#346: The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner

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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…

There’s a very interesting streak of legitimately great detection in the Selby books, too: from an explanation of the utilisation of laundry marks through to the forensics employed to determine the roads a car has driven along, the whole thing is helped by as many false leads as sudden breakthroughs.  The clues aren’t there in the traditional sense of an Ellery Queen or an Agatha Christie plot, we’re rather more in Freeman Wills Crofts territory, but this is by no means a bad thing.  The nature of the story Gardner wants to tell takes a couple of chapters to settle down, but it all makes sense by the end, and I defy you not to have a great time along the way.

isbn9781471909368-detailNot all of it works; the sole time we see Carr in action in court, his devilry is undercut by Otto Larkin being reduced to little more than a punchline — surely your threat is only a threat when taking down those perceived to be his equal — and the synchronicity of events in the final two chapters is possibly a little too convenient (the one hallmark of Gardner’s writing that could, at a push, be improved).  The retrodiction of the final chapter might be a little neat in this regard, but equally the final scene leaves enough spark in the air to set up future visit to this county as a very pleasant prospect indeed.  Selby’s not a a big name in the genre, but by my estimation he should be.

And, if I remember rightly, the next one is a real treat…

~

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)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to He Wouldn’t Kill Patience from last week because, well, I’m just going to say “Carr” and leave it at that.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Features a courtroom scene.

37 thoughts on “#346: The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Fascinating review. If I were to ask you to recommend a few excellent Golden Age British detective books, what would they be? This is for me, a total beginner in the murder-mystery fiction world. I’ve read Sherlock Holmes and some Father Brown, but that’s about all. Thanks:)

    • Ha, well, prepare for a possible cavalcade of recommendations, but I would suggest (from those books easily accessible at present):

      Anthony Berkeley — The Poisoned Chocolates Case [for its sheer multiplicity]
      Agatha Christie — Lord Edgware Dies [to see how complex a small plot can become]
      Alan Melville — Death of Anton [just a fun, light, starter on GAD]
      Derek Smith — Whistle Up the Devil [for its ingenuity]

      Others will, I’m sure, pitch in, too…

      • You sure didn’t go for the usual suspects with your recommendations, JJ, but would you really recommend The Poisoned Chocolates Case to someone who’s (relatively) new to the genre? It’s one of those books you can only really appreciate (and forgive its artificiality) when you’re very familiar with the genre. Just like Leo Bruce’s Case for Three Detectives, which you can only fully appreciate when you’re familiar with the plotting techniques of Chesterton, Christie and Sayers.

        So my recommendation would be to replace The Poisoned Chocolates Case for the equally brilliant, but better written, Jumping Jenny and add Christie’s splendid Death on the Nile to the list. After all, it’s one of the greatest detective novels from the 1930s.

        Other great recommendations to get started:

        Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger and London Particular (two of the best titles by one of the uncrowned Queen’s of Crime)
        John Dickson Carr a.k.a. Carter Dickson (nearly everything he wrote with exception of his very late titles and the abysmal Patrick Butler for the Defense)
        Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff (a clever and genuinely funny comedic mystery)

        By the way, I also liked The D.A. Draws a Circle. Thought I mentioned that as well.

        • I actually believe — and bear with me here — that the earlier someone experiences Poisoned Chocolates in their GAD reading the more they will get out of GAD. It’s such a great critical piece of plotting that brings up so many of the lazy trappings minor authors drop into so many times, it makes you appreciate when talented authors avoid them repeatedly. This is only a perspective I’ve come to recently, following much internal debate on the sort of books to recommend if someone expressed this exact interest…so it’s a new position, but definitely a considered choice.

          Carr and that Roos are clear and strong choices, but they’re both difficult to track down (or can be). So my criteria were therefore limited by what the average person is likely to find in their nearest bookshop with ease…but, yeah, in the wishlist of fully-available GAD titles go for Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (see last week’s review) or The Case of the Constant Suicides).

        • Great. Thank you for your recommendations. I feel like I’m about to step into a new universe.

          I have only read Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ up to now, and I hesitate to say that I wasn’t really impressed. So I will definitely try the titles that have been suggested in these comments. (Interestingly, my mother was a huge Christie fan and had most of her books in hardback, but I was too busy getting lost in Middle Earth to try one.)

          • The good news is that Murder on the Orient Express is far from Christie’s best book — it’s famous, and rightly so for what it does, but she wrote so many much better plots.

      • Whistle Up the Devil sounds brilliant. Is it worth paying a little bit more to get the omnibus edition which also includes Come to Paddington Fair and Model for Murder?

        • I realize Hag’s Nook is somewhat of a surprising recommendation, as it doesn’t grace any top 10 lists. However, I think it hits all of the key notes in a well balanced way, making it perfect as an introduction. Plus, you get a really nice piece of misdirection and one of those endings where you realize that there was a lot more going on than meets the eye.

          I considered a number of the typical Top 10 Carr books and somewhat wavered. These are all books that I hold in higher regard than Hag’s Nook, but there was some element to them that made me shy away, such as an overly technical solution.

          • It’s certainly a…bold choice. Perhaps my memory of it needs refreshing, as I read it fairly early on account of the Rue Morgue edition being one of the few Carrs that it was easy to find. Some wonderful atmosphere, no doubt, but I don’t recall it being especially emblematic in its representation of GAD. Hmmmm, an interesting one, this…

        • The best introduction to a particular author might well be a book that doesn’t belong on their top 10 list. I can see giving Hag’s Nook to a Carr newbie… a surprising conclusion and a last chapter that will stick in the reader’s mind long after they’ve finished the book.

