Friday, February 28, 2014

A couple of cases

The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Sulky Girl, by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933. Perry Mason is an iconic figure whose relevance, eighty years after his creation, is perhaps even greater than ever. We need a lawyer-hero, dammit, to help us safely negotiate our course through the shark-infested waters in these parlous times. These were the first two of ninety Perry Mason books by Gardner, and it is interesting to see the sprouting of the nascent character. In the first story, The Case of the Velvet Claws, which never even makes it into the courtroom, Mason is more like a private eye than a lawyer. Think Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, and all the detective pulp fiction of the 1930s, which is a good distance from the urbane Raymond Burr of the TV series. By the second book, however, Mason has fully developed into the legal wizard who has probably done more to resuscitate public faith in the judicial process than all the actual lawyers out there. He is more restrained, less of an overt tough guy, but inwardly as tough as they come.

In these books it is abundantly clear that the beautiful Della Street, Mason's secretary, is majorly in love with the dashing attorney. She even gets to plant a kiss on him at the end of Velvet Claws, leaving some very visible lipstick behind. This is an element that never evolves much through the book and TV series, unfortunately for her; Mason is much too preoccupied with whatever his current case is to stoop to notice any form of wood at hand other than a gavel.

Somehow these books seem timeless. There is very little description that fixes them in their time period. We are completely pulled into the mystery itself, which exists in a world of its own. The discovery of a whole other layer of truth underneath the apparent one, the status quo obviousness of guilt and innocence pulled back by the superior man. Perry Mason represents the truth. That is his ultimate client.


Doug Mackey said...

My friend Lew, who has read the entire Mason series, notes that in a later book, Perry actually proposes to Della. Luckily, she turns him down. In any case it appears that there are a few chinks in the counselor's celibate armor, and who can blame him?

Anonymous said...


"The Case of the Sulky Girl" was episode 19 of the TV series. I have no idea whether they have any relationship to each other, except for the title. I've watched four seasons and still get a thrill when the real culprit breaks down and confesses in court. Guess you could say that's the judicial money shot. I read somewhere that Gardner dictated each book in a few days and never changed a word of the transcript. Perhaps an urban legend, but look at the number of books he wrote.... I would rate your review as Helpful.
The other Doug

Doug Mackey said...

Thanks for your "helpful" comment too, The Other Doug. I looked up the plot of the TV episode of Sulky Girl and it seems to be identical to that of the novel. I like the story that at the audition for the TV series, when Raymond Burr walked into the room, Gardner immediately jumped up and pointed, "That's him! That's Mason!" By the way, Gardner set himself a quote of 1.2 million words a year and after starting out with two-finger typing later switched to a team of secretaries.