A N****r in the Woodpile

3,969 words

[1]Early in Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason [2] novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws [3], Gardner’s lawyer-detective finds himself questioning a young woman, one of the occupants of a spacious home in which a murder has just occurred. Norma Veitch has already been grilled by the police, as Mason learns: “They acted as though they thought they had discovered the n****r in the woodpile . . . They took me upstairs, and gave me what they call a third degree, I guess.”

There are two idiomatic expressions here whose meanings are clear, though their origins are uncertain. One of them leaps off the page today, and the other does not. “Third degree” means a tough interrogation, though why it means that is in dispute, and “n****r...

Contains Mention
Jan 5th 2019
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