The third Doug Selby book from Erle Stanley Gardner sees an escalation in the puzzle aspects that make this series such a joy. You may come in expecting small town shenanigans and lazy Evil Big Business villains shown up by scrappy, dogged, local hero Selby, but you get a man killed in baffling circumstances with a semi-impossible twist, or a bindle-stiff gassed in equally nonsensical conditions with an elaborate scheme behind it, or — as here — a naked corpse shot twice in the same wound and spiralling accusations of complicity in murder plots that parallel and snake around each other in a particularly lethal dance. Dammit, Gardner is my go-to when I need a lift, I can’t deny it.
Well, okay, him and Norman Berrow and Rupert Penny and John Dickson Carr and Freeman Wills Crofts and my ever-widening pool of juvenile mysteries and…
Anyhoo. For all the legalistic fireworks of the Perry Mason plots that made Gardner’s name, I think the thing I most appreciate about Doug Selby is his fundamental decency. He’s idealistic without blinkered proselytising, and the more outside events press on him — the nefarious types of the Blade newspaper, the denizens of his County, political popinjay chief of police Otto Larkin, even allies like Sylvia Martin who simply want him to win no matter the cost — and the tighter the situation becomes, the more annealed his principles emerge:
“I want to hit hard, but I want to know at what I’m hitting. I want to be certain that convictions are the result of logic rather than prejudice on the part of the jurors. In other words, I don’t want to be a rabble-rouser.”
And here those principles will be pushed in new ways with the emergence of Alphonse Baker Carr, one of GAD’s great bad guys, a “fast-thinking, ingenious, diabolically clever” attorney with “no principles” who stands as pretty much the opposite to Mason because he’s, er, the bad guy. In truth, they’re not at all dissimilar: Carr has Mason’s blithe self-confidence, his disdain for the procedure of others, his incisively brilliant legal mind, and he’s never met a loophole he wasn’t willing to cram a witness (or possibly an entire trial) through. For someone you’re supposed to dislike, I actually really like Carr, with his leonine aspect and air of unscrupulous money-grabbing. He and Selby inevitably lock horns here, and Carr’s continued bonhomie and stark absence of contrition is simply divine, a great promise of the battles to come.
So Selby exists in world that is keen to see him fail, and Sheriff Rex Brandon and reporter/will-they-won’t-they love interest Sylvia Martin are the voices of reason keen to balance out Selby’s crusading. On top of this, we also get Gardner’s own impressions of the legal profession, keeping us from simply tripping lightly through the perils to come on the way to the inevitable justification of Selby’s tactics. It’s a difficult dance to master, but Gardner had his prose style down perfectly, so you feel the reality seeping through into the fiction:
“Pretty quickly the jury loses sight of the fact that it’s called on to try a case and considers it’s witnessing a show — and a verdict of not guilty is simply the jury’s way of showing applause for the actor it likes.”
…as well as moments of just wonderful dyed-in-the-wool brilliance like this:
She came forward because she knew she had to. She held up her hand and was sworn, her eyes glaring hostility at the district attorney as she took the oath. This was the man who was trying to pin a murder on her. At any time, now, she might find herself in the position of the defendant, held up to public ridicule and scorn, watching her aged father and mother sit stoically in the front row, their faces like graven images of expressionless detachment, their souls shrivelling within them, their hearts breaking…