It is slightly over a year since I decided to reread the Doug Selby novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, and while I sort of imagined I’d be done by now — nine books into twelve months goes fairly easily — I had not counted on how much I enjoyed the ones I’d read first time around, and so how I would draw out this revisiting so as to enjoy them equally now. And, even more fun, it turns out that I hadn’t read this one (side note: does anyone actually read the synopses of authors they love in advance of reading the book? You’re gonna read it anyway, right, so why would it matter what it’s about?) — so it felt like a new Doug Selby novel even though, yes, no, I’m aware it isn’t.
If anything, reading this has reinforced just how much I appreciate Golden Age novels over their modern crime fiction kin. Because, see, to describe the opening of this could be to describe the opening of almost any crime thriller labelled ‘pulse-pounding’ by the modern broadsheet newspaper of your choice: a frantic phone call to Doug Selby’s office from a woman who has been kidnapped from a bus garage, leaving her baby behind…the sound of a man’s voice, a struggle, the line goes dead. That’s the opening 30 pages of your bourgeois modern pulse-pounder right there, and I’d yawn my way through solidly 60% of them, and not even finish the other 40%. But, damn, Gardner is a class act, and this is a lesson that has been around for 76 years to school anyone who wants to write that kind of book. Don’t. Attempt to write this kind of book instead.
Remember when genre novels were more than just a hook and an intriguing strapline for the cover? Yeah, I sound like an old fart — I can live with that, if it brings more books like this into my life. You’re left in no doubt that investigating that phone call is among the most exigent of circumstances, but such exigencies in no way preclude having a wider plot filled with superb reversals and strong character beats. Just take this following, from chapter 3, wherein that venerable old shit-bag A.B. Carr shows up again, no doubt prelude to sticking his oar in and stirring the…pot:
The notorious criminal lawyer had been a disturbing influence in the community ever since he arrived, bag and baggage, from the city and established a country residence in the exclusive Orange Heights district. Every time Doug had run into Carr it had meant trouble. A.B. Carr didn’t belong in a tranquil rural community. There was every reason to dislike the man, yet Selby, against his will, found himself fascinated by Carr’s poise, his mental agility, and calm assurance. Doug full intended to say formally “Good afternoon, Mr. Carr,” but instead found himself stretching forth his right hand and saying, “Hello, Carr. What can I do for you?”
Sure, Carr’s the Big Bad of this series, the hissable, unscrupulous shyster, obliged to no-one except his wallet, and unafraid to take the most brazen of liberties when his suits that end…but Gardner’s not so cheap as to simply make you hate him. Indeed, in the face of Selby’s moral uprightness, Carr is probably the most interest character in these books — you always know what Selby will do, his principles run through him like a stick of rock, but Carr could be up to anything from his ankle to his neck in most of what goes on, and you’re never sure where the level stops.
By about a third of the way through, then Gardner — or perhaps his plot wheels, though I think you feel the influence of them less in the Selby books than you do the Masons — has already thrown out two great twists that would wrap this up satisfactorily, and dispenses with a third at the midway point. Along the way, you get a brief detour into blood splatter analysis, and a beautiful, semi-Croftian treatise on the properties of ink in debunking forged documents, and just enough reversal and examination of the plot to cast what feels like a certain conclusion in enough doubt to keep you guessing (seriously, no-one does this as well as Gardner — other writers broadside you with something you didn’t see coming, but Gardner’s dangled truths turn out to be as illusory as much as miraculous in a staggeringly hard-to-guess ratio).
And there’s glorious prose in there, too, belying any claim that anyone could do this if they had enough plot wheels about their person. Rex Stout was finer prose stylist, and Christianna Brand better at character, but neither of them wrote sentences like:
“My body has been doing a pretty good job for me a good many years, but the old mechanism is just about worn out. The doctors can tinker with it here, and tinker with it there, but, if you ask me, it’s a hopeless job of cutting, a race between the scythe of Father Time and the surgeon’s knife.”
…with the regularity of Gardner. Even his heavy-handed reflections on the relative paucity of crime in his district, compared with city police departments able to predict in advance how many murders or thefts will take place over the course of a year, fall lightly in the middle of other matters, to the extent that I missed how superbly put it was when I first read it and had to go back to look it over again.
If I can fault it on one thing, it would be the Sudden Realisation That Demystifies Everything coming so far out of nowhere that I think it must have skipped in from another book, though in fairness there is one infuriatingly subtle piece of information dropped fairly early on that should put you on the right track, but I’m going to guess solidly, like, everyone who reads this will sail past it without so much as a blink. That does mollify somewhat the frustration I felt at something simply being dropped out of the cerulean blue sky, but Gardner better not try that shit too often, because he just about achieved the perfect Doug Selby novel here, and having it snatched away at the last moment is frustrating in the extreme. We’ll blame the plot wheels, obviously, but couldn’t he maybe have spun that final one just one more time…?