Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Geekerati Reviews Erle Stanley Gardner's THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS


The Preamble

Like many fans of genre fiction, mystery and suspense fiction in particular, I was excited to watch the new Perry Mason series on HBO. I really enjoyed the series and found that for me the episodes could not be released fast enough. In an era where streaming services like Netflix drop entire seasons of shows, having to wait a week to watch the next episode of a show can add a kind of excited tension to a show. This was certainly true for me with the new Perry Mason show, a show which provided an interesting mystery with rich characters.

It also presented a vision of Perry Mason that was entirely new to me. Though I was familiar with how many represented Raymond Burr's version of Mason, I had never watched an episode of the original 1957 series in which he starred (this has changed recently). I had also never read a single volume of Erle Stanley Gardner's long running series that began in 1933 with the publication of The Case of the Velvet Claws. My understanding of the character was that he was morally forthright and facilitated cross-examination confessions from the actual perpetrators of crime. In fact this image of the cross-examination confession had become so deeply engrained in society that it has become a trope of the legal procedural genre, the genre that Gardner helped to found.

Instead of the modern day elderly knight in shining armor, a kind of legal Obi Wan, the HBO series showed a character who was not yet an attorney and who was far more hard boiled than the character in the TV movies. In fact, hard boiled references abound in the show and especially alludes to the fiction of Dashiell Hammett. Mason's status as a veteran and work as a Private Investigator evokes Dashiell Hammett's real life biography and the use of the name Effie for Mason's mom in the HBO show evokes Hammett's classic novel The Maltese Falcon. Such connections are clearly intentional and they show a reverence and knowledge of Erle Stanley Gardner's original novels and an appreciation for the American detective fiction genre. The first season of Perry Mason presents an origin story for Perry Mason and it ends with a woman named "Eva Griffin" walking into Mason's office with an offer of employment. This moment is the opening scene of The Case of the Velvet Claws.

The Case of the Velvet Claws was published in 1933 and marks Perry Mason's introduction to the wider world. Though Erle Stanley Gardner had been writing for the pulps for years, it was the publication of The Case of the Velvet Claws that vaulted him into a long and successful career as one of the most widely sold authors of all time. Perry Mason stories also provided the fertile soil from which the genre of Courtroom Procedural grew. It wasn't the first Courtroom Procedural, Arthur Cheney Train's character Ephraim Tutt predates Mason by over a decade. In fact, The Case of the Velvet Claws doesn't even involve a trial and it presents a Mason far different from my elderly knight in shining armor assumptions. 

What The Case of the Velvet Claws does is establish a core cast of characters and a plot formula that provides a solid foundation that is entertaining and easily adapted by other authors. In a way, Perry Mason and Crew are the Justice Society/Justice Inc. of mystery fiction. Where Sherlock Holmes introduced the "sidekick" to mystery fiction, The Case of the Velvet Claws added the "team" and the "legal system" to the genre. Yes, Holmes dealt with the police, but Mason and his team navigate mysteries from before the inciting incident through the full legal resolution.

We know that Erle Stanley Gardner became a successful writer and that Perry Mason has become one of the most popular and influential characters in mystery and suspense fiction, but how well does The Case of the Velvet Claws stand up as a work of fiction? 

The "TL;DR" answer is that the book is fantastic and that you should pick it up immediately. The longer answer follows and includes comparisons to the Perry Mason of the HBO Show and the 1957 series (which I've also begun watching post-HBO series).

The Plot

The Case of the Velvet Claws opens with "Eva Griffin" coming to Perry Mason's office with an appeal that he represent her in a delicate matter. It so happens that the night before visiting Mason, Eva Griffin had been attending a private dinner at the Beechwood Inn and that there had been a hold up at the location. She had been attending the event with a politician who's name had been left out of the list of those interviewed at the robbery and that a scandal magazine called Spicy Bits has received information that this politician was there and that his name had been held back and will likely publish this information in their next issue. 

Ms. Griffin has two main concerns. The first is that the politician's life will be ruined when it is discovered that he was having dinner with a mysterious woman and that police were willing to cover up this fact to protect him. The second is that her husband will find out that she's having an affair. She wants to protect the politician and herself and wants Perry Mason to work it out with the scandal rag that they take a payoff to not run the story. Mason agrees to take the case.

While the 1990s Perry Mason movies included stories that featured Spicy Bits style papers, the thought of Mason being used as a go between to stop the publication of a story didn't quite seem to match with my memories of how people presented the character. However, this story very much fits with the Mason of the 1957 series I’ve been watching over the past year and especially fits the Mason of the HBO show. One can see echoes of this basic plot in the Hammersmith Pictures storyline in the first episode of the new show. HBO's Mason understands the motivation of blackmail and how to deal with blackmailers because he's been one himself. The Mason of The Case of Velvet Claws has probably never attempted blackmail himself, but he's used to dealing with the kinds of people who engage in blackmail. 

