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.
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.
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…
Thanksgiving evening, Sheriff Rex Brandon receives a call from a contrite drunk claiming to have stolen a car, and heads over to pick him up along with D.A. Doug Selby. Arriving too late to prevent an accident in which the man is killed, a chance observation by Selby leads to an identity different to one the man had claimed This in turn brings Brandon and Selby to Carmen Freelman, who had been called away from dinner with her new husband’s family that evening by her boss…who just happens to be the man killed in the crash. So run the first twenty-four pages of The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944) by Erle Stanley Gardner. Strap in for a wild ride…
It is slightly over a year since I decided to reread the Doug Selby novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, and while I sort of imagined I’d be done by now — nine books into twelve months goes fairly easily — I had not counted on how much I enjoyed the ones I’d read first time around, and so how I would draw out this revisiting so as to enjoy them equally now. And, even more fun, it turns out that I hadn’t read this one (side note: does anyone actually read the synopses of authors they love in advance of reading the book? You’re gonna read it anyway, right, so why would it matter what it’s about?) — so it felt like a new Doug Selby novel even though, yes, no, I’m aware it isn’t.
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).