          • I — hurrum — I can’t actually remember the final chapter. My overriding impression of this is how pedestrian the Macguffin is, which might contribute to me negative impression of it overall. *sigh* Guess this is another title due a re-read…

    • If you don’t mind ebooks then there are a lot of great, affordable options open to you.

      I would add the following two to JJ and Tomcat’s superb suggestions:

      John Bude – Death Makes A Prophet (a novel method of dispatch with some memorable characters and humor that works with the narrative rather than against)
      Henry Wade – Heir Presumptive (an introduction to the inverted format while also being a more traditional mystery)

      I would strongly reinforce Tomcat’s Death on the Nile though Lord Edgeware Dies is great too (and personally I love The ABC Murders but I’d save it for a while as I’m not sure it’s the best introduction to Poirot as it plays off his personality with the criminal directly challenging him).

      • Thank you for your recommendations! Yes, e-books are fine. I live in Japan, so they are much easier for me to get hold of. I’m very grateful to be given so many choices. Recommendations by readers are the best recs!

  2. I still haven’t broken into these Selby books despite owning a bunch of them, and I can’t see myself doing so much before the summer months roll round (!) as I can’t seem to scale things back much recently beyond going from insanely busy to to the marginally better stupidly busy.
    You do a good job of selling their virtues here though.

    • I read most of the Selbys I have read a disturbingly long time ago (in a “Wow, but I was that age when I read them and that was in….holy hell, I’m old!” sort of way) but I remember them being huge fun, and nothing I’ve encountered thus far contradicts that. When these are done — probably another 18 months or so at this rate — I’m going to move onto the Cool & Lam books, because I’ve read fewer of those and they’re equally great. People need to know Gardner for more than just Perry, Della, and the gang…though, in fairness, a lot more people know Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason than know Gardner’s…

      • I came to Mason via the TV show and it has to be said the early books (especially the 30s & early 40s stuff) are a very different proposition, different but rather wonderful. The material from the late 50s actually became very similar to the show as it seems Gardner was then writing with one eye on the adaptations.

        • I completely agree, those later Masons do change from the earlier ones — subtly, sure, but there’s a distinct shift in tone and style. By 1950 he’d written about 60 books, so I guess there was a threshold between what he wanted to write and how much effort it was going to be — making them friendlier to TV adaptations was probably just the necessary step to allow his productivity to continue.

          I have a theory — and it’s one we’ll get to in due time — that the end of the Doug Selby series represents the end of Gardner’s diversity of approach. These were some of the most experimental plots he wrote, and once he’d played around enough with the formula and realised the potentials and pitfalls of writing certain types of novel — once, in short, he figured out precisely what sort of writer he wanted to be — he abandoned Selby and just wrote those types of books. His productivity was still fabulous, but the variation in the types of plots he wrote began to narrow considerably. Still some great books, don’t get me wrong, but less…adventurous.

  3. Getting more and more excited by this series. I have both Draws and Circle and a beautiful copy of Holds A Candle. Love looking at the tiny page count and realising how much he was packing into these.

    • Holds a Candle is particularly good, and this is a series I reckon the reader gets more out of by encountering in published order. Post-WW2 Selby is, from memory, quite an intriguing set of books…but all in due course…

      • Until I saw this exchange, I never realized anyone saw him as anything other than Sidney Greenstreet. 😉 And I have no idea why I see him as Greenstreet — I don’t even think he’s described in the books as obese. Just that … oleaginous quality.

        • A.B. Carr ended up being played by Lloyd Bochner in the tv movie (pilot that did not go to series) ‘They Call It Murder’. Selby was Jim Hutton, and Ed Asner was Larkin. It has slipped into the public domain so video releases (most of them sub-par transfers from battered prints) are cheap and plentiful but don’t do the production justice.

          • I did not know there had been a televisation of this — thanks for bringing it up. Interesting that it sounds like an amalgam of the first book (the title is similar) and clearly some of the later titles (with Carr being present). Bochner’s not a million miles off, I suppose, and Hutton’s actually a pretty good match (not blond, but we’ll cope…). I’ll keep an eye out for this, in spite of its less-than-stellar quality; really appreciate you mentioning it.

        • Yeah, I had that impression of him, too, but he’s distinctly described as tall and thin. Gardner was clearly trying to find some way to differentiate him from Mason!

  4. The D.A. books are great. I’ve been reading them for the past couple of years. Your idea of moving on to the Cool and Lam series is very interesting. I read a couple, years ago, and enjoyed them greatly. Now it may be time to read more of them.

    I think that Sam Neill would be great playing against type as A. B. Carr.

    • I read a bunch of Cool and Lam in a somewhat erratic order (limited by availability, see) around the same time as these Selbys…in fact I read my first few C&L without realising A.A. Fair was ESG. So going back and doing them all, in order, appeals on many levels — not least to fill in the gaps.

      I wonder if Neill has the carefree arrogance to play Carr; if I could stand Johnny Depp at all, I’d almost suggest he’d be well suited…but the man turns my stomach, alas, and it’s a connection I’m keen for my brain not to make. Cushing it is for me, I’m afraid 🙂

  5. “A.B. Carr ended up being played by Lloyd Bochner in the tv movie (pilot that did not go to series) ‘They Call It Murder’. Selby was Jim Hutton, and Ed Asner was Larkin.” — david gideon

    So, Jim Hutton played both an ES Gardner sleuth and an Ellery Queen sleuth.
    That’s gotta be — something or other …

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