Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles, possibly the most famous novel of uxoricide ever written, begins with a line so classic it distracts you from the opening being, well, a bit dull. This Way Out (1939) by James Ronald, similarly concerned with a dissatisfied husband wishing to dispose of his wife, is happy for you to be immersed in the commonplace before hitting you with brilliant lines of its own, but would surely be more more famous if it began with the following from approximately a third of the way through: “While dawn on slippered feet crept through the silent streets Philip lay in bed examining schemes for killing his wife”.
As a reader, there’s a tension to be found at the heart of every writer’s work once it’s a closed set, especially when they’ve scaled the heights that John Dickson Carr did: with nothing else to be added, at what point does The Decline set in? From Till Death Do Us Part (1944), arguably the pinnacle of his glittering career, it’s a sawtooth diagram of quality all the way to Papa La-Bas (1968), arguably the nadir, but at what point does a downward trajectory become the prevailing trend rather than the occasional, forgivable oversight? It’s obviously impossible to pick the precise moment — helloooo, subjectivity — which inevitably makes such a moment impossible not to look for.
One evening, responding to a phone call from the local hospital requesting that he identify a man involved in an accident, Mr. James Tovey, Fruit and Vegetable Merchant on London’s Praed Street, discovers he’s the victim of a prank and that no such call was made by anyone at the hospital. On the short walk home, he encounters a group of men outside the local pub and…there endeth his story, for he is stabbed and dies shortly thereafter. With the group all claiming innocence, and talk of a scar-faced sailor seen in the vicinity, the event is put down to a senseless tragedy until circumstances link it to another death on the same stretch of road. And another. And another.
Five short mysteries from the pen of Robert Arthur in the year before he launched The Three Investigators on the world? What’s not to love? And this first story even comes with a supplementary mystery all of its own.
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.