becomes in later novels and he engages in a little more “rough and tumble” in this novel than he does in later novels but we see, as you might say, what’s to come. He’s a brilliant strategist, for one thing. He’s able to outwit even his client to find a way to clear both her name and his own and find out what really happened when George Belter was murdered. He’s also a very driven person whose first and most important priority is his client. At one point, for instance, Della Street, who has never liked Eva Belter, asks whether Mason is going to continue to stand for the way she’s treating him, even allowing him to be framed for murder. Here is what Mason says:
“‘When you’re representing clients, Della,’ he said, ‘you can’t pick and choose them. You’ve got to take them as they come. There’s only one rule in this game, and that is that when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got.’”
Mason’s strong commitment to his client doesn’t blind him to her faults, though. He knows that she cannot be trusted and he makes it clear that to him, she is simply a case, like other cases he takes. She pays his fee; he does his utmost to defend her.
There aren’t courtroom scenes in this novel, so readers who want to see Mason’s courtroom presence will be disappointed. But there are several discussions of legal strategy and it’s clear from those that Mason more than knows his way around a legal case. And we do get to go “behind the scenes” to see how an attorney gathers information that’s needed to defend a client, and how an attorney prepares a case. With help from Paul Drake and Della Street, Mason gets background information on people involved in the case, he arranges court documentation, there are discussions of what police may and may not do and discussions of how certain things will appear to a jury.
There are some aspects of the noir novel in this story. Most of the characters in the novel can’t be trusted and they have a jaded view of life. The outcome of the story isn’t what you’d call happy, either. Mason does solve the case and he learns who killed George Belter. So in that sense there’s closure. But the knowledge doesn’t really “set the world right.” By the end of the novel it’s very hard to tell who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” really are.
The mystery itself is believable and the way Mason solves it also makes sense. The killer isn’t obvious, but there are no “last-minute surprises” that cheat the reader. And the motive for the murder is one that the reader can “buy.”
This novel was published in 1933, and there are some aspects of it that reflect that time period. The dialogue is a little clunky and cliché in places and there’s a certain amount of sexism woven through the novel. So readers who are pulled out of a story by “isms” and dated dialogue will be disappointed. It’s probably best to view this novel as one of the “building blocks” for the modern legal mystery and a “period piece” look at legal work during the early 1930’s.
A somewhat “hardboiled” legal novel that features brilliant strategy and the first signs of one of crime fiction’s iconic characters, The Case of the Velvet Claws also features a fascinating and complex legal client. But what’s your view? Have you read The Case of the Velvet Claws? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 2 April/Tuesday 3 April – Don’t Look Back – Karin Fossum
Monday 9 April/Tuesday 10 April – Cop Hater – Ed McBain
Monday 16 April/Tuesday 17 April – A Not So Perfect Crime – Teresa Solana