It’s always an odd life being a lawyer. I’m sure that it’s almost every day that you are summoned to your office in the middle of the night, meeting a man who refuses to give his real name and a masked woman who refuses to speak. Despite not giving any details of the possible case, you are placed on retainer by a down-payment of $2000 and half of a ten thousand dollar bill – the other half, along with some glue, will be delivered should your services be required. Well, that’s what happens to Perry Mason at least.
Not content to wait on his laurels, Mason, along with his assistant Della Street and PI Paul Drake, decide to work out who his visitors were – and soon find themselves tripping over a dead body. What follows is a complex case of stock fraud, divorce and inheritance. But is Mason’s job offer a genuine one? If so, how is he to work out who he has to defend? Or does Mason have a different role to play in the drama?
Erle Stanley Gardner wrote a few crime novels in his lifetime – between 1933 and 1973, he wrote 82 Perry Mason novels, which seems to only be about half of his novel output. And there’s a bucketload of short stories as well… And as is typical of me, I’ve never read any of them until now. I’m not sure why, possibly as it was never clear to me exactly what sort of crime novels these are, whether classic mystery puzzle plots, noir or something else. From what I gather, it tends to vary from book to book, but this is very much a mystery novel. And it’s certainly, for me, a fresh voice in the genre.
You do have to take the opening shenanigans with a massive pinch of salt, but that sets the scene of the style of the tale – slightly unreal but gripping and intriguing throughout. Mason is an entertaining lead character, bending the rules where necessary, perfectly happy to indulge in some game-playing and rising to the challenge of the case.
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.
So, following Patrick Quentin and Clifford Witting (and possibly carefully chosen Max Murray and very carefully chosen Cole titles), I’ve another author to add to my must read list. This is a fun book, and I gather isn’t his best work, so I’m looking forward to more from Gardner. Any recommendations are gratefully received…
Out of those that I’ve read, I’d suggest the following:
TCOT Rolling Bones (in which Mason pulls off one of his most outrageous courtroom tricks)
TCOT Buried Clock (he works out the secret of the clock just in time)
TCOT Fan-Dancer’s Horse (most bizarre title?)
TCOT Footloose Doll (he pulls off some jiggery-pokery with ice-picks, rather than guns for a change)
TCOT Terrified Typist (for a reason I won’t go into, this should preferably not be read too early in the sequence)
To be honest, I could have picked a lot of other titles too. I don’t so much like the very early ones, which are a bit too like the hard-boiled genre for my liking, but that’s purely a personal preference.
One point to watch is that some titles sound like Masons but aren’t, such as TCOT Musical Cow (still worth reading, though). And then there’s the D.A. Doug Selby books…
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The thing to understand about the Perry Mason series is that he was originally envisioned not as a courtroom battler but as a hardboiled gumshoe. I think the first book in the series TCOT Velvet Claws makes that clear. The real lawyer series that Gardner wrote is “The D.A.” series with Doug Selby as the hero. But even then Selby is somewhat in the Mason mold. It is true, however, that DAs do go out and investigate cases. Badge of the Assassin tells the story of NY County ADA Bob Tannenbaum as he investigated the killings of POs Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagenini by the Black Panthers.
I’d also highly recommend the ones he wrote as A. A. Fair featuring Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, which share the same inventive plots and fast pacing as the Perry Masons.
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[…] The Case Of The Baited Hook by Erle Stanley Gardner – good […]
I think Gardner saw himself as a teacher. He liked to explain how scams and schemes and fraud worked so the readers could protect themselves from being conned. In Baited Hook, he makes strong efforts to describe a complex stock swindle and explain a technical legal concept (law of agency) to challenge readers to keep thinking. Also, he wanted people not to be naive about cops if life plays a dirty trick on us – he is always explaining how the police and prosecutors are subject to confirmation bias, stop looking when they think they have enough evidence, do shenanigans with evidence, prime and bias so-called eye-witnesses, mess with persons of interest who are innocent, have contempt for civil rights, etc. etc. so even lying sleazy defendants deserve the best defense they can get.
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There is a formula of sorts with the Perry Mason books. They always try to open with something unusual or weird to ostensibly capture Mason’s interest, but also the reader’s interest. How well the book follows up after the opening varies somewhat from book to book.
There’s also some misdirection going on by Gardner. You know, for example, that the police and other characters are busy doing things, but you don’t usually find out what until Mason does. You’re also rather puzzled by what Mason is doing, as his thoughts aren’t given to you, which also distracts from the actual mystery. But Gardner’s writing tends to be very breezy and engaging, with a lot of dialogue, so you’re easily carried along whether you pick up on the clues or not.
Some of my favorites also manage to convey a certain dreamy atmosphere, like The Case of the Buried Clock, or The Case of the Crooked Candle.
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The Perry Mason mysteries tend to follow a formula of coming up with something unusual or interesting at the beginning, ostensibly to catch Mason’s interest in the case, but also the reader’s interest. How well Gardner follows up tends to vary from novel to novel.
Gardner also tends to misdirect the reader in a couple of different ways. For one, you know that other characters aren’t just sitting back waiting for the mystery to be solved, they’re busy doing things, but the reader generally doesn’t know what they’re doing until Mason finds out. Two, Mason doesn’t wait for information to come to him, but usually runs around doing somewhat mysterious things (to the reader, anyway, who isn’t privy to Mason’s thoughts), which also distracts the reader from the primary mystery.
But Gardner’s writing style is so breezy and engaging, usually with lots of dialogue, that the reader is easily carried along by the story, whether they pick up on the clues or not. My favorites also tend to evoke a certain dream-like atmosphere or quality, at least part of the time, like The Case of the Buried Clock or The Case of the Crooked Candle.
Sorry for the duplicate comment. I didn’t think the first one went through.
I’ll delete one of them. Sometimes I need to approve comments, so it takes a little time.
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