The devastation wrought by the First World War in the sheer quantity of life lost saw an upsurge in the popularity of spirit mediums, to the extent that no less an authority on the rational than Arthur Conan Doyle fell under their spell. Given that this rise in open chicanery coincided with the birth of the detective novel, it surprises me that The Psychic Killer took such a long time to appear in GAD, perhaps owing to its intersection with the impossible crime and the associated difficulties of explaining away the tricks on the page — The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson being easily the best example of a very, very small subset.
In the comments of my review of The Sweepstake Murders (1931) by J.J. Connington, TomCat pointed out that the author’s sole impossible crime novel was among my recently-acquired bundle, and here we are. In Whose Dim Shadow, a.k.a. The Tau Cross Mystery (1935), however, begins with a shooting in an unlocked room in an unlocked flat that also has a set of footprints leading away from the open French windows and which forms the basis of the majority of the narrative. And a very entertaining narrative it is, too, only falling down when Connington shanghais pace for exposition, and struggling in the final straight due, in all likelihood, to external concerns.
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.
You may have missed the subtle hint I put up recently about buying some J.J. Connington books, but, with 18 to choose from, where to start? Well, if there’s a GAD touchstone I enjoy almost as much as a “no footprints” murder it’s a tontine, so The Sweepstake Murders (1931), which sees nine associates win £241,920 (or £16 million in today’s money) to be divided among them is a great place to reattempt Mt. Connington. Because £241,920 spilt nine ways is less each than when it’s split eight ways, which would be less than splitting it seven ways, which would be less than splitting it six ways…you can see how someone starts to think, can’t you?
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.
Without wishing to overlook the great work once done by The Murder Room, someone needs to reprint Henry Wade. I enjoyed The Hanging Captain (1933) and very much enjoyed The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), but Heir Presumptive (1935) is in another class altogether and, like Craig Rice the other week, if he has any other books written with even half the fizz and joy of this one, those are books I wish to read…but, goddamn, the man’s fully OOP at present and something needs to be done. Because if you haven’t read this one yet, I urge you to find it at the earliest opportunity, and that means we’ll then be in competition for any other paperbacks out there once you love this as much as I did.
When The Murder Room, the ebook-only arm of publishing house Orion, announced a couple of years ago that they’d be releasing a bunch of Henry Wade’s novels I got quite excited and then proceeded to buy none of them. Instead, I eventually acquired three hard-to-find Wade novels in paperback — The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), The Hanging Captain (1933), and the apparent classic Heir Presumptive (1935) — and proceeded to read none of them, too. So, as I v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y make my way through these, I’m pleased to report that here it certainly seems Wade has learned a lot from that earlier book and grown significantly as an author in four short years.
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 had only read one previous novel by J.J. Connington — The Case with Nine Solutions (1928) — about which I remember one clever piece of misdirection and little else. I’ve had The Four Defences (1940) for ages, but his fellow-Humdrummer Mr. Freeman Wills Crofts captured my heart and swept me off my feet, so amends were here to be made. Thus, we have the remains of an unidentified body in a burned-out car, an obstreperous coroner insisting on felo de se, and a mystery on our hands. Cue an amateur detective — with the delightfully pleonastic name of Mark Brand, whose job seems to be giving relationship advice on the radio — to break the case…
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.