#308: The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938) by Erle Stanley Gardner

42613783-4154054732_4b843bd134_oAfter 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.

51uj7vtaasl-sx316-sy1The 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.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

The Doug Selby novels:

1. The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937)
2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)


There’s nothing on this cover that I can submit the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block, but goddamn it’s wonderful.  The stark, brutal simplicity is just magnificent — no wonder these older editions are so highly regarded.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Murder in the Red Chamber because both involve a murder that seems to implicate a powerful local family.

25 thoughts on “#308: The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. First of all, I hope you were not expecting an intricate, densely plotted impossible crime from your next read, The Boat Race Murder, because it only has a simplistic, shop-worn locked room trick to offer. It also discusses and spoils the solution of Philip MacDonald’s The Rasp. So you’ve been warned!

    Gardner looked to have taken a different approach with the Doug Selby series and the main draw (based on my own read of The D.A. Draws a Circle) appears to be how a complicated situation will be resolved. I think the position of Selby, which is also political, makes these problem all the better, because there are always people willing to nail his scalp to the wall. So he’s always under siege from multiple sides, which makes them great read and the lack of a puzzle-oriented plot a forgivable offense.

    Great… now I want to dig out my copy of The D.A. Cooks a Goose.


    • Yeah, thanks, I’m about a third into The Boat Race Murder and it’s clearly a slightly more sedate jaunt. Pretty sure I solved the locked room problem as soon as it appeared, but it’s an interesting milieu for that kind of crime and that’s fine as far as I’m concerned.

      The Selby books remain something of a fascination for me, hence my taking them on chronologically at present. There’s all manner of invention both here and later in the series, and it’s telling — I think so, at least — that Gardner held back and only wrote the nine he did. The Cool and Lam books run far higher in number, and Mason was trotted out again and again, but I get the impression he wanted to foster a very specific approach with Selby and needed time to prepare his ideas in order to allow for that.

      Rediscovering them (or, in the case of these fist two, just plain discovering them) is turning out to be a real joy.


  2. This is not a series I’ve read (and I’m not a Perry Mason fan so they might not be my thing) but I do love some of those titles. I have a vivid image now of the D.A. breaking a seal (and the subsequent investigation by the ASPCA is not pretty).


    • “Not being a Perry Mason Fan” could — like with Christie — mean you don’t like the TVisations with which the character is more synonymous. The books are a (somewhat uneven) marvel of switchback plotting and devious means…but if you mean you don’t like the books, then the Selby stories probably aren’t for you either.

      The context of the stories gives them a different air, and they’re more consistently good than the Mason canon (which is, like 20 times the size) but they’re still Gardner being Gardner…and I guess I’ll have to accept that this sort of writing — wonderful though I find it — somehow isn’t for everyone!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s the books, that style and me just nod at each other politely and pass on. I don’t recall ever seeing a Perry Mason episode though I can hum you the theme tune (my advice – decline the offer).

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have to admit that I have preconceived notions about Gardner simply because of the Perry Mason TV association. I don’t even really remember much about Perry Mason, other than watching some super old episodes when I was young. My hazy memory recalls somewhat of a formula for the episodes, all ending with some witness breaking down under pressure during questioning and admitting to the crime. How did you know the victim was wearing glasses? None of the police reports said…

        I think my mind has a tendency to file away all of this classic television into the same category of Leave it to Beaver, Dragnet, and Andy Griffith. It’s a completely irrational bias, but it is there. This silly notion that it’s all just polite small town americana and there couldn’t possibly be an interesting story lurking under the surface. Of course, this is easily refuted by how interesting I find GAD to be, but hey, at least I recognize my contradictions!

        I’ll be happy to take any recommendations on where to start with Gardner, although I can see that you have quite a few Selbys to work through.


      • “Not being a Perry Mason Fan” could — like with Christie — mean you don’t like the TVisations with which the character is more synonymous.

        I don’t mind the TV series. My main beef with it is that they made Mason a bit too respectable. In the books he’s much more unscrupulous. Also the books were very very critical of the American criminal justice system (Gardner as a successful trial lawyer had seen the system from the inside and he didn’t like it one little bit).

        The 1930s movies are also unsatisfactory, even though Warren William should have been a superb Perry Mason but they played the stories too much for laughs.

