#431: The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942) by Erle Stanley Gardner

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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.

51guj6ixr-l-_sx324_bo1204203200_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…?


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 Slippery Staircase from a fortnight back because the inital crime may be an accident…or it may be murder: duhn-duhn-duuuuuuuhn

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category…ah, admmit, nuthin’.  Snake eyes.  The big cahoona.  Goose egg.  Zip.  No-one reads this bit, do they?  What am I even doing?

19 thoughts on “#431: The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Thanks for the review. 😊 I have a few Erle Stanley Gardner novels awaiting to be read on my Kindle, but somehow I haven’t got round to reading any. The purple covers on the Murder Room reprints suggest these are crime/spy tales rather than GA puzzles, which may explain my hesitation.

    I was almost expecting you’ll be reviewing the upcoming Halter translation next week – but alas, that’s not the case. Might it be in the pipe-works?


    • Yeah, I’m not entirely sure why these Murder Room titles have purple covers when the more classically detection-based books they’ve put out — the Bouchers, the Carrs, the Wades — are blue. It’s an odd one. Maybe they just wanted a bit of variation?

      I’ll be reviewing The Man Who Loved Clouds at some point, of course…but since reading it will mean I have no Paul Halter to read until the next translation, I’ll hold off for a month or so. I want to clear some long-standing TBR titles out first, too, so most of the stuff next month will have been hanging around patiently waiting its turn for a little while.

      That’s the plan, anyway. Doesn’t always play out how I plan it to 🙂


      • Would be curious to hear of what you make of the latest Halter. 😊 I still have a few Halter titles left, and I think I’ll start on “Tiger’s Eye” once “Man Who Loved Clouds” is released. I’m still keeping an arm’s length from my best-for-last titles: “Phantom Passage” and either “Demon of Dartmoor” or “Madman’s Room”. 🤩

        I gather the different colours for the Murder Room reprints delineate sub-genres: blue for the mystery novels, green for the thrillers, and purple for the spy/crime novels? Hence Helen McCloy’s “Mr Splitfoot” is blue, while “Slayer and Slain” is green. But I may be wrong.


    • Yeah, I have a lot of prep to do ahead of the start of term next week, so I’m hoping I can fit in the odd story here and there. Really looking forward to revisiting Porges’ work; the Cyriack Skinner Grey stories are brilliantly inventive, and I’m hoping he brings the same creativity to Hoffman…


    • Yup, I agree: it’s doubtless helped by its relative compactness (80+ Masons, and 30+ Bertha & Donalds), but I do think the through-lines of this series really make it stand out for me, especially when you consider the time frame over which they were written and how much they encompass.

      Am I right in saying that Jeffery Marks has an ESG biography coming out soon? It was you who mentioned that, right?


  2. Thanks for the reminder that this series exists! I also started reading it in order and got off track, though you’ve gotten farther than I did. It’s interesting to see something a bit different from Gardner, allowing for progression of characters and relationships, but that does make it more difficult to jump back in.Hilarious that the Perry Mason-type character is the villain here.


    • Gardner likes Carr — hell, I like Carr — and is clearly having a ball trying to get him as deep into skulduggery and chicanery as possible: he’s Perry without the…er, I want to say “conscience”, but some of what Perry does over the years is borderline unconscionable 🙂 Let’s go with scruples instead: Carr’s a slave to his wallet, which is an interesting weakness from the perspective of his creator. Gardner never met a legal loophole he didn’t like, and reserves a particular brand of admiration for anyone who is able to scmaper so close to the line time and again (as you say, Carr is essentially Perry Mason, and even gardner would struggle to mine it for such fertaile ground in the, like 743 Mason novels and then condemn it here).

      But the Selby books are very much about the Little People: Selby and Rex Brandon and Sylvia Martin against the world — against Otto Larkin and (always faceless) machinations of The Blade, and Big City Carr and his Big Money Clients. The crimes here impact small busniess and tear apart low-income families, and put people most of the time simply trying to scrape by into the position of immense inconvenience or of losing something dear to them.

      They’re difficult beans to sell without becoming preachy about it, and Gardner always — every single time — makes the contrast so effortlessly and so subtly. Goddamn, I do so love these books.


  3. I’m a bit behind on this series but I did at least manage to read the first two books over the summer and liked both of them, the second even more. If you read a lot of Mason, especially the later ones, the characters can seem a little flat in my opinion, although I still like the comfortable companionship I feel being around the central trio. The Selby books though are much stronger on character, and not just the recurring figures but the more transient ones too. This, coupled with nicely complicated plots, makes for a good read.


    • I think Gardner was more comfortable writing small townish stuff than he was big city stuff. A couple of Masons veer that way, and the two novellas collected under the title Two Clues are delightful in how perfectly they capture a close-knit community with everyone living in everyone else’s pockets.

      His characters seem to come through more when there’s more invested in the setting and the situation. Typically the Mason novels deal with a client in some weird situation and the people around that situation who either hinder or help with the elucidation. Once they’ve played their role in Perry’s untangling of the skein, there’s really nothing more needed from them and so Gardner tends to throw them aside and spin his plot wheel again. Whereas in these smaller communities you feel everyone has more involvement, the stakes are slightly more appreciable, and I think that makes a great difference.


      • I hadn’t thought about the significance of the setting in that way, maybe because I’m so used to Mason existing in the relative anonymity of the city – interesting.


        • It’s only a theory, but it’s something I feel more in the “smaller” stories ESG tells. If you haven’t read Two Clues I highly recommend it for this (they’re also a great couple of stories, which helps). Plots which don’t impact characters can be dazzling, but will never quite strike home in the same way.


  4. This has nothing to do with your review, but I was just looking down at my copy at No Killer Has Wings a day or so ago and thinking, “Huh, I haven’t sen JJ review this, wonder if he will?” Lo and behold…


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