Perry Mason: Season One (TV)

Series Details

Originally Broadcast 2020
Starring Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin
Available on HBO Go

The Blurb

An infant boy is kidnapped and an exchange is set up. The parents will provide a $100,000 ransom to get their son back. They make the drop and rush to their son only to find him dead.

Perry Mason is an investigator working for a lawyer defending one of the parents against claims that they orchestrated the affair for their own personal gain. With the media spotlight falling heavily on the case and a District Attorney keen to use the case as a springboard to higher office, the odds seem to be firmly stacked against their efforts…

The Verdict

Though it starts slow, the show hits its groove by midseason. The casting is excellent and the characters’ journeys are compelling.


My Thoughts

While millions of viewers will have grown up watching episodes of the long-running Raymond Burr series on television, my encounters with the character to date have been confined to the printed page. I have read and blogged about five of his earliest adventures on this site, finding them to be highly entertaining and engaging stories.

For those who haven’t read the Mason books of that era, our hero is less a courtroom performer than a scrappy, backroom lawyer. He is smart, resourceful and has principles though he is perfectly willing to cross the line and behave in ways that might well get him disbarred in the search for justice for his clients. This series leans heavily on this rough-around-the-edges interpretation of the character but is set several years earlier, exploring how he became that man.

Mason begins the series as a washed up shell of a man and he is not a qualified lawyer. Instead he is working as an investigator for the lawyer E. B. Jonathan, struggling to deal with the effects of his broken marriage and his harrowing experiences during the war. While I know that it was a shock to some that Mason isn’t even a lawyer at the start of the show, this first season does explore the way that he transitions from being in this washed-up state to becoming a lawyer himself. Think of it as Perry Mason Begins with us getting to see the pieces falling into place and how some of the things he has experienced cause him to practice law differently than many of the other lawyers around him.

Matthew Rhys is well suited to portraying this character at every stage of that evolution. His face is enormously expressive, allowing us to see what he is feeling and he seems to physically shift throughout the series, appearing more confident and powerful by the end. It is an impressive and nuanced performance, emphasizing the character’s humanity and the ways the details of this particular case come to affect him.

The case in question is that of the kidnapping of Charlie Dodson, an infant boy who was kidnapped from his parents’ home. A ransom demand was made for $100,000 which Matthew Dodson, the boy’s father, was able to get from his own father, the enormously wealthy Herman Baggerly. The parents follow the kidnappers’ instructions but when they rush to their son they find him dead with his eyes stitched open.

This tragic death is the starting point for the series as Mason is engaged as an investigator to look into the matter by the lawyer E. B. Jonathan who is working for Baggerly. The nature of the case is so shocking that it stirs up an enormous press and public interest. Maynard Barnes, the district attorney sees the case as a springboard he can use to launch his campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. E. B. Jonathan and, by extension, Mason sit on the other side of the case, defending those who are suspected to be guilty of orchestrating the crime for their own benefit.

The first few episodes are rather slow and ponderous, focusing on establishing each of the characters, their relationships to each other and building our understanding of exactly what the case against E. B.’s client will be. It probably doesn’t help that Mason can feel rather peripheral to the main story, particularly in the first episode which contains a rather tedious subplot where he and a colleague try to catch Chubby Carmichael, a prominent comedy film star, in flagrante.

I felt that the story became significantly more engaging following the conclusion to the series’ third episode. This is not a twist but rather a moment that heightens the tensions and serves to make E. B. Jonathan’s job all the harder. The episode that followed seemed to find a sharper focus than those up until that point, binding the different plot strands together much more closely and clearly.

While I am keen to avoid spoiling the various developments in the case, I can say that I found the final explanation of who orchestrated the kidnapping and why it went wrong to be both effective and convincing. Like the legal process itself, the case is sometimes rather slow-moving but that reflects both the workings of the court system and also that our focus is as much on the way the characters are affected by that process and how they interact with each other as it is the details of the case itself. I felt like each character was thoughtfully developed with several lingering in interesting gray areas.

One of the most interesting characters to me was Sister Alice played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). She is a preacher who leads the Radiant Assembly of God, whose meetings are rather reminiscent of those run by Sister Aimee during the 1920s and 30s incorporating lavish theatricals and acts of faith healing. Those sequences are gorgeously designed and performed, standing out as really colorful and lively, drawing an effective contrast with the otherwise quite muted color palette we see in Depression-era Los Angeles.