The Pugilist

Contrary to my earlier assumption that Perry Mason was a morally forthright character who was squeaky clean and honest, the Perry Mason of the books is a hard boiled character. He is as morally ambiguous as any character Dashiell Hammett or any of the authors of Black Mask wrote to thrill readers. Rather than being presented only as a passive academic character, Mason is described as a ruthless and efficient fighter:

 "He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one blow."

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) (p. 8-9). Della Street Press. Kindle Edition.

Gardner refers to Mason as a fighter more several times in the novel and has Mason refer to himself that way as well, but Mason's fighting spirit is more than just in words and descriptions. It's also made manifest in his actions. His actions in defense of his client, in defense of himself, and when punching reporters for Spicy Bits in the face:

“Don’t get hard,” he said, “because it won’t buy you anything.” “The hell it won’t,” said Perry Mason. He measured the distance, and slammed a straight left full into the grinning mouth. Crandall’s head shot back. He staggered for two steps, then went down like a sack of meal.

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) (p. 42). Della Street Press. Kindle Edition.

Let’s just say that a Perry Mason who slugs someone so hard that they go down like a sack of meal is vastly different from my expectations. The Perry Mason of The Velvet Claws is a man of intelligence, to be sure, but he is a man of action and so is the private eye he most frequently hires, Paul Drake. Not only is Mason a man of action, he’s also shady as hell. I won’t get into particulars, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but the Perry Mason of the books pushes legal boundaries as far as they can go without breaking the law…and I’m pretty sure he breaks the law a couple of times.

The early episodes of the 1957 series don’t have Mason get physical, though the younger Raymond Burr in the show looks like a linebacker and they certainly could have, but they do have him act shady from time to time. Not shady enough to justify the continued skepticism of the police, but shady nonetheless. Literary Mason though? Oh yea, I get why the police don’t trust him. He’ll have a client “go on a trip” as quick as shit to prevent them from testifying. He’ll alter a crime scene to make a point about a witness and he’ll go even further.

The only thing that justifies Mason’s actions is the fact that universally, in The Velvet Claws and every other Mason novel, the client is not guilty of the crime they are accused of. Read that sentence again. Not guilty of the crime they are accused of. They might be guilty of something else, but it’s not the crime for which Mason is defending them. They also have often had their rights violated by the police. While the police in the Mason novels aren’t as incompetent as the police in the 1957 show, OMG is Tragg bad at his job, but they are just as willing to bend the rules as Mason. That’s why Mason is willing to bend the law in defense of his clients.

Mason tells his clients continually not to lie to him, to be honest so he can give them the best defense. Like Dr. House though, he knows they are all liars…even the innocent. When the truth can set them free, they still often choose to lie and Mason has to find out why and in finding out why he typically finds the way to win.

The Prognosis

The Velvet Claws is one helluva good novel and the closing scene of the book is the opening scene for the second. Gardner writes the first few books as if they are a serial. You get the mystery solved by the end of the book, but the book ends at the edge of a cliff with a new problem. We don’t often know what the problem is, but we know it’s lurking right out side Perry’s office waiting for Della Street to invite them in.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Brandon Sanderson's WORDS OF RADIANCE Continues a Delightful Series

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brandon Sanderson's second volume in The Stormlight Archive adds some significant complexities to the plot, but it does so without introducing a laundry list of new characters. In many multi-volume door stopper epic fantasy series the authors substitute adding new characters and new plotlines for adding depth and conflicts to existing characters. This kind of writing is typically suggestive of an author who, while talented, doesn't have a clear map for the overall series. It's clear that Sanderson knows where this story is going and it looks like the story is going some interesting places.

Where the first volume introduced the major characters in the epic, WORDS OF RADIANCE introduces the major factions (similar to political parties) who are driving a great deal of the conflict in the narrative. Key characters are revealed to be members of these factions, each of which wants to "save" the world and each of which seeks to do so through different means. These factions include both Human and Eshonai factions, and less political factions among the Spren as well. There is politics a plenty in the world of Roshar, and WORDS OF RADIANCE is where we readers begin to dip our toes into the complex political interactions Sanderson has set up. In an effort to refrain from spoilers, I won't say what each faction wants but will say that each faction seeks a "better" world even if their actions are heinous.

In addition to the factions, Sanderson continues his exploration of the theology of Roshar in particular (with some about the Cosmere in general) as we find out more about the Knights Radiant, The All-Father, Honorspren, Crypticspren, and the nature of Shardblades. That last one would be a huge spoiler, but it demonstrates the real cost of the Recreance in an emotionally powerful way and conversations between Kaladin and Syl about Shardblades suggest future plot development.

There was an emergence of a potential love triangle in the book, and obvious one, and it's one that I hope Sanderson doesn't move forward with because it seems like a tangent that might lead to a repeat of the kind of betrayal committed in this book. A repeat of that betrayal, even if different in nature, would be staid in an otherwise fresh story. It's fine to have emotional dynamics and love triangles, but I pray that this one doesn't come to dominate the conflicts of the overall plot. There are plenty of factions and conspiracies, we don't need a repeat of Camelot here. Even if it's nice to see echoes of mythic tropes.

