I maintain that the Doug Selby novels of Erle Stanley Gardner stand as probably his best work, and only the genius of Raymond Burr, that awesome theme music, and the fact that the Perry Mason novels outnumber the Selby ones by a mind-blowing 9:1 ratio have led to the relative obscurity of this better series. “What about the Cool and Lam books?” you want to know? Well, as soon as I’m done with Selby I’m going to go and read all 30 of those in order, too, because probably two-thirds of them eluded me back when I started reading Gardner and so there are plenty of gaps to fill. So officially the jury is still out, but the Selby books remain fabulous nonetheless.
After the disappointment of last week, I should dive straight back in to another dense impossibility and to hell with any lingering doubts. But, well, my meretricious moods find me yearning for a little comfort reading, and so it’s back to Doug Selby and the gang. Here we find newly-elected D.A. Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon contending with obstreperous reporters, influential businessmen, political opportunism, and a host of tangled stories and motives when trying to unpick the riddle of a dead body found bearing a note that states the intention of the possessor to have killed someone else…but no second body to back up the claim. And hold onto your hats, because that’s not the only thing that doesn’t add up.
Erle Stanley Gardner, in my view one of the four most important male authors of classic crime fiction, is of course best known for the savvy machinations of Perry Mason, a man who never met a legal loophole he didn’t like. Yet between 1937 and 1949 he wrote nine books that just might comprise some of his most interesting writing, those featuring D.A. Doug Selby. Selby is a more naive presence than Mason — equally ready to fight his corner, yet strangely trusting in a way that at times proves his undoing — and in order to bring these books a little more attention I’m going to work through them in order over the next few months (yes, yes, we’ve heard this before… well I need a break from that, and this is the perfect antidote).
There’s an appealing irony in the assertion that you know an author has hit the big time when everyone remembers the name of their characters over that of the creator themself: Lisbeth Salander, Jack Reacher, Tarzan, Jason Bourne, we erudite types remember them, of course, but the world at large – fuelled no doubt by TV and films – associates more with their representations than their origins. Erle Stanley Gardner – a King of Crime, lest we forget – is not just less well-known than his character, but also the piece of music that character is himself overshadowed by; all together now… Frankly, he must be like the biggest-selling author in the world on those terms. Well, uh, yeah, he kinda is, actually. And yet, despite my avowed love of the man and his writing, it’s taken me 70 posts to get round to reviewing him here; what gives?
Well, two things. Firstly, I’d read a lot of Gardner before starting this blog and had sort of lost track of exactly what I had and hadn’t already encountered, and secondly a lot of it was written at high speed and with, er, some quality control issues and so some of what I’ve read since hasn’t exactly covered him in glory. However, The Case of the Borrowed Brunette is about as classic a Perry Mason – oh, yeah, that’s the famous character, but the way – novel as you’ll get, and showcases a lot of what Gardner did extremely well and also a lot of the flaws in his process.
Bookends: The Case of the Sulky Girl (1933)/The Case of the Postponed Murder (1973)
Books published 1920-59: 97
The Case for the Crown
Diversity: Yes, you read that correctly: by my count (and I’ve cross-checked a couple of times just in case) Erle Stanley Gardner published ninety-seven books in the space of 39 years, and that’s not including short story collections and without considering the individual stories themselves – somewhere in the realm of 200 of them (Wikipedia informs me that Gardner set himself a target of 1.2 million words a year – 100,000 a month, approximately the total word-count of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – while writing short fiction for the pulps, many of them under pseudonyms). With that much output comes one of two things: the same story, worn infinitely thin and threadbare through retelling, or a range of styles, approaches, forms, characters, and ideas that tell of an imagination on fire, quenched only by its own overflowing.