I’ve always thought of 1950 as a watermark year in the career of Erle Stanley Gardner. It’s arguably the point at which prevailing literary trends started to diverge meaningfully from the style of writing Gardner had staked out for himself. Post-1950 his Perry Mason series is a catalogue of steadily-diminishing returns, being somewhat preserved in aspic in its early-1930s incarnation, and the escapades of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool are saved only by Gardner’s many talents in not allowing that series to ever be easily pigeonholed. But for me the most compelling evidence that 1950 was meaningful for ESG is how Doug Selby never saw the light of day again after 1949.
The Selby books were always a slightly wild time, but the last two — The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948) and The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949) — seem to truly revel in the rollerskates-on-an-oilslick approach that typified the best of the Cool and Lam novels, with which they share some “small-time operation” DNA. The Cool and Lam agency only ever had about four employees — and, if I remember correctly, one of them wasn’t even given a name — and while Selby has an altogether more formal brief and legal reach, these stories typically unfold with only two other people on his side: Sheriff Rex Brandon and, filling the Elsie Brand/Della Street adoring-from-aclose role, Clarion reporter Sylvia Martin. Arrayed against this happy few, from third book The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) onwards, at least, was the endless reach and legal machinations of Perry Mason’s dark twin Alphonse Baker Carr, who is, in many ways, the real star of this series since it’s always so much fun seeing what unscrupulous schemes he can devise for Selby to (SPOILERS?) unpick.
The D.A. Takes a Chance is in many ways the high point of just how brilliant Gardner’s plotting was. Approached by Doris Kane after she calls on her newlywed daughter and finds the house abandoned seemingly in the middle of a party and what may be blood in one of the bedrooms, Selby and Brandon immediately consider the sort of conclusion that many authors would have held back for their mid-book Big Shock. When Selby and Brandon have no choice but to step into a potential trap by visiting the house, they find it “spic and span, dusted and swept” and then Old A.B.C. enters the picture at apparently exactly the right — or, indeed, the wrong — moment and it would be fair to assume that Gardner had played his ace and the rest would be dull routine.
Well, stir in the emergence of Doris Kane’s daughter with a story to cover these mysterious events, and add a possible murder that everyone claims is a suicide on the back of a car crash that somehow resulted in a bullet wound and Selby has his work cut out for him by a quarter of the way through the book:
“Your legal problem, Mr. Selby…is to prove and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this despondent, unhappy, unfortunate creature, with her history of a previous suicide attempt, her medical history of suicidal complexes, was murdered. That, I would say, was practically impossible.”
Selby’s done the practically impossible before, previous book The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946) is a masterstroke of overturning impossible odds, but the one failing of this novel is that Gardner has set his sleuth a problem which is, in fact, impossible to solve in the manner intended and so must fall back on…hackneyed means. It’s an oddly unsatisfying note given the standard of this series since even the second book, and maybe it’d be easier to forgive if the earlier cases weren’t so damned brilliant. How the murder is proved here is disappointingly clunky, and sticks out badly among highlights like the genius revelation from Bob Terry at the two-thirds point and the essential simplicity that the many complexities herein boil down to. Modern thriller writers, keen to reject Occam’s razor, should study Gardner fervidly. Hell, everyone should study Gardner fervidly.
We get some of the great minor character work at which Gardner so excelled (“Then he smiled, a smile of frosty cordiality that was not overdone, but nevertheless showed a disposition to be friendly on the part of a man who was more accustomed to receive overtures than to make them.”), but I’ll confess that the sheer speed of events left me mixing up Milton Granby and Hudson L. Parlin since both get to be little more than one neat description and then a recurring presence when handy to the plot. However, if you can find me a more acutely observed smalltown nosey Parker eager to insert themselves into proceedings than taxi driver Gib Spencer — with a tongue that’s “hinged in the middle and clacks at both ends” — I’ll eat my hat, and the casual observation with which Eleanor Harlan’s voluptuous, eggshell beauty is broken is possibly the closest Gardner ever came to the remorselessness of Jim Thompson, and kind of takes your breath away.
The book belongs to Carr, of course — “When he first came here, he was a pariah, an outsider. But now he’s the power behind everything that goes on.” — who is both exactly what you expect (“My primary purpose in practicing law is not to save the officers of the law time. It is to protect my clients.”) and yet still so very, very surprising. Surprising, too, and indicative of the change I talked about up top, is the shift Gardner makes into Domestic Suspense which ranges in terms of success from the subtle unease of the early stages (“The emptiness of the house swallowed up her voice, emphasizing the quaver in it.”) to the overwrought reflection on trees late on that pays off with possibly one of the least Gardnerian passages in his entire canon (“She screamed again, a wild, terror-distorted scream that was so shrill it cut her own eardrums.”)…and, yes, I’m including in that comparison the non-fiction book he wrote about photographing whales.
Upon second reading, and with a better overview of the genre at this point in history, this feels like Gardner dipping his toe in the pool of emerging literary trends and discovering that Selby & Co. possibly aren’t the best fit for the New World. Perry was the money-spinner who would withstand time and tide, and Bertha and Donald could be made into whatever Gardner needed them to be, but I hope he realised that he had too much invested in the Selby books to want to hoick them around too much, and so opted to let them bow out before they got dragged off the stage. I can’t deny that I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with the Cool and Lam series, especially as there are quite a few there I’m yet to read, but, dude, I am going to miss the Selby menage when they’re done. Expect the end to come in the next couple of months…