Cover art through the ages: The Case of the Velvet Claws, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1933)

This is Perry Mason #1, the volume that brought the hard-punching attorney to the public’s attention, and it’s been reprinted a LOT since 1933. It makes for an interesting look at how book design has changed over the decades. I thought I’d take you on a little tour of the visual images associated with this title, as cover art for books, and those associated with other media.

The story revolves around the highly seductive, financially sound, and morally bankrupt Eva Belter, who is in a lot of trouble. Her married boyfriend is running for office and she wants Perry to pay out some blackmail money to a publication called Spicy Bits, which is threatening to tell all. Perry soon learns that Spicy Bits is owned by — Eva’s ruthless husband. Before too much longer, Mr. Belter is shot and the delightful Eva tries to blame the crime on Perry himself. Perry has to battle his way through his client’s attempts to incriminate him and do a neat piece of deduction in order to solve the mystery so that Eva can inherit Spicy Bits and squash the story — and pay Perry’s huge fee.

Perry is quite a bit different in his first outing; much more willing to punch his opponents in the jaw than in later years, and a little more involved in skirting around the edges of legal ethics. In later years he became quite a bit more pompous. We learn all we ever learn about the origins of Della Street here — she was a debutante who had to go to work when her family lost all its money, presumably in the crash of ’29. Della doesn’t like Eva at all, and says so to Perry — “I hate everything she stands for!” Quite different from the mealy-mouthed Della played by Barbara Hale!

Here are the earliest pieces of cover art, both the first edition from William Morrow and a number of revisions for Pocket #73, first published in 1939.

The Case of the Velvet Claws, Erle Stanley Gardner

The first edition, 1933, Wm. Morrow.

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Pocket #73, from 1940; first paperback edition. Pocket was still experimenting with surrealism on its covers.

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Pocket kept the same #73 for a while but gave this book a number of new cover artists and numbers over the years.

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Velvet Claws

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These are some UK editions and a foreign-language cover.

Perry Mason novels were also frequently anthologized in compendium volumes, and rebound for library and collectors’ editions, some without jackets.

There were a couple of “double-truck” sized newspaper inserts, as was common at the time.

And a 1936 movie was made, let’s say “loosely” based on the source material, starring Warren William as Perry Mason. Why loosely?  Well, the film begins with Perry marrying Della (!) and having their honeymoon interrupted by Eva Belter, who insists at gunpoint that Perry takes her case. (They’re married by night court judge Mary O’Daugherty, played by veteran Clara Blandick — who later appeared in a number of other mysteries and played a crucial role in Philo Vance Returns in 1947.) The story was also dramatized as an episode of the Perry Mason TV show (Season 6, episode 22). You can see the trailer for the film here.

The jigsaw puzzle that accompanied the UK 1st edition (1933) is very rare and very peculiar. I note the origin of this image at ClassicCrimeFiction.com and if you’re looking for one of these, they are vastly experienced and very professional dealers who are likely to be the only place you can obtain it; ABE has none for sale and the only “Harrap Jig-Saw Mystery” they offer with the puzzle — a minor title by J.S. Fletcher — is missing a few pieces and is still £100. I’ve never seen a copy of this puzzle and I certainly would love to own one someday. I believe the jigsaw puzzle was bound in a pocket attached to the inside back cover, and tipped in near the end of the book was a piece of pink tissue that suggests doing the puzzle before breaking the seal — so the final chapter(s) were sealed.

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The Perry Mason novels are currently in the hands of the American Bar Association, who are bringing out a uniform edition in trade paperback. I’m happy to see these back in print and hope they remain so! Notice how this cover design hearkens back to the first edition? I applaud the designer for that choice.

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7 thoughts on “Cover art through the ages: The Case of the Velvet Claws, by Erle Stanley Gardner (1933)

  1. JJ says:

    Huh? What’s that you say? The Perry Mason books are being reprinted in new editions? Oh, man, and just as I had some money saved, too…

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You may not want ALL of them, since Perry Mason paperbacks are ubiquitous in North America and sell very inexpensively. But the last few titles from the late 60s and early 70s, like TCOT Queenly Contestant, Fenced-In Woman, Postponed Murder, etc., are not generally available in paperback. They can be tough to find in standalone editions and will be worth your investment.

      • JJ says:

        That is a wonderful point; never read Queenly Contestant…or, indeed, any of those you name — are they any good? They seem a little, well, on the wrong side of the quality/time curve if I may be so bold…

      • Noah Stewart says:

        Ahhhhh well … That’s a very good way to put it, that they’re on the wrong side of the quality/time curve. He didn’t have as many issues as other writers, his later stuff is still quite readable, but yes, most of his later work was not high quality. I’d say “uninspired”. Here’s my review of the last one to be published during his lifetime, TCOT Fenced-in Woman, where it seemed to me that although the writing was desultory, the story hooks were still fascinating. https://noah-stewart.com/2014/12/11/quick-look-the-case-of-the-fenced-in-woman-by-erle-stanley-gardner/

  2. Not a mega fan of Perry Mason, but I remember this one being one of the titles I enjoyed more. How many of these editions do you have? My copy is the one 4 from the Left on the top row of your UK editions. Also interesting to read about the harrap jigsaw versions. They sound cool!

  3. Noah Stewart says:

    I have all the Pocket editions, I think, except probably the 1st paper with the surrealist cover. Theoretically I collect Perry Mason 1st paper editions, but it’s probably more accurate to say “one of every cover variant” LOL.

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