Well, it’s taken me about twice as long as I thought it would, but we’re finally at the end of Doug Selby. This is the ninth and final novel to feature Erle Stanley Gardner’s District Attorney of Madison County — a place where “they roll up the sidewalks and put them in mothballs at nine or ten o’clock at night” and that in the words of P.L. Paden, new owner of the Blade newspaper, “has been small time [and is] about to grow up”. Certainly one change is in evidence here: events of the preceding novel carry over in a way that spoils one of the best surprises of that book, so make sure you’ve read The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948) before picking this up.
Another change is that for the first time since his inauguration in The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937) this is structured like a novel someone else would write. Part of Gardner’s joy is in being able to sideswipe you with developments you’re not yet ready for, but here things unfurl at the pace of a normal writer, and in such a way that makes this seasoned reader of ESG hugely appreciate the spacing of events over the first third or so. We’re able to piece things together that Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon aren’t because we have information they don’t, and when the patterns settle and they do catch up to us, well, it’s fairly amazing that we’re as far into the book as we are, because the pages fly past. You might be one of those people who doesn’t rate Gardner as an author of any skill, and if that’s so then I’d love you to read the opening seven chapters of this and tell me how you came to that that conclusion.
And then…well, then it becomes an Erle Stanley Gardner book, and all manner of hell breaks loose in the best possible way. A series of superb revelations power the narrative through all manner of reversals that I can’t even begin to get into here, and along the way all the usual fun is had…which makes you realise that this is perhaps wearing a little thin at the elbows now: Chief of Police Otto Larkin is a self-important bumpkin, The Blade gnashes its teeth and calls Selby and Brandon inefficient, sensation-hungry, glory-seeking and all the other things that The Blade has called them for eight books without seeming to spot the regularity with which they’re made to eat their words, and the only real challenge comes from Alfonse Baker Carr and his machinations and legal brilliance.
I love the Selby series, and rereading it has been delightful, but I’m glad ESG stopped here. The formula has taken as many iterations as it can, and it would diminish the compact nature of the series to drag it out to the 30 books Donald and Bertha got, or the 80+ Perry had…and, c’mon, both of those series ended up a little shopworn by their demise, where the D.A Verbs a Noun books do retain a real freshness and energy. Selby reminding us (via Brandon) yet again that he likes Carr, thinks he’s “a genius [and] also a crook” feels a little bittersweet when you know it’s the last time that will happen, rather than a square on Doug Selby Bingo being ticked off because it’s what the books always do. And, for all his insistence that “I don’t want to be smart. I prefer to be honest” there’s something about Selby’s blue-eyed, lantern-jawed moral uprightness that’s, long-term, less interesting than the edge-of-the-law tricks of Gardner’s other, longer-lived protagonists.
But, hell, let’s not give the impression this is bad. The plot is a seamless machine, so much so that I completely forgot one aspect of how it ties together and was able to experience that moment of awareness for a second time. And it’s full of wonderful character portraits as only Gardner can do: Moana Lennox as “a green-eyed blonde who should have been vivacious and wasn’t, [seemingly] actuated by some inner mechanism which was wound with a key, guaranteeing so many times to lift the spoon or fork, so many cuts of the knife, so many smiles of polite interest”, aggressive new Blade reporter Harry P. Elrod as “a slender, sharp-tongued, skeptical bit of newspaper driftwood from the big city”, the elderly Mrs. Barker C. Nutwell and her “birdlike dexterity…a quickness, and a deft assurance”. We’ll never see these people again, but Gardner gives them as much care as anyone, and remains one of the finest at this sort of quick, glimpsed, genuine showing of a person (as opposed to to misleading you about their true nature, which GAD usually relies upon).
The detection is pretty good, too, with mistakes made and then corrected, and leads followed up neatly against the background of opposition provided by Carr, the Blade, and Larkin. “Rex, we’re confronted with a peculiar pattern,” Selby says at one point. “It isn’t a pattern of coincidence, and it isn’t a pattern of accident”, and that’s as true here as it always is in these books — indeed, I’m struck by how much of the foregoing I could have also written about every other Selby novel, and how much of a type they have themselves become. Yes, the brittle respectability that the Lennox family clutch so close to themselves, and the measured, expert pacing of events I mentioned above, really do distinguish this from its brethren, but we can’t get too deeply into that without spoilers, and I want you to enjoy the smattering of detective fiction tropes without knowing they’re coming.
At the end of the day, Gardner, I like to think, recognised the eternal nature of the struggles faced by Madison County and was happy to leave us in the secure understanding that while Selby was there to wrestle, caduceus-like, with Carr, good would always just about triumph and law and order would be maintained. You could argue that a bunch of stuff is left unresolved, but that’s how I personally liked it: the sense of life going on, of ends to be picked up, of new troubles on the horizon, which is perhaps indicative of the realism-focussed domestic suspense that the 1950s were about to bring upon us and that Gardner was happy to let Selby face alone. Change will come, the Blade will change hands again, a new police chief will frustrate the progress of the law, Brandon would probably retire, Selby would run for re-election against an unscrupulous opponent…I’m okay leaving all of this implied. Selby is a good man, the people around him are good people, they’ll be fine.
4 thoughts on “#664: The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949) by Erle Stanley Gardner”
Except for Carr, the characters never appealed to me as they did in the Perry Mason series. Perhaps I should give the series another go.
Well, the main characters aren’t really the focus on Gardner’s characterisation — Rex Brandon is a Good Ol’ Boy, Sylvia Martin is Honest and Believe in Doug Selby, Selby is Square-Jawed and Moral…what you see is what you get, and in a way I think that might be part of why Gardner couldn’t do much with them beyond these nine books.
It’s the minor characters where he excels — every book has at least a couple of brilliantly smart thumbnail sketches of a throwaway encounter or description. Gardner pulls these out time and again across his work, but for some reason they really strike me hard in the Selby books…maybe because the background of the fairly bland main characters makes them stand out more distinctly.
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I love all of Gardner’s characters. Each is iconic. Gramps Wiggins is one of my favorites. I always loved how he got under his grandson-in–law’s skin, and always solved the mystery before he did. Not to mention boy could he mix a wicked cocktail! One hilarious image is Gramps in a ladies’ swimsuit.
Another of my favorite Gardner characters is Terry Clane, even though Gardner wrote only a few stories featuring Clane. I loved Lam and Cool and always wished they had done them in film when timely. The materials are a bit dated, even though the stories are pretty timeless.
I still re-read the Perry Masons, D.A. series and all the rest. I never tire of them.
Another great Gardner character who only cropped up very briefly is Ken Corning — I remember reading the collection of those stories quite early on in my Gardner education and being very taken with them. I’d always assumed more Corning stories would turn up, but I suppose he was as much a model for Mason as he was for Doug Selby — certainly Selby retains more of Corning’s incorruptibility.
My plan is to read the Sidney Zoom collection from Crippen and Landru as my next Gardner, because I’ve not read any of the Zoom stuff and I’m interested to see how they compare. Then it’ll be Cool & Lam in order, and then — gulp — probably the Masons…
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