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.”