Erle Stanley Gardner, in my view one of the four most important male authors of classic crime fiction, is of course best known for the savvy machinations of Perry Mason, a man who never met a legal loophole he didn’t like. Yet between 1937 and 1949 he wrote nine books that just might comprise some of his most interesting writing, those featuring D.A. Doug Selby. Selby is a more naive presence than Mason — equally ready to fight his corner, yet strangely trusting in a way that at times proves his undoing — and in order to bring these books a little more attention I’m going to work through them in order over the next few months (yes, yes, we’ve heard this before… well I need a break from that, and this is the perfect antidote).
So, first up, a confession: I had not read this before and did not realise this was the first Doug Selby novel — I thought that distinction fell to The D.A. Draws a Circle — but since it opens with Selby in his campaign headquarters celebrating his recent election victory and reflecting on the challenges to come…well, yeah, when you put it in context it’s kinda obvious. And soon enough difficulties come Selby’s way, with an elderly cleric found dead in his hotel room and a letter to his wife in the typewriter outlining his intent to take some sleeping draught in order to get a decent rest. Nevertheless, Selby isn’t convinced this is as innocent as it seems, and has to decide whether to stir up potential opprobrium by launching a homicide investigation in his first case since taking office. Spoilers: read the title.
From hereon it gets rather crazy, and goddamn isn’t Gardner having fun; most of the action takes place in the demi-backwater of Madison City, some sixty miles from Los Angeles, and Gardner always seemed happier dealing with small town folk (the Bill Eldon novellas collected in Two Clues (1947) are masterful examples of how to plot around a small community). Here we get all sorts of reflections on the perspectives and lives of such people, and the effect an increasingly mobile population has upon such previously trusting places:
“If it was just politics, it wouldn’t be so bad. But during the last four years the doors have been opened to all the scum from the big cities. Chaps who haven’t been big enough to work a racket in the Big-Time have drifted in with a lot of little, vicious, chiseling, crooked stuff … Now, then, it’s up to you and me to clean up this mess.”
“This mess” will come to include a Hollywood starlet and her manipulative manager, several questions of identity, a large sum of money found in the hotel safe, a poisoned dog, a seemingly-impossible set of photographs, and the legatee of a contested will…yes, it sounds like it should be a complete mess, but, dammit, Gardner was good at this kind of thing. There’s no detection as such — a large part of the mystery is cleared up towards the end by someone just breaking down and telling Selby all — but there are clues and ideas placed right from the beginning, and Selby admits come the end that he making some pretty risky jumps based on the information he has in order to find this guilty party.
Of particular interest to me was some of the period detail — traveling salesmen kept the creases in their trousers sharp by hanging them from the cuffs in the drawers in their hotel rooms, for instance, or just how minor a consideration fingerprints seem to be — not least the sense of tarnished awe with which the motion picture industry is beginning to be viewed. This disaffection creeps into Selby’s own dealings with people, as plenty of hangers-on say they want to help, but everyone — reporters, witnesses, business owners, politically-motivated newspaper editors — is pursuing their own agenda, and Selby will have his own judgement and integrity questioned as he is at times caught flat-footed in the machinations of others who wish him harm.
There can never be any doubt that he will win through, but it takes some fairly drastic intervention by those who are truly on his side to make it happen, and this is very different from Mason’s grandstanding surety. Thankfully this gives full reign to Gardner’s own compact brilliance of expression — someone is described at one point as being “madder than a wet hen” — and the final two lines are a little piece of perfection. It lacks the coolness of Perry Mason, though none of the inventive plotting, and the savagery of Cool & Lam, but stripped of those shiny distractions this series shows Gardner’s class. Expect to see much more of Doug Selby in the months to come.