While I have my favorite characters, and those are shared by others, I was particularly impressed with the development of the Parshendi General Eshonai in WORDS OF RADIANCE. I want a lot more of her character as she, Rlain, and certain "wanderers" have created an opportunity for the series to end with a brighter tomorrow in a way that once again brings to mind David Gemmell's book DARK MOON. In fact, this series continues to have a Gemmell-esque feel even its volumes are much longer than a typical Gemmell tale.

I am eager to begin reading OATHBRINGER, the third in the series, and hope that it continues to develop the major conflicts of the series and lets us get to know even more about the wonderful characters (both virtuous and vicious) who inhabit Roshar.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Black Company is Excellent Military Fantasy

The Black Company by Glen Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Glen Cook's first entry in the Black Company series is an interesting combination of originality and trope that bridges the gap between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. This volume tells the tale of the Black Company from the point of view of Croaker, the Company's surgeon/medic, as they begin their employment under a mysterious figure known as The Lady. While high magic abounds in the world of The Black Company, and happens in the vicinity of the Company, it is not the focus of the story. The main narrative focuses on the skirmishes, battles, and scouting and assassination missions that the Company engages in during a revolution against The Lady.

Descriptions of events are sparse and most character names are nicknames like The Lady, Croaker, One-Eye, Raven, The Captain, The Limper, Darling, Soulcatcher, etc. It is rare that an actual name is used, even in the case of locations in the book. This gives the reader a feeling that they are reading a translation of a text written in another language where the author has translated names into the new language, or a feeling of narrative distance that one gets when reading a history rather than a story.

Cook borrows strongly from existing fantasy literature, both high and low. The Lady can manifest "The Eye" in a manner that echoes Sauron in Tolkien. The grim and gritty battles echo the writings of Robert Howard and the first assassination mission echoes a Fritz Leiber tale of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. While the narrative tapestry borrows from a myriad of earlier literature, with Dark Lords and Prophesied Saviors and all, the end result is highly original. It's a fun read, and Croaker's voice comes through as experienced but not jaded. Some of the best details are focused on the "hurry up and wait" culture of the military, details that add greatly to the realism of the book.

View all my reviews

Back in the d20 era, Green Ronin published an excellent sourcebook for the series. I'd love to see an updated version for the AGE system...which I think might fit the setting better than d20 did. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

[Book Review] GIANT THIEF -- Where's the Likeable Rogue?

Easie Demasco is a character with whom I am conflicted. On the one hand, he is a witty character who has a well developed sense of humor. One the other hand, he's a jerk -- one who never really becomes more than a jerk. He's also the strongest and most compelling feature of David Tallerman's novel GIANT THIEF (published by Angry Robot Books).

GIANT THIEF is a fairly straight forward tale of:

1) Thief acquires MacGuffin not understanding it's value.
2) Thief meets people who understand value of MacGuffin and seek to use thief in battle against evil.
3) kind of know the rest.

Often these tales include a heroic journey or follow a bildungsroman format in which our Thief undergoes some major transformation or grows in some way -- usually evolving morally. Not so with GIANT THIEF.   Easie begins the story as a selfish and greedy rogue, and he ends the story as a selfish and greedy rogue with more grandiose plans than before.

Technically,  that does count as some kind of character development, but it lacks the moral evolution that often occurs in these tales.  Easie goes from a petty thief to an individual who seeks to become a master thief. He goes from pick pocket to one who wants to become a Thomas Crown-esque figure, but he lacks the sophisticated charm of a Thomas Crown and has instead a clownish sense of humor.  If one were to cast Easie for a film, one would look more to comedic talent than to cool sexuality.  He's more Daffy Duck than Han Solo.

There are quite a few clumsy moments in the book and the chapters establish and follow a  predictable rhythm. One is tempted to say that the book is one that isn't to be recommended based on these flaws, as they are often fatal to good storytelling. And yet...

I keep finding myself wanting to throttle Easie Damasco, or watch him get caned, or at least have a long talk with him to wake him up and set him on a more moral path. I keep finding myself imagining conversations with him.

All of which means that Tallerman has achieved something that is often rare within a novel, he's created a realistic character who lingers in ones mind weeks after a book has been read. That is a good thing indeed. If only Easie were more likeable. He's a rogue and a scoundrel...and that's it. He's not loveable. He's not nice. He doesn't harbor a hidden heroic heart. But he is interesting and I want to know more about him

[Gaming Notes -- Contains a minor Spoiler]

The book's MacGuffin and interpretation of Giants are perfectly suited for adaptation to the gaming table.  The MacGuffin is a non-magical stone sacred to the Giants that signifies who is the Giant's chief.  In Giant society the orders of the chief must be followed without question, even if they violate the morality of the tribe members.  The Giants in this case are gentle pacifist vegetarians, but they are asked to do some terrible things.  All of which could make for a compelling and morally complex D&D adventure.

You can play with PC preconceptions regarding Giants and slowly introduce them to the moral complexity of the situation.  How many Giants will the players defeat, or even kill, before they discover the secret of the stone?  How will they feel about their actions later.

These are good questions, that can make for a rewarding adventure as well.