Erle Stanley Gardner’s sixteenth Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Baited Hook, was published in 1940. It’s a fine example of the qualities that made Gardner one of the bestselling authors of all time.
One of the curious things about the Perry Mason mysteries is that Gardner liked to bring Mason into his cases before the main crime was committed. In fact this was almost an essential ingredient since a large part of Mason’s success as a lawyer hinges on his ability to prevent his clients from doing anything foolish, like talking to the police. Mason understands very clearly that the prosecution’s best chance of winning any case comes from the ability of the police to persuade the accused to make damaging and quite unnecessary admissions. In order to avoid this it is obviously an enormous advantage if somehow or other Gardner can contrive things so that Mason is retained by a client before the client actually needs an attorney.
It has to be said that Gardner consistently managed to pull off this trick with remarkable success. The Case of the Baited Hook provides a particularly imaginative example. Perry Mason is approached (at midnight) by a man who is reluctant to revel his real name. The man is accompanied by a masked woman ho does not speak. The man offers Perry two thousand dollars as a retainer with the promise of an additional ten thousand dollars should his masked lady friend suddenly require the services of a top criminal lawyer. He refuses to tell Perry the name of the woman concerned.
It’s an impossibly awkward situation for a lawyer but on the other hand ten thousand dollars (remember this is 1940) is a colossal sum of money. It’s the proverbial offer that one can’t refuse although there will be times when Mason wishes he had refused it.
Mason has another case to deal with, a case involving an orphanage functioning as a baby farm, an illegal adoption, Russian refugees fleeing from the Bolsheviks, the possible misappropriation of trust funds and a very suspicious share deal.
Perry Mason is used to having to play detective to discover the identity of the real killer in order to clear his clients but in this case he faces a more unusual challenge - he must first discover the identity of his client.
It’s a typically ingenious Gardner plot with a plethora of suspects and possible motives. This is a detective story in which the solution depends on establishing the actual time that the victim was killed - as Mason remarks at one point the alibis (and everyone in this story has one) remain fixed but the time of the murder keeps jumping around.
As usual Mason gets plenty of help from Della Street and from the Paul Blake Detective Agency. And as usual he finds himself at odds with the police (in the person of Detective-Sergeant Holcomb) and the DA’s office (in the person of his perennial adversary DA Hamilton Berger).
Also typical of Gardner is the fact that Mason’s issues with the police have nothing to do with dishonesty (whatever his faults Sergeant Holcomb is a scrupulously honest cop). The problem is the very nature of the police culture. Police officers are trained to use persuasion, trickery and coercion in order to get an accused person to say a lot more than he should say, and a lot more than he is legally required to say. It’s the way the police get results. It means that even when the police are honest the system is stacked in their favour.
Most (but not all) of the Perry Mason novels end with a climactic courtroom scene. The Case of the Baited Hook has no courtroom scenes at all. It does have a quasi-legal disciplinary hearing at one stage and several vital plot points rely on very nice points of law. One of Gardner’s strengths is his ability to have Perry Mason make use of arcane legal points to baffle his adversaries while at the same time making those legal points clear and straightforward to the reader.
I’ve now read half a dozen of the Perry Mason books from the 1930s and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. The Case of the Baited Hook has just about everything you could ask for in a Perry Mason mystery. It has a complex tightly constructed plot and it has Mason, as always, displaying his highly individualistic and flexible (if risky) approach to legal ethics. Highly recommended.