I am reminded, unavoidably, of the infamous and surely invented anecdote about young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree - you remember, young George supposedly tells his father, "I cannot tell a lie." It comes to mind, as I write about Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Velvet Claws, the very first Perry Mason mystery, written in 1933 - because Mason finds himself saddled with a client of whom the exact opposite is true: quite simply, she cannot tell the truth. Ever. At all. About anything. As you might expect, this leads to some very interesting complications. The Case of the Velvet Claws is our book today on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
If your idea of Perry Mason is based only on the excellent long-running television series starring Raymond Burr, you'll find a much rougher, down-to-earth Perry Mason in The Case of the Velvet Claws as well as several other early Mason mysteries. But one thing is clear right from the outset of this first Perry Mason novel: Mason regards himself as a champion of the underdog, and he believes he owes his client his loyalty and his absolute best efforts to resolve that client's problems with the law.
In The Case of the Velvet Claws, a woman comes to Perry Mason's office to hire him. She wants him to prevent a story from being published in a scandal and gossip sheet that is actually the cover for a blackmailing operation. Mason quickly learns that the woman is being anything but straightforward and honest with him. And when the man who is behind that blackmailing operation is murdered, Mason finds himself on the run and suspected of murder – a murder that his client may well have committed herself. Despite the fact that his client appears to be incapable of making a true statement about anything, Mason continues to represent her and fight for her rights to the best of his ability…even as he finds himself staying one step ahead of the police, who appear to be ready to arrest him.
This earliest Perry Mason story has a great many elements which make it fit into a "noir" sub-genre; there are remarkably few people Mason (or the reader) can trust. Happy endings are pretty scarce on the ground here. And it should be noted that there are no courtroom scenes in this book - another difference from the later Perry Mason books and television dramas.
But it is a very good book indeed, and it gives the reader some excellent insight into one of America's most popular lawyer-detectives, and his passionate defense of his clients. ALL of his clients, whether they can tell the truth or not. It's available again now as an ebook and it's very much worth your reading pleasure.