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.


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


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


Velvet Claws


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 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.


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.





The Nurse’s Secret (1941)

nursesecretThe Nurse’s Secret (1941) is definitely at the B level but is still worth 65 minutes of your viewing time. It’s a fairly faithful remake of Miss Pinkerton (1932), which was based upon an eponymous novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pretty young Nurse Adams is assigned to special duty at an old decaying mansion. The elderly matriarch’s spendthrift son has blown his brains out, we are told, and the matriarch discovered his body and promptly had a “severe nervous shock”, so requires full-time nursing. The nurse’s boyfriend, police Inspector Patten, asks her to investigate on his behalf. Well, the matron is acting strange, but then so is the butler, and the butler’s wife, and and the dead guy’s girlfriend, and the guy who lives across the street. And it looks more and more likely as if the verdict of accident upon which the matriarch is insisting isn’t all that believable after all. Nurse Adams gets dangerously close to being accused of the second crime before she and her boyfriend sort it all out and Inspector Patten applies the handcuffs.

Lee Patrick

Lee Patrick

The earlier film stars Joan Blondell and George Brent at the top of their respective games; this film stars Lee Patrick as Nurse Adams and Regis Toomey as her boyfriend from Homicide.  You may never have heard of Lee Patrick, whom I see as a hard-working woman at the second rank of stardom (or lower). Her most memorable role was earlier in 1941; she plays the small but memorable role of Sam Spade‘s secretary Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon. She’s more of a character actor than a glamorous lead. This might actually be her only starring role in a film (although if someone knows differently, I’d appreciate being informed). The unsubstantiated story is that her husband, a writer for magazines, did an unflattering piece on gossipeuse Louella Parsons and Lee Patrick’s career suffered forever as a result.


Regis Toomey

It’s amusing to watch Miss Pinkerton and then The Nurse’s Secret one after the other because you get to see clearly what it is that makes a B a B. Lee Patrick’s salary was probably a tenth of what Joan Blondell earned for the same role. Patrick has a certain quality of hardness that Blondell only approaches; hard to explain, but you get the feeling that where Blondell might utter a racy wisecrack, Patrick would — away from the microphones — rip off a string of unprintable curses. This isn’t based on anything except my feeling about the two of them, but Blondell certainly turned out to have more widespread popularity and hence staying power. George Brent and Regis Toomey are roughly equal as the two hard-nosed cops. Everything in the B version is less expensive, and less well chosen, and just generally cheaper; sets, costumes, and the quality of everyone and everything in each film. The first film features a creepy old mansion; the second film features a not very creepy old mansion with some weird daytime lighting effects of random shadows that can’t be caused by anything imaginable. Miss Pinkerton builds tension and sustains it; The Nurse’s Secret doesn’t manage to build tension for very long before it dissipates it with ugly lighting, a noodly-doodly music score and a poorly-chosen supporting cast.

Clara Blandick

Clara Blandick

The only high point in The Nurse’s Secret is the actor playing the elderly matriarch, Clara Blandick. I first noticed her chewing the scenery in a small but significant role in Philo Vance Returns (1947), but I later started seeing her in everything everywhere; you know how that goes. Once you recognize a character actor’s face you can’t imagine how you ever missed her before. She played Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz; and generally played in 100+ films, frequently made up to be older than she actually was. And my audience of mystery fans may remember her in a tiny role in the 1936 Perry Mason production, The Case of the Velvet Claws; she plays Judge Mary at night court who marries Perry to Della Street just before the honeymoon is ruined by a murder.

As I’ve said, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen somewhat better written and more expensively portrayed in the earlier film. But if you’re like me and enjoy seeing the first-hand effects of turning an A film into a B production, this will amuse you. And if you haven’t managed to see Miss Pinkerton, it will whet your appetite for something more solid!