After the disappointment of last week, I should dive straight back in to another dense impossibility and to hell with any lingering doubts. But, well, my meretricious moods find me yearning for a little comfort reading, and so it’s back to Doug Selby and the gang. Here we find newly-elected D.A. Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon contending with obstreperous reporters, influential businessmen, political opportunism, and a host of tangled stories and motives when trying to unpick the riddle of a dead body found bearing a note that states the intention of the possessor to have killed someone else…but no second body to back up the claim. And hold onto your hats, because that’s not the only thing that doesn’t add up.
The plotting here is glorious. It’s not a puzzle plot because there’s nothing in the way of clewing to figure out in advance, but the spin and build from a simple enough beginning — and especially the way Gardner keeps you guessing within a small cast of characters and red herrings — is pure and simple genius. The cabin where the dead man is found is being rented by two visitors to the town, but it soon becomes clear that this in no way means they’re the only two people to peg as possible victims. As it turns out, any one of five people are implicated here, and then there’s the matter of how the body is found making his lying in wait seem hugely unlikely…I’ll preserve that for you, though, because you really need to see this unfold for yourself.
So, er, what to talk about, then? There are maybe two false notes in the whole thing that I can discuss and still remain spoiler-free. The first is Rex Brandon’s transformation from avuncular guiding light for the youthful Selby in the first book into an impetuous, hot-headed, unpredictable firecracker here. I get that having two coolly competent and professional main characters going about their business with a minimum of fuss might not make a compellingly great central relationship (though I don’t quite see why not…), but Brandon is so markedly different I actually went back to check it was the same guy from The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937). A bit of retro-fitting going on there, methinks.
The second is possibly a result of Gardner’s beloved plot wheels in that one minor thread that’s played for a moderate amount throughout is just dropped come the end. It’s not important in any key way, but given that a certain amount of discussion goes into it and a fair amount of time is spent running down leads, I’m not sure the way that train suddenly leaps tracks at the finish was always on the cards. Elsewhere produce some superb reversals — including a change of direction at one point that you get the impression even Gardner didn’t see coming — definitely help elevate this above the standard fare it would be at the hands of almost anyone else, but that sudden loss of a spoke is odd.
I am, however, reaching a little in order to retain my critical faculties. The detection is superbly solid, up there with the very best, the trail of clewing convenient whilst believable, and Selby makes an attractively determined, grim-when-pushed protagonist who stands up to all-comers while fully admitting that doing so is political suicide. The characters don’t distinguish themselves at first, but come the end you’re hugely caught up in the predicament of those involved, and it’s difficult not to feel that this is because Gardner deploys his Powerful Local Businessman, his Suspiciously Obstructionist Chief Suspect, his Independent Take No Prisoners Single Mom, and others so cleanly. You encounter them, you get a firm idea of who they are, and then they steadily creep into your consciousness and become all the more real for you doing two-thirds of the work in getting to know them.
The contemporary details are equally broadly familiar enough for there to be little to struggle over some 80 years after its initial publication. The idea of a professional gambler being someone operating on the fringes of the law and a thorn in the side of the hardened Los Angeles police force, especially given the modern proliferation of televised poker tournaments, is actually quite sweet, but even this has an added air of cunning and design to it that’s played out for a good surprise later on. And the description of a toughened repeat offender who will be difficult for the police to force a confession from as a “fifteen-minute egg” might actually have just made my year. Yes, Gardner wrote no all-time classic individual novels, but the Selby series is among the best “quick” fiction you’ll encounter from the era. Expect one more on here before 2017 is out.