“You baited a trap with a ten thousand-dollar bill. You probably didn’t know it was a trap at the time, and I didn’t. But the trap has sprung. I’m caught, and you’re caught…We’ve got to get out.”
A masked woman, an alias, and half of a ten thousand dollar bill—that’s what it takes to get Perry Mason out of bed on a dark and rainy night. The man on the phone is insistent. He has to meet Mason, and it has to be tonight. Tomorrow will be too late. When he arrives at his office, Mason is surprised by the man’s companion, a silent woman whose identity is hidden by a mask and oversized clothing. This woman is his client, even though he has no idea who she is. If his services are needed, she will identify herself by presenting the second half of the ten thousand dollar bill. “What I want you to do is protect her,” the man says. “From what?” asks Mason. “From everything,” he replies. And “everything” is exactly what happens.
The Case of the Baited Hook zips merrily along from one crime to the next, leaving Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake with a series of complicated mysteries to unravel. Though Mason never sets foot in a courtroom, his legal expertise gets quite a workout here, as several unusual points of law come into play. Due to the lack of trial scenes and an overly abrupt conclusion, this isn’t my favorite Perry Mason adventure, but it is an awful lot of fun.
Having an unknown client presents many practical difficulties, as any potential client may have some conflict of interest with “Miss Mysterious.” Mason must use classified ads to communicate with the man who hired him. This adds delay at a time when he can least afford it. All at once, a great many people are interested in retaining Mason’s services. He doesn’t think that is a coincidence.
The most insistent is Abigail Tump, a bulldozer of a woman whose manner alarms Della: “She’s around sixty-five, and she still has sex appeal, if you know what I mean…She has personality and uses it. She puts her stuff across.” Mrs. Tump wants Mason to act on behalf of her former ward, Byrl Gailord. Byrl’s inheritance is threatened by an illegal adoption and the shadiness of her stepfather Albert Tidings, who is trustee of the estate. Tidings has troubles of his own, being mixed up with a nasty divorce and an even nastier financial scandal.
Over the next several days, Mason and his colleagues investigate a murder with a murky timeline, all the while trying to determine which of the women involved in the case might actually be his masked client. Mason really throws his weight around in this one, and it’s a joy to watch. As he explains, he can play this rough because he has faith in his clients and knows he has the truth on his side. (Pretty bold in this case, considering that he doesn’t even know who he’s representing!)
Truth is the most powerful weapon a man can use, and if you practice law the way we do, it’s the only weapon powerful enough to use. A lawyer doing the things that I have done and relying on anything less powerful than the truth would be disbarred in a month.
Speaking of getting disbarred, district attorney Hamilton Burger makes a brief but belligerent appearance to threaten Mason with exactly that. I love how much Erle Stanley Gardner hates Burger. This series includes a variety of different prosecutors, most of them competent attorneys who are simply outwitted by Mason. But Burger is the target of Gardner’s special enmity. “A barrel-chested, thick-necked individual who gave the impression of having great physical strength and a bulldog mental tenacity,” Burger is always portrayed as the legal equivalent of Godzilla, roaring right into the middle of every case, leaving swaths of destruction in his wake.
No one is too concerned about this threat, however. There is plenty of relaxed banter at the office; the atmosphere during this case is especially laid-back, which adds to the sense of fun. The office scenes also allow Della and Paul a reasonably large presence in the book, despite neither of them having anything major to do in the investigation. It’s Mason’s show all the way; not even the suspects are allowed to hold the spotlight for long. A few of them do manage to wrest it away briefly, especially a female suspect who goes head-to-head with Mason and proves to be a worthy adversary.
When it comes to the solution, The Case of the Baited Hook lives up to its name. Gardner sets up an irresistible situation, only to end by delivering less than he promises. For a series that prides itself on making airtight cases, the solution is hurried, unconvincing, and—worst of all—highly speculative. It’s still very much worth reading, however, as the rest of the book is so enjoyable. With a stronger ending, it could be one of Gardner’s best. As it is, The Case of the Baited Hook has many pleasures to offer, even if the payoff doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
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.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
The mystery is full of distinctive characters and while everyone seems to be responsible for something or other in the plot, it’s not difficult keeping track of who’s who and who did what. The murderer is reasonably well-hidden, I thought, and the plot does a good job of bouncing suspicion from character to character.
The Case of the Baited Hook is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats from American Mystery Classics.
It was filmed in 1957 for the Perry Mason television series, season 1, episode 4.
2 thoughts on “The Case of the Baited Hook (1940) by Erle Stanley Gardner”
My memory of most Perry Mason books is a little blurred, since I read a bunch of them very close together maybe 20 years ago and — let’s be honest — in essentials they don’t really vary all that much. But I think you’ve nailed this one, from what I can recall: it’s an interesting choice for a reprint, because the setup is gorgeous, but then it doesn’t quite pull through at the end. Careless Kitten, the other AMC reprint, is, if I recall, better in that regard, but I hope we get some of others like Stuttering Bishop or Lame Canary, which — again, subject to my dodgy memory — really show off the plotting and character work ESG could excel at when he happened to hit the right combination of events.
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This does seem like an unusual choice for a reprint, but then again I can’t think of a more obvious contender. Perry Mason doesn’t have a particular standout book to serve as a clear point of entry. This series is very consistent, which is both a good thing (you can pick up any random title and be assured of a good time) and a bad thing (where to start with such an overwhelming backlist?) Baited Hook is at least worth reissuing on the basis of sheer entertainment value. It has one of Gardner’s best setups and is a total blast to read until you hit that ending. But a Perry Mason novel with no courtroom scenes at all will never fully hit the spot for me. I’m glad American Mystery Classics is making the effort, however, and good to know Careless Kitten works better.