Her motivations for her actions throughout the season are often quite ambiguous and one of the biggest questions I had while watching was what her motivations were for interfering in the case. Maslany leans into that ambiguity very effectively, at times appearing quite helpful and sincere while at others her actions only seem to muddy the waters and make it harder for Mason to defend the client. While ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating in a mystery, here I felt it was used very effectively and I felt that by the final episode I had a strong handle on her character and the reasons for her various choices thoroughout the season.

I was similarly very impressed by Gayle Rankin, an actor who I had previously admired in Netflix’s GLOW (she plays Sheila the She-Wolf in that show). I felt she did a superb job of bringing to life the various conflicted feelings that Emily would feel as Charlie’s mother as she struggles to cope both with her grief and also her feelings of guilt that her own actions may have made the kidnapping possible. Rankin is able to portray different facets of each of those feelings, creating a character that feels both dimensional and credible even when we don’t agree with her actions, making her more than simply a victim.

John Lithgow is rightly being celebrated for his performance as E. B. Jonathan, a lawyer at the end of his career who is frustrated by his inability to protect his client. He really draws out the character’s humanity, creating a character whose frustrations we feel and share. Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Root as Barnes, the District Attorney who sees an opportunity to engage with voters’ sympathies and ruthlessly pursues it. I really enjoyed seeing these two actors playing off each other, particularly in the scenes that take place in court.

Finally I have to give praise to Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk, the actors playing Della Street and Paul Drake. Where all the other series characters have to shift to fill their eventual roles, Della is essentially in place at the start of the series working as a legal secretary, albeit for E. B. rather than Perry Mason. This role is enormously important to the series however as she is ultimately responsible for the really inexperienced Perry stepping into a courtroom and helping him through that process. She also gets to make several important contributions to the shaping of the case.

One alteration that is made to the character is that she is portrayed as a lesbian, living secretly with her girlfriend in a boarding house. This does not sit entirely with the flirtations and jealousies towards Perry we see Della engage in during these early books, particularly in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though I am personally not too worried about that sort of continuity. The core of the character, particularly her values, her comptence and her willingness to tell Perry what she thinks are all present and correct and I am excited to see how the character continues to develop in the second season.

I was more familiar with Chris Chalk who had appeared as Lucius Fox in Gotham, the Batman prequel series. Paul Drake begins the series as a uniformed cop who is told that he will never make detective in spite of his aptitude for the job because of his race. Like Mason, Drake has to find his place and realize what he values and who he wants to be. I thought that the character had an interesting journey and that Chalk plays well off Rhys once their paths cross. I am looking forward to seeing him take a more central role in future seasons.

The final aspect of the show that I want to mention is its visual style. It is an impressive evocation of the era and place in which it is set. Depression-era Los Angeles is brought to life with plenty of atmosphere and period detail. As I previously alluded to, the color palette tends towards black, gray and sepia tones which feels appropriate both to the setting and the tone of the piece. It also means that when you do see splashes of color they stand out all the more.

Between the cinematography and costuming, the characters and performances I found a lot to like in this first season and I am glad that it has already been renewed for a second. It does get off to a slow start but I felt it found its groove by the fourth episode, finishing strongly with compelling seventh and eighth episodes. I think the core elements put in place here are strong and bode well for future seasons. The one thing I’d love to see is for the show to mimic the way Gardner would setup the next case at the end of last, giving us an image or idea to hook our interest in that next client.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

Book Details

Originally published 1935
Perry Mason #6
Preceded by The Case of the Curious Bride
Followed by The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat

The Blurb

Wealthy businessman Hartley Bassett has killed himself. There’s a typewritten suicide note and three guns lying near his body. But for Perry Mason, that’s evidence overkill. He knows there has been trouble in Bassett’s life. His wife wants out, his stepson hates him, an embezzler can’t pay him back – and there’s the man with a glass eye who hired Perry Mason even before his glass eye went missing and was found in the hands of the deceased.

There are too many suspects and too many lies. But leave it to Mason, his resourceful secretary, Della Street, and clever detective Paul Drake to their wits about them and their wiles tucked away, as they piece together the missing parts of this fatal family puzzle.

The Verdict

An absolutely crazy ride. Always entertaining, even if there is a little too much coincidence at points.


