I maintain that the Doug Selby novels of Erle Stanley Gardner stand as probably his best work, and only the genius of Raymond Burr, that awesome theme music, and the fact that the Perry Mason novels outnumber the Selby ones by a mind-blowing 9:1 ratio have led to the relative obscurity of this better series. “What about the Cool and Lam books?” you want to know? Well, as soon as I’m done with Selby I’m going to go and read all 30 of those in order, too, because probably two-thirds of them eluded me back when I started reading Gardner and so there are plenty of gaps to fill. So officially the jury is still out, but the Selby books remain fabulous nonetheless.
This is the point where the series begins to resemble a long-running soap opera, with strands all now in place to play out in good time. Alphonse Baker Carr was introduced in the previous book, The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939), and has no part in this one, but we do get the return of Inez Stapleton following her fleeing the scene a couple of books back. And apart from the fact that there’s waaaaay too much comparing the practicing of law to the playing of tennis she’s the focus of some of the most interesting themes in the books ahead. The promised eponymous trial that should pit her and Selby mano a mano here doesn’t pay off in the way you’d hope, but there’s plenty of other stuff to keep you entertained in the meantime.
Now, pay attention: this gets a little complicated. Essentially there are two threads — the first concerning a hobo who has been hit by a train and must be identified, and the second a request from the neglected neighbouring city of Las Alidas to look into a man who has apparently falsified the account books at his employer and vanished with all the cash he can get his hands on. The hobo’s fingerprints are taken — this is a new initiative instigated by Selby, and we get a semi-extended treatise on fingerprint classification from Bob Terry — and the body cremated at the request of the brother whose contact details are found on the body. The brother vanishes, the fingerprints don’t match any of the records (or indeed any of the other possible suspects), and the body’s identity is confirmed as readily as it is refuted by people who knew the man it might have been. Add in a stolen car, a murdered bank manager, the vanishing wife of the man suspected of the theft, and her suspicious ex-husband and, as Selby himself says, “It’s a whole series of suspicious circumstances pointing towards some crime which seems to have been covered up so completely we can’t find out much about it”.
Dude, the inside of Gardner’s head must have been a fascinating place. This was one of five books he published in 1940, including one of my favourite Cool and Lam novels Gold Comes in Bricks, and as well as a staggeringly complex piece of puzzle plotting that is resolved with a simplicity so beautiful you have to kick yourself for not seeing it (though, in fairness, there’s a lack of particular clue at the key point…) he also writes sentences like…
Civilisation and irrigation had pushed the desert far back from Phoenix, but at night, after the people were asleep, the desert reclaimed its own. The calm silence, the dry cold which sucked warmth from the body along with humidity, the steady unblinking splendor of the stars, were all the heritage of the desert.
…and has frank arrogance to unroll perfectly-pitched pen portraits of his players, including a man who “surrounded himself with synthetic dignity, as a bitter pill is encased in sugar-coating”. Yes, it’s a little black-and-white in its morality at times — boooo, The Blade is an evil paper and Sam Roper is a manipulative liar and everyone just hates Selby because these two tell them to — but it’s also shot through with Gardner’s pithy and insightful perspectives on laws and the legal system, and the strengths and shortcomings of both. Selby remains a fundamentally decent man working a system that is set on corrupting him, as political pressure and personal vendettas muddy the water, urging him to aggress and fall flat or retreat and appear weakened. And as those around him attempt to arrogate and force his hand, he holds a steady and conflicted morality at the heart of everything he does. It should get boring, but it really does not.
He is supported as much as he is cajoled by Sheriff Rex Brandon and reporter-cum-love interest Sylvia Martin who walks the perfect line between sympathy and bullishness, responding when Selby attempts to shield her from harm in the closing stages with the perfect riposte “Get back of you nothing, you big egg…I’m a reporter. Move over so I can see!”. It is the relationship of this triumvirate that really makes these books for me, Brandon and Martin both liking Selby personally and respecting him professionally while also trying to negotiate for him the political arena in which he at times seems a layman.
A tangible sense of the era in which this is set also pervades events and thus enriches proceedings. An early deduction involving the timings of trains would by common consensus seem more at home in a Freeman Wills Crofts novel, and casual asides like a truck driver making a point of mentioning his “side mirrors to show the road behind” are all the more telling for how downplayed they are. There’s also a moment from which many a suspense novelist would spin a full chapter or three — concerning a plane coming in to land at a small airfield where there is no lighting on the runway — dealt with in a manner so offhand one can only conclude that it was a commonplace enough occurrence in the 1940s. The package is for me almost the precise mix of what I’m looking for in the novels I read, and rediscovering them and finding they still delight me is a real joy all of its own.
In a couple of months, then, expect Doug Selby to get cookin’…