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.
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.