My Thoughts

The release of a first full trailer for the upcoming HBO Perry Mason series last week was a helpful nudge for me to get back to my plan to read all the novels in order. Rather unfortunately I spectacularly failed to remember the book I read last (The Case of the Howling Dog) meaning I skipped over The Case of the Curious Bride.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that I already owned a copy of that one. Fortunately the series is not particularly continuity-driven and I am sure I will play catchup soon.

This novel opens with Mason being consulted by a man named Brunold who is concerned that one of his glass eyes has been stolen and replaced with a cheap imitation. He tells Mason he is worried that the eye will be planted to tie him to some sort of crime as the eye stolen would be of a rare enough type to be quite identifiable.

Immediately after that meeting he is called on by a young woman and her brother. He was working for the businessman Hartley Bassett and was caught embezzling funds. Bassett is demanding the money back and as the brother has lost the sum, the woman begs Mason to intercede on their behalf to persuade him to accept payments by installment.

When Mason calls on Bassett he finds the latter unwilling to countenance any sort of a deal. As he leaves he gains yet another client when Bassett’s wife approaches him, asking for legal advice about how to run off with another man without committing bigamy. Unfortunately more clients just equals more problems for Mason when Bassett is discovered dead in his home clutching a glass eye…

This description of the events of the book sounds pretty wild but I think it actually understates some of the craziness you will encounter in this story. Compared to the previous Mason books I’ve read these characters are even more colorful and their stories are thoroughly wrapped around each other. The pleasure here is in unpicking those story threads and understanding just how each aspect of the plot is linked together.

Now I will say that, for me, the hardest bit of the story to swallow is that first consultation from Brunold. Everyone else who consults Mason has a very clear legal issue to resolve whereas his is much harder to define and so struck me as a little unfocused. Fortunately the other two clients each have much clearer reasons to want Mason’s help and, in the case of Mrs. Bassett, some interesting ways of forcing him to assist her.

Surprisingly Gardner is able to sustain the same crazy energy throughout the rest of the story, both in terms of the things that happen to Mason and also some of his own actions. I commented in some of my previous Perry Mason posts about his willingness to bend or subvert the law and Gardner gives us plenty of examples of that here. He even writes an entertaining exchange where another character provides a little meta commentary about Mason’s willingness to twist the law.

This side of Perry Mason’s character is, for me, the most entertaining part of the character. I enjoy seeing him put tricks in place, particularly when it is not always clear to the reader what the exact purpose of the trick is or how it will be worked. We get several really great examples of that here.

The novel also introduces a character who apparently becomes an important recurring figure in the series – District Attorney Burger. These stories are all new to me so I can’t compare him here with the character he becomes but I enjoyed him and, in particular, the way Mason works to establish his relationship with that character. I appreciated that while they are presented as antagonists in terms of the legal proceedings, Burger is not personally antagonistic towards Mason and understands that the lawyer is seeking to find the truth, even if his methods are sometimes sneaky.

The novel builds towards a substantial and dramatic courtroom scene which sees Mason working a variety of tricks and angles. We are not in on all of his schemes, even though we have seen the preparations he has made, so I enjoyed seeing just what he was playing at. There is a certain audacity to some of the moves he makes during this chapter and I felt the character was taking too many chances but the explanation given afterwards convinced me both as to what he was up to and why he thought it worth the risk.

Perhaps the least interesting part of the book is the solution to who killed Bassett. In his excellent (and much more detailed) post about the novel, Brad suggests that the killer stands out. I certainly guessed at it almost immediately, recognizing the setup even if I didn’t understand every aspect of the crime. For that reason I would suggest that those looking primarily for a whodunnit may want to skip over this one.

For those more interested in being amused and entertained, I can recommend this as an often audacious and thoroughly enjoyable read. While the whodunnit aspects of the story may be a little predictable, the real excitement for me was seeing just what Perry Mason would do next and waiting for an explanation to be given as to just what he was up to. Happily in that respect this story definitely delivered and reminded me why I was enjoying this series so much. I am sure I will be making a special effort to return to the series soon for another case.

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

Howling
The Case of the Howling Dog
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #4
Preceded by The Case of the Lucky Legs
Followed by The Case of the Curious Bride

I am a little nervous of declaring any reading projects for 2019. It’s not that I don’t want to take anything on – goodness knows I have ideas – but I have poor follow-through as anyone who has been following my one-a-month Christie and Ellery Queen series knows… So while I am not saying that I am intending to review all of the Perry Mason stories in order I will say that I plan to review the Perry Mason stories in order.

