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).
Last week, I was moved to reflect upon the end of the archetypal Golden Age detective novel, and this week I’m moved to reflect on its beginning. The essential ludic air at the heart of the best of the genre is not quite there in The Duke of York’s Steps, but one can feel the inalienable ingredients of the form straggling into line to give shape to a story that retains fidelity to a type of plot that, at this stage, was understood if not quite mastered. If anything, the mystery feels almost over-subtle — like Antidote to Venom, it seems a trifle unlikely that such a set of circumstances as these would come to warrant criminal investigation — and so approximately the first quarter is spent trying to manufacture the necessary traction for the detection to begin in earnest.
If you’re anything like me, well, firstly my condolences, but also you have a list of books not printed any time in the last few decades that you spend hours scouring secondhand bookshops, book fairs, online auction sites, and other people’s houses in the hope of finding. A lot of them – in my case, say, The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants – are rather obscure and so their lack of availability is understandable, but in other cases it just seems…baffling.
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.