#620: The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946) by Erle Stanley Gardner

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In a recent conversation on the GAD Facebook group, I was reminded that I haven’t read any of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby novels in a while.   In fact, it’s been a year — where does the time go?  So, Project One for 2020 is to get these Selby novels finished so that I can move on to the 30 cases featuring Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  And then the eighty-four Perry Mason cases, which, at this rate, will keep me in blogging material until I’m about 146 years old.  But, for today and my belated return to Gardner’s world, we enter a very different Madison County: one where D.A Doug Selby isn’t the D.A — I suppose The Guy Who Used to Be D.A. Breaks a Seal just ain’t that catchy…

And, look, let’s be honest: things aren’t at all different in Madison County.  Rex Brandon is still sheriff, Otto Larkin is still Chief of Police, Sylvia Martin still runs around seeking scoops for the Clarion newspaper and carrying a candle for Selby, Inez Stapleton props up the other end of said candle while practising law, and Alphonse Baker Carr is still an unscrupulous yet charming shitbag who never met a legal swindle he wasn’t willing to charge exorbitant rates for.  It’s the keen observation of these people and their relationships that make the Selby books so enjoyable — sure, Della Street would pine for Perry Mason, but apart from a few you’re-the-boss-Boss relationships there’s never been the same aura in Gardner’s far more famous series — and, from new D.A. Carl Gifford insisting over Brandon’s objections that his preferred suspect for a poisoning must have a motive “otherwise he wouldn’t have done it” to the hotel clerk who “glumly assured them that not only was there no good restaurant around the hotel, but there wasn’t any good restaurant anywhere in the city: food was terrible, service awful, prices high”, this is a masterpiece of refined character notes.

Yet another wonderful hook kicks things off: Selby, now a Major having been called up to the Army, returns to Madison City on a brief furlough, encounters Sylvia Martin at the train station, and they witness A.B. Carr greeting two people who are both wearing gardenias in their buttonhole, Carr himself sporting a corresponding one.  With Inez Stapleton contesting the signing of a possibly-suspect will and Carr on the other side of the debate — “when you’re fighting him, you have the most peculiar feeling of futility. You just don’t feel that you’re getting anywhere near the man. It’s as though you were having one of those nightmares where you run and run, and move your legs but can’t seem to gain an inch” — how can the two be related?  And how does a guest poisoned by his breakfast at the local hotel fit in?

A surfeit of lovely details really enrich this — Carl Gifford being keen to dragoon the investigation into the poisoning and evidently only to happy to blame the sheriff if it all falls through, some very enjoyable deductive work by a very unofficial Selby when investigating the victim’s belongings, the bloated pomposity of yokel lawyer W. Barclay Stanton who has come down with Inez’s clients and fails to realise just how far out of his depth he is — and Gardiner spins his plot-wheels and writes up a storm.  This book is seventy-four years old, and reads so easily and so damn quickly that there’s barely time for each development before the next one comes crowding in…and yet it’s never rushed, never cramped, and built against the background of relationships that are fascinating to watch:

The sheriff drew thoughtfully on his cigarette. “I think [A.B.C.]’s always up to something, Doug. You were a lot more charitable with the man than I ever was.”

“I like him,” Selby admitted. “I suppose he’s unscrupulous, but he’s an artist. He’s at the top of his profession.”

“Such as it is,” the sheriff remarked.

Selby laughed. “He’s a criminal lawyer, Rex. He doesn’t defend people who are innocent. He defends people who are charged with crime.”

“And he consistently gets them off.”

“But, Rex, can’t you see that A.B. Carr is simply a necessary by-product of a system of justice which tries to be fair?”

“I don’t get it.”

“Suppose a lawyer wouldn’t represent a person whom he thought guilty?”

“The ethical lawyers won’t do it.”

“All right,” Selby said, “then you don’t have a trial by jury, you have a trial by lawyer. In other words, a man finds himself involved in a case where the circumstantial evidence is black against him. He goes to lawyer after lawyer, and because they think the man is guilty they won’t even consent to give him a defense. The law says a man is entitled to a trial by jurynot a trial by the lawyers whom he consults.”

