Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

You can't "spoil" great art. But some people are touchy about learning specific story details before experiencing a work of art on their own. With that in mind, this post features "mild spoilers."

Erle Stanley Gardner was a fascinating man. This brief biography at Thrilling Detective gives you a taste of his varied and very successful life. He wasn’t someone who wasted time. He went to Valparaiso University in Indiana but didn’t finish, and participated in illegal boxing matches before he started working for a law firm in Oxnard, then he passed the bar exam without having attended law school. To supplement his legal income he started writing for the pulps, becoming perhaps the most successful pulp writer of all time. He churned out hundreds of stories featuring dozens of characters.

From 1923 to 1932, Gardner wrote for multiple pulps and slicks. Then in 1933 he published The Case of the Velvet Claws, his first novel and his first work to feature his most famous creation, Perry Mason. The book is basically a novel-length pulp story of the “One damn thing after another” school of writing. To paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, there’s no plot to get in the way of the story. And thank God for that, because Claws has one hell of a story.

The lawyer Perry Mason receives a visit from Eva Griffin, whose affair with political candidate Harrison Burke is about to be exposed in a scandal sheet called Spicy Bits. She asks Mason to approach the editor, John Burke, with a payoff offer. Mason takes the case and over the course of his investigation he discovers that his client’s name is in fact Eva Belter, and her husband George is the owner of Spicy Bits. He’s looking for a good reason to divorce Eva without having to give her any of his estate. When George is killed, Eva is naturally the prime suspect. Eva claims to have overheard someone talking to George just before he was shot— and she claims the voice of the other man was none other than Mason’s.

Eva’s venality is clear from the beginning. Mason’s secretary Della Street calls her a “minx” at least twice. George’s nephew Carl Griffin calls her a “baby-faced bitch.” She lives up to the billing, putting several people in her orbit at risk to save her own skin. She finally tells the police that she heard Mason talking to her husband just before he was shot, which requires Mason to hide out in a hotel room under an assumed name, and eventually he has to trick Eva into confessing to the murder so that he can more effectively represent her.

As you can guess from this brief synopsis, this novel is full of twists and turns. It moves frantically, and there were times when I got the impression that even Gardner himself didn’t know where the story was going and wrote hard and fast to find out how it was going to end.

Gardner wasn’t an exacting prose stylist. This book was clearly written to entertain readers, not impress scholars. Throughout Claws, Gardner uses similar phrasing. On the first page alone we get the following: “There was about him an attitude…” “his face was like…” “he gave the impression…” and “the office held an atmosphere…” Later in chapter 1 the narrator says that “He (Perry Mason) shrugged his broad shoulders,” then a few paragraphs later the narrator says, “Perry Mason made a gesture with his shoulders.” (Beyond a shrug, I’m not sure how many different types of gestures one makes with their shoulders.)

There are indications that Gardner did little revising or editing of his work. Early in chapter 7, Eva Belter calls Mason, and we get these two paragraphs:

The voice of Eva Belter sounded swift and panic-stricken over the wire.

“Thank God I’ve got you! Get in your car and come at once! This is Eva Belter.”

Early in chapter 10, the narrator refers to detective Paul Drake as “Paul,” “Paul Drake,” and “Drake.” There’s not much stylistic consistency when it comes to names, but this happens within a few paragraphs on the same page!

This being Mason’s first appearance he’s not above doing a little shilling for himself, presumably to drum up some business and to help the reader get a better idea of his character. And it often comes across like an attorney’s commercial (by the way, I’d love to hear an audio version of this book by William Shatner). Early in the first chapter, he tells Eva Belter:

“I’m different. I get my business because I fight for it, and because I fight for my clients. Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don’t come to me because they like the looks of y eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they’ve known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They comet o me because they want to hire me for what I can do.”

She looked up at him then. “Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason?” she asked.

He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!”

Later in the same chapter, he elaborates on this idea in conversation with Della:

“I’m a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out. I have to shoot square with them. I can’t always expect them to shoot square with me.”

In chapter 17, Mason spells it out for Drake, and gives the reader a little reminder as well:

“I’m a lawyer. I take people who are in trouble, and I try to get them out of trouble. I’m not presenting the people’s side of the case, I’m only presenting the defendant’s side. The District Attorney represented the people, and he makes the strongest kind of a case he can. It’s my duty to make the strongest kind of a case I can on the other side, and then it’s up to the jury to decide. That’s the way we get justice. If the District Attorney would be fair, then I could be fair. But the District Attorney uses everything he can in order to get a conviction. I use everything I can in order to get an acquittal. It’s like two teams playing football. One of them tries to go in one direction just as hard as it can, and the other tries to go in the other direction as hard as it can.

“It’s sort of an obsession with me to do the best I can for a client. My clients are entitled to the best I can do for them. It’s not my job to determine whether or not they are guilty. That’s for the jury to determine.”

That passage largely illustrates Mason’s attitude as a lawyer and Gardner’s attitude as a writer. He’s interested in doing best by the reader, creating an entertaining and diverting story that will allow them to forget their regular lives and vicariously experience the thrill of seeing righteous justice meted out by an earnest, pedantic brawler who’s not afraid to bend the law and throw a few punches along the way.

This first Perry Mason appearance shows the lawyer to be more of a hardboiled detective than a lawyer. It’s easy to understand why readers would have clamored for more. You turn the pages so quickly that there’s no time to linger on any so-called narrative flaws. It’s a masterclass in unselfconscious storytelling for its own sake.

The book served as the inspiration for a 1963 episode of the TV series. It was adapted as a film in 1936, and was also adapted as a radio play.

Second cover pic source.
First cover pic source.

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