        Adapting Perry Mason for movies and TV presented the same problems as adapting Leslie Charteris’s Saint stories – the lead character’s contempt for the law had to be toned way down, and in both cases that contempt for the law was a defining quality of the character.

        Gardner’s early pulp fiction written for Black Mask is well worth reading.


        • I think pretty muchall of Gardner’s other fiction is worth reading — the man was a talent the like of which we probably won’t see again (to produce that many books nowadays, James Patterson has an army of people doing the actual work while he conducts from the balcony).

          I’ve not seen the 1930 movies, didn’t realise they weren’t played straight. I’d be curious to track them down, but the truth is I have so little time for watching TV shows and films these days. It would be interesting to see how Code-era Hollywood struggled with the moral ambiguities of Gardner’s work, certainly.


    • Also, The D.A. Cooks a Goose is a marvellous Thanksgiving-themed novel, in which Selby has his extended family round for dinner and comedy shenanigans involving the procurement of the titular bird abound. It’s heartwarming if somewhat…unusual in the series.


  3. I bought all these Perry Mason’s at a library book sale for, like, a dollar. Now they just sit there. Maybe if Raymond Burr was on the cover . . .

    I see A.A. Fair novels all over the place, but they are always in terrible condition. And I NEVER see a Doug Selby novel anywhere! I need to put out more effort . . . when my TBR simmers down.

    I assume there’s a Birmingham in England? Or are you headed out to Alabama for the banjo festival???


    • Cool and Lam are what Gardner wrote to blow off steam, I reckon. Selby’s a more refined proposition, though perhaps the shorter story arc contributes to their being fewer editions — I have no idea how popular the character was in history, and I reckon anyone who isn’t Perry & Co. probably got swept aside anyway.

      There is a Birmingham in England. I believe it was from this that the Alabaman one got its name. It has a bullring.


      • I’ve always thought that Doug Selby was either what Hamilton Burger wished he could be, or Perry Mason would have become had he run for sheriff in a small town somewhere. The Selby stories are the inverse of Perry Mason stories, with the evil lawyer and the good lawman … and then Cool & Lam are what might have happened if Paul Drake had been the protagonist of his own series.
        I’m not sure I remember this individual novel well enough to know quite what you mean by the “minor thread” being dropped. Ordinarily ESG was a masterful handler of a standard storyline with an A and B plot line … much like what television action/dramas have become. The A plot gets 2/3 of the book, the B about 1/3, and then there’s a tiny jokey C line that is in at the beginning and pays off in the final pages. (Like the pugnacious son-in-law who winds up with a black eye in TCOT Black-Eyed Blonde.). He wrote this structure over and over again. Sounds like you think ESG dropped the B plot unceremoniously? I’ll have to have a look if I can find my copy.


        • Oh, it’s not a B plot at all; it’s more like a F plotline element that just…fizzles out. There’s something involving a minor character who has a payoff of sorts that then neglects something minor in their related story that I thought was going to pay off in some way. Maybe that’s just my perception, but even if I’m not misperceiving it’s hardly anything that destabilises the events elsewhere in any way.


  4. I could by this book for the cover alone. That style of art just draws me in, and I wish we saw covers like that from the new reissues of forgotten authors. The best cover that I can recall from any recent printing of a GAD book is The Owner Lies Dead.


    • Agreed; the Christie facsimile editions should have started a trend — damn, I’d buy three sets of the Selby books if they were reissued looking like this!

      The Coachwhip covers are frequently excellent, aren’t they? And the books themselves are really nice physical objects to hold. Clearly a lot of work goes into them, which is always nice to see.


  5. This was a good follow-up, better than the first book and probably more satisfying in terms of plot setup and development. Or at least that’s how I saw it.
    What I came away with most here was the clear progressiveness of Gardner’s outlook, which he voiced through his characters’ attitudes – there’s an open-mindedness with regard to the the little fella and all the associated problems of Joe and Jane Average in navigating their way through life that I find particularly attractive.


    • Gardner builds on this exact theme as the series goes along — once that slick, expensive Alphonse Baker Carr shows up, protecting his wealthy clients with all his cunning and onstruction, the us/them dynamic is brought to the fore in a big way. And, of course, Gardner manages to do it without beating you over the head with it, because when you write 70,000 words a month for countless years you get to be pretty good at it.

      And here I am still trying to finish chapter four of my debut… 🙄


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