#276: The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937) by Erle Stanley Gardner

DA Calls it Murder, The MRErle 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).

So, first up, a confession: I had not read this before and did not realise this was the first Doug Selby novel — I thought that distinction fell to The D.A. Draws a Circle — but since it opens with Selby in his campaign headquarters celebrating his recent election victory and reflecting on the challenges to come…well, yeah, when you put it in context it’s kinda obvious.  And soon enough difficulties come Selby’s way, with an elderly cleric found dead in his hotel room and a letter to his wife in the typewriter outlining his intent to take some sleeping draught in order to get a decent rest.  Nevertheless, Selby isn’t convinced this is as innocent as it seems, and has to decide whether to stir up potential opprobrium by launching a homicide investigation in his first case since taking office.  Spoilers: read the title.

From hereon it gets rather crazy, and goddamn isn’t Gardner having fun; most of the action takes place in the demi-backwater of Madison City, some sixty miles from Los Angeles, and Gardner always seemed happier dealing with small town folk (the Bill Eldon novellas collected in Two Clues (1947) are masterful examples of how to plot around a small community).  Here we get all sorts of reflections on the perspectives and lives of such people, and the effect an increasingly mobile population has upon such previously trusting places:

“If it was just politics, it wouldn’t be so bad.  But during the last four years the doors have been opened to all the scum from the big cities.  Chaps who haven’t been big enough to work a racket in the Big-Time have drifted in with a lot of little, vicious, chiseling, crooked stuff … Now, then, it’s up to you and me to clean up this mess.”

“This mess” will come to include a Hollywood starlet and her manipulative manager, several questions of identity, a large sum of money found in the hotel safe, a poisoned dog, a seemingly-impossible set of photographs, and the legatee of a contested will…yes, it sounds like it should be a complete mess, but, dammit, Gardner was good at this kind of thing.  There’s no detection as such — a large part of the mystery is cleared up towards the end by someone just breaking down and telling Selby all — but there are clues and ideas placed right from the beginning, and Selby admits come the end that he making some pretty risky jumps based on the information he has in order to find this guilty party.

Of particular interest to me was some of the period detail — traveling salesmen kept the creases in their trousers sharp by hanging them from the cuffs in the drawers in their hotel rooms, for instance, or just how minor a consideration fingerprints seem to be — not least the sense of tarnished awe with which the motion picture industry is beginning to be viewed.  This disaffection creeps into Selby’s own dealings with people, as plenty of hangers-on say they want to help, but everyone — reporters, witnesses, business owners, politically-motivated newspaper editors — is pursuing their own agenda, and Selby will have his own judgement and integrity questioned as he is at times caught flat-footed in the machinations of others who wish him harm.

There can never be any doubt that he will win through, but it takes some fairly drastic intervention by those who are truly on his side to make it happen, and this is very different from Mason’s grandstanding surety.  Thankfully this gives full reign to Gardner’s own compact brilliance of expression — someone is described at one point as being “madder than a wet hen” — and the final two lines are a little piece of perfection.  It lacks the coolness of Perry Mason, though none of the inventive plotting, and the savagery of Cool & Lam, but stripped of those shiny distractions this series shows Gardner’s class.  Expect to see much more of Doug Selby in the months to come.

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

The Doug Selby novels:

1. The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937)
2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Think of a Number from last week as both prominently feature the actions of the District Attorney of their respective universes.

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32 thoughts on “#276: The D.A. Calls it Murder (1937) by Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Interesting you mention that the book has no real detection. My only reading of the series, The D.A. Draws a Circle, hinges on Selby navigating through a treacherous maze of small-town politics, while tangling with a hostile press, an antagonistic Chief of Police and an unscrupulous criminal lawyer. The primary focus of the plot was on how Selby was going to come out unscathed. A great solution to all of the problems were simply a little extra.

    So now I wonder whether the entire series looks away from the traditional detective story, with its focus on pure detection, and experiments with different ways a detective story can be told (since this one also still contained clues and hints).

    I’m getting intrigued all over again with this series!