The Case of the Howling Dog is the fourth in the series and while I have some issues with it (more on that later), I am pleased to say that I found it a more engaging experience than The Case of the Lucky Legs. Where I struggled for months to enthuse myself to finish that title, this one I did in just two sittings which I think says everything.

So, what’s it all about? Perry is approached by a man named Cartwright who asks him questions about writing his will and then engages him to take legal action to stop his neighbor’s dog from howling. Perry carries out his instructions but is soon approached by the neighbor who insists that his dog is calm and that he is being persecuted and that Cartwright is unhinged and spying on them.

The situation becomes odder still when Perry receives a will from Cartwright that is written contrary to the specific advice he had given him, leaving his money to his neighbor’s wife. Keen to get to the bottom of things Perry heads to the neighbor’s home where he finds a body and a dead dog, not to mention a missing wife.

An attribute of Gardner’s writing that I am appreciating is his ability to set up an apparent legal situation and then transform it in an altogether more interesting case. We saw that in the previous novel which began with a contract dispute and here we begin with a case of poor relations between neighbors. There are several clues to suggest that these two men have considerably more history than they initially seemed to but the most interesting part of the case for me are the differing accounts of the dog’s behavior.

Let’s take a step back though and consider Perry’s previous stories and the way he was handled there. In those novels he takes an aggressive and active role in protecting his client’s interests but what detective work he does takes the form of listening to information and testing its validity. He uses his professional judgement and common sense to work out why his client is innocent but there is little deductive work.

This novel feels different. He still interviews persons of interest in the case and tests information but at points in the story he clearly utilizes deductive reasoning to make sense of that evidence in a way we haven’t seen before. This culminates in a moment towards the end of the novel in which Perry lays out his understanding of what happened. This is not only fascinating as a dramatic reveal, I loved how that moment fits in to some of the broader themes and ideas of these early novels and builds on our understanding of Perry as a man and as a lawyer.

In my previous reviews I have mentioned that I enjoy moments where Mason skates on the edge of the law which was apparently a feature of these earlier stories. Gardner really pushes Mason into some ethically dubious territory in this one which is certainly entertaining, even if I think he goes way further over that line than he claims. What I appreciate most about those moments in this story though is the point Gardner makes about how witnesses are manipulated and I appreciated how it shows Mason being particularly cunning.

Once again we get a hefty dose of courtroom action and see Perry at work, developing his approach to fighting this case. These chapters are effective though I think Perry’s strategy is clearer than the author seems to realize. In particular there is one element that he has to explain to Della at the end that I imagine will jump out to anyone who has seen more than a handful of legal dramas. It’s not really Gardner’s fault that others have since covered similar ground but it does reduce the impact of that revelation.

For the most part I found the characterization of the supporting figures to be just fine, albeit with no outstanding figures. It does feel a bit strange that we spend so little time getting to know Perry’s client but I can accept that it is not a priority given the themes and plot ideas that Gardner intends to explore.

Della and Paul Drake play a pretty limited role in the story and I will say that I missed them. Gardner does find other characters to fill the need for someone to question Mason’s methods and approach to the case but what I appreciate about these two is that they know him and care for him, particularly Della.

Where I think Gardner’s characterization falls down is with the portrayal of the Chinese cook Ah Wong. This character only plays a small role in the story and it seemed that Gardner had intended to make a point about the treatment of Asian immigrants. Certainly I think we are supposed to think Pemberton is an idiot when he insists that you have to know how to handle the Chinese but then he has Ah Wong communicate in broken English. On top of that this section of the book features repeated uses of racial epithets in a way that doesn’t sit particularly well including from Mason. Regardless of the author’s intentions I think that this aspect of the book has not aged well and though it is hardly out-of-place within the fiction of the time, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

Were those chapters not in the book or had the subject been handled differently I would be quite comfortable suggesting this as the best of the four Masons I have read so far. Certainly it is the strongest of the four as a mystery featuring some genuine pieces of deduction on the part of Mason and I think it has a very effective ending. Unfortunately I can only say that it is a really interesting book with a few elements that did not work for me and detracted from my overall impressions of the novel.

