Thanksgiving evening, Sheriff Rex Brandon receives a call from a contrite drunk claiming to have stolen a car, and heads over to pick him up along with D.A. Doug Selby. Arriving too late to prevent an accident in which the man is killed, a chance observation by Selby leads to an identity different to one the man had claimed This in turn brings Brandon and Selby to Carmen Freelman, who had been called away from dinner with her new husband’s family that evening by her boss…who just happens to be the man killed in the crash. So run the first twenty-four pages of The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944) by Erle Stanley Gardner. Strap in for a wild ride…
In a way this is the Doug Selby novel which for me best exemplifies the series: it’s wildly inventive in its plotting and speculation, rich in incident, and full of the sort of canny reasoning and counter-reasoning that shows Selby and Brandon at their smartest. For all the humps they encounter, you never doubt for a second that everything will work out fine, and in a way this helps you enjoy it more; this series really is one of the benisons of latter-era GAD writing, and there’s been something gloriously relaxing about rereading them over the last 16 months (still three more to go, too).
From that opening, very little is added that does not change the plot notably — amnesia, ex-spouses, hidden witnesses, the gleeful machinations of the delightfully unscrupulous Alphonse Baker Carr, that perennial thorn in the side of Madison City’s lawful, obdurate D.A. — and you really do need to keep your wits about you in order to keep up. The sudden left-turn ending aside (a feature of a lot of Gardner’s writing, it has to be said…), pretty much the only thing I can fault this on is that there’s really no space given to explain the implications of each development…now, sure, I don’t want Selby, Brandon, and Clarion reporter Sylvia Martin sat around going “Gee, well now X has shown up saying Y we must reassess event A, B, Z, and F so that…” but, man, given how stealthily some events unfold here you’d like at least one or two pauses for breath.
Though…well, I suspect this may be done slightly at a sprint because at least some of it makes not a jot of sense. The two phone calls Carmen Freelman receives in the opening chapter, for instance: the first is explained and used to justify actions that come later, and the content of the second it relayed…but how do those events fit into the eventual pattern? I’ve a feeling they don’t at all, and if Gardner realised this and did not want to go back and unpick his skein, well, you can’t blame him for taking out any opportunity for the reader to pause and reflect, “Hang on a minute…”. There’s plenty going on to keep you busy, not least the repeated attempts of our core trio to put each development into a context that makes sense of everything all at once, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gardner just brass-necked it out if anyone raised any questions.
Given the 168 pages of non-stop plot comprising my Penguin edition, there’s also a surprising amount of character in here: the opening scene with the Freelman clan captures the slightly off-kilter domesticity of holidays with the family and extended — less-familiar — others, the verbal sparring of Billy Ransome and his wife when Brandon gets him out of bed at midnight is imbued with no mere lazy wifely shrewishness but instead a deeply-felt sense of kinship and love, and when it’s explained to Carmen what it means when she says her father-in-law runs a ranch…well, Christianna Brand would need twice as many words to communicate so heroic a spiel. And if Old ABC has been more charming than in the exchanges towards the end when he repeatedly apologises to Brandon for having to disagree with him, I haven’t read it.
Some great contemporary details creep through, too: I infer from dialogue herein that shoe sizes were once noted in shoes by symbols known only to fellow cobblers rather than to customers — do I have that right? There’s a decent serving of medico-detection from Dr. Trueman as part of the autopsy on the deceased, and when Los Angeles reporter Joe Raft brings Thomas Bemexter — author of Solving Murders with a Microscope — onto the scene we get a nifty little treatise in evidence collection for forensic pathology, showing an awareness of complexity that I did not realise was so well-developed at this time. And the background of a country newly entered into the on-going war — this is set two years earlier than it was published — is mentioned only through Inez Stapleton sharing her coffee ration with Selby and Brandon (and sugar, it seems, was not rationed at that time…which is probably only interesting to me, now that I type it and read it on the screen).
There is, then, much to recommend this if you’re paying attention, though it’s certainly not the place to start the series. It shows a tremendous brain working overtime to produce a fast, slippery plot, redolent with the whiff of smalltown Americana, and works in a tidy pattern that will probably stagger you if you’ve been keeping up. Finish it in a breathless rush, and try not to think about it too much afterwards.