Gardner embodies the symbiosis of plot and character as well as anyone ever did in GAD, and the occasional lurches in the former tend to overshadow the achievements in the latter.  From first reading this yeeeeeears ago, I remembered being unconvinced by the eventual development that ties them all together, and when it hit me this time there was a grin plastered across my face when I realised how short I’d sold this in my memory.  I don’t for one second believe that hotel front-desk men would be as forthcoming as Gardner makes them — jeepers, those guys must be really starved for conversation to just spill everything to two nosey parkers, one of them a journalist, who just come askin’ anythin’ — but the shape of it all, and the clever way you’re misled and then put back on the right track (Selby has a moment of intuitive genius which comes out of nowhere, but I defy you not to love it) charm any reservations away.

Even the various bits of legalese that become increasingly important (and in a way make you realise how Gardner could run out of ideas for this shorter series, since it gets very Mason-esque in these closing volumes) remain clear, so that come the final showdown and the unravelling of all Carr’s plans (er, spoilers?) it’s only the inattentive reader who has anything to complain about.  This might well be the zenith of the Selby books, but since I went in thinking it the weakest of the lot — which might explain that year-long hiatus… — it remains to be seen what I make of the last two with some more experience behind me.  Rest assured, the next one will be along before too much grass grows beneath us.

~

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)

7 thoughts on “#620: The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Five stars? Really? You’re going to make me read this, you know.

    From reading your reviews, it seems like part of the allure is in the small town Americana. I’m curious how you’d compare Gardner’s take on this to Queen’s Wrightsville period or even Herbert Brean’s New England from the three Wilder-series books.

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    • Well, I have Brean’s Hardly a Man is Now Alive ready to go…but other books keep interrupting. Certainly the sense of a continuous set of characters having to exist and rub along in the same small town is a large part of the fun of this series — and it really comes out here with all the history these relationships share. I wonder if I’ll get a sense of the continuity from the Brean — not because it’s not there, but because it’s been so damn long since I read Wilders that I’ll probably not remember any of it.

      And, gee, I apologise for making you want to read one of the most successful writers of all time, and one of the finest exponents of the puzzle novel as viewed through the American lens. How inhumane of me.

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      • This seems to tie into our conversation a few days ago about continuity in GAD. Would you consider Gardner to do continuity without spoilage in this series? Also, I imagine that while there is some continuity of character and consequence between the books, there isn’t actually an arc.

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        • The only real spoiler of sorts would be the arc of Inez Stapleton through the first few books, but that’s really more background stuff than anything else. Rex Brandon makes a reference to a previous book in this one, but so obliquely that I actually missed it at first, and apart from that I can think of no other instances of anything being spoiled at all.

          Bear in mind, too, that I love this one partly because of how immersed I am in the series. This was, I think, the first one I read back in the day and I didn’t remember loving it as much as I did this time around…though whether that’s due to general GAD awareness or series awareness I can’t say.

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  2. Five stars? Really? You’re going to make me read this, you know.

    That’s what I thought! I’ve only read The D.A. Draws a Circle, but it was worthy of the lavish praise JJ has heaped on the series. So is this a better detective series than Perry Mason?

    From reading your reviews, it seems like part of the allure is in the small town Americana. I’m curious how you’d compare Gardner’s take on this to Queen’s Wrightsville period or even Herbert Brean’s New England from the three Wilder-series books.

    If you’re interested, Theodore Roscoe’s Four Corners possibly was the model for Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville and Shinn Corners and Edward Hoch’s Northmont.

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    • Is it better than Perry Mason? That’s tough. They’re distinct from Mason in that there’s less legal chicanery, but then I seem to remember the last couple become quite embroiled in that sort of thing…and the reversal here, while not as stark a legal ploy, is something that would delight ol’ Perry and Pals. But for detection, I feel the Selby books benefit from being relatively compact (written over 12 years, I think, and so of far shorter duration as a series) and so of a consistently high standard. The best Mason novels outwit the best Selbys, I reckon, but the Selbys are far more charming, and feel to my memory to be easier to invest in.

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