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

Lucky
The Case of the Lucky Legs
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1934
Perry Mason #3
Preceded by The Case of the Sulky Girl
Followed by The Case of the Howling Dog

The Case of the Lucky Legs is the third Perry Mason mystery and the first which I found a bit of a struggle to get through, at least at first. My first few attempts to read it ended with me falling asleep or losing concentration and while it is possible that this was not entirely the book’s fault, it certainly did not bode well. But before I delve too deeply into my feelings about the book I should outline what it is about.

The previous novel had ended with Mason receiving a letter from an “Eva Lamont” requesting his legal services but the meeting is actually attended by Bradbury, a wealthy playboy. It turns out that he is looking for help in a matter concerning a lady friend who might have married him had it not been for a roguish movie promoter, Frank Patton, who held a beauty contest for women to win a picture contract with a movie studio. His lady friend, Marjorie Clune, won the title of ‘The Girl with the Lucky Legs’ but the studio wiggled out of their contract leaving her too embarrassed to return to her hometown.

Bradbury is hoping that Mason will track down Patton and get him to confess to his deception or unethical behavior to give grounds to sue the studio. As he remarks, Patton seems to have had some ‘shrewd legal advice’ and he wants to get some of his own. One complication is that there is another man in Marjorie’s life, spendthrift dentist Dr. Doray, who is also seeking some justice for her. Bradbury wants to make sure that whatever happens, he receives the credit for helping her rather than Dr. Doray.

The early part of the novel sees Mason following up on this request and I found them to be somewhat slow and lacking in intrigue. The setup as first expressed seems pretty clear-cut and I was not particularly drawn to any of the characters. The most intriguing aspect of the case, the film studio setting, is really only background to the story and offers little in the way of color or excitement.

These chapters are not only somewhat drab in terms of the content, they move surprisingly slowly in spite of Gardner’s athletic, punchy prose style. Several conversations are quite lengthy yet they neither advance our understanding of the plot or the characters involved, particularly those with Bradbury whose demanding attitude quickly becomes tiresome.

Fortunately the pace does pick up a little as we move into the second phase of the story in which Perry discovers a body. This sequence is notable enough that it is explicitly referenced in an author’s introduction to the book in which he notes that some readers may be surprised to read about Perry Mason making use of a set of skeleton keys in this sequence and it certainly does seem like a surprisingly reckless decision from anyone practicing law. This is far from the only reckless decision he will make in the course of the story but given the others all are well within spoiler territory I had best not say more. Many of these moments are amusing but they do come at the expense of the story’s credibility.

One aspect of this novel that I cannot fault it on is its discussion of what it means to represent someone. Perry may act recklessly at points in this story but he is always clear on who his client is and how he should best serve their interests. This is a theme that dominated each of the previous stories but I think it is particularly effective here, especially bearing in mind Bradbury’s repeated attempts at interference.

The other aspect of this adventure that appealed was the divergence in the interests of Mason and Paul Drake, the head of the Drake Detective Agency who he advises Bradbury to hire. While some of the early exchanges between the two in this story are a little dry, I appreciated that this story acknowledges that Drake is not simply an extension of Mason and may disagree with his actions. This idea is not fully realized within the story but it does make Drake seem a more independent and interesting creation.

I was a little disappointed that Della Street is largely sidelined in this story and is given little opportunity to do anything beyond make shorthand notes of conversations and answer the phone lines. This is a far cry from the more vocal character we saw in The Case of the Velvet Claws and it does seem like Gardner had lost some interest in her by this point.

Turning back to the case itself, I think the solution works though it is not particularly surprising. Gardner does not give us many suspects to choose from so the solution is fairly easy to predict. The circumstances in which Mason reveals the killer’s identity are fun if a little convoluted but, once again, the scene plays out surprisingly slowly and rather than building anticipation, I was wishing he would just get on with naming them.

While I found parts of this story to be very entertaining, I do think it is a weaker work than either of the two previous Mason adventures. The opening to the case offers little in the way of intrigue and some of the plot developments feel convoluted. Mason is still a fun hero, if a little rougher and less ethical than in some of his other outings, and I do think he gets some good moments here but if you are new to this series I would certainly not start here.

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirl
The Case of the Sulky Girl
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1933
Perry Mason #2
Preceded by The Case of the Velvet Claws
Followed by The Case of the Lucky Legs

I enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClaws
The Case of the Velvet Claws
Erle Stanley Gardner
Originally Published 1933
Perry Mason #1
Followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl

Prior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)