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    • I’ve particularly enjoyed that element of small town unscrupulousness that Gardner brings to the Selby books I’ve read — it’s something he writes extremely well, and part of what I find so fascinating here and why I really rate the writing and ideas explored in these books.

      I’d argue there’s a defnite shunning of deliberate GAD motifs in these, but that’s also part of why I want to look at these in order, perhaps at a rate of one a month — I, like you, an intrigued how this idea plays out. They’re very different to the sort of thing gardner is best-known for writing, and I want to try and get under the skin of his purpose in doing these books.

      So, well, let’s see how successful that enterprise is…!

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  2. Thanks for the review: your and Kate’s posts are putting this author back onto my radar. What, in your opinion, are Gardner’s top 3 (or 5?) classic mystery novels?

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    • I mean…part of the difficulty with Gardner is that I don’t think he wrote a She Died a Lady or a And Then There Were None. He applied himself very well to a range of styles — the Mason books are different to these, which are different to the Cool & Lam books, which are different to his various standalone titles…there’s no “best of”.

      And there’s not even a best of each series, either: I personally feel the early Cool & Lam stuff to be the most pure, but the plots do get more involved as they go and others would prefer that; the Mason books usually hang on a brilliant hook and a brilliant piece of legalese at the end, with what falls between being either wonerfully inventive or just plain bullshit depending on your tolerance for his turning a plot in the space of a sentence…so it’s tricky to know what to recommend.

      But then that’s what I like about Gardner: he defies the easy categorisation that there’s a tendency to yearn for in our authors, and if one wishes to apprciate what he did then you really have to be prepared to commit to about 15 or 20 books to begin scratching the surface. Part of the reason I’m reading these now is to see how my perception of him and this series changes (or doesn’t), and I’m likely to take on the Cool & Lam books after this for the same reason. Gardner’s a long-haul game for me, I’m afraid, though I’m sure others would oblige you in recommending a selection of titles. I don’t think it’s within my capabilities to trim him down that easily.

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  3. I have a handful of these Doug Selby books but I haven’t read them yet – I’m still making leisurely progress with the Perry Mason books. I think I mentioned the other day that I like to read, at the very least, one Gardner book a year and see them as a kind of literary snack – I find I zip through them very quickly, recall only bits and pieces and still look forward to my next hit.

    I think what I like most about Gardner (the Mason books anyway) is the comfort that develops from the dynamic between Perry, Della Street and Paul Drake – it acts on me in a similar way to the familiar relationships at the heart of Rex Stout’s stories, but I don’t feel there’s much more those authors had in common.

    In reply to an earlier question about the best of Perry Mason, I guess that depends on what you want from the stories – the earlier 30s stories have a much tougher hardboiled feel to them – I think Stuttering Bishop and Howling Dog are superb. That tapers of gradually as time passes and the late 40s/early 50s books may be more to others’ tastes. I think the books get progressively drier from the mid-50s onward and the late series entries fell like “by the numbers” exercises.

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    • I frequently conflate Gardner and Stout, I think mainly because they’re two authors I read in fairly heavy rotation before I really appreciated the GAD school and rules (there was a secondhand shop near me at uni that always seemed to have stacks of these two in it) — but, you’re right, in reality they’re much further apart in terms of style, execution, and intent. I’m going to reread Stout’s And Be a Villain in a few weeks and it’ll be interesting to return to him after such a long break with Gardner fresh in my mind to enable a better comparison.

      One of us is in for a shock, I think…!

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  4. Delighted to see that you are taking on Gardner (and that you share my opinion that he’s one of the most important male authors of classic crime fiction). I’ve always thought of the Doug Selby stories as kind of the inverse (or Bizarro-world inversion) of the Perry Mason stories; A.B. Carr is like Perry Mason’s evil twin and Doug Selby like a more realistic version of Hamilton Burger. Much of what Paul Drake does in the Mason stories is offstage, but here we see Selby actually tracking down clues and witnesses and combining both functions of Mason and Drake. So in a way, Perry Mason is from the POV of the defense attorney, Doug Selby from the prosecutor, and Cool & Lam from the private investigator’s POV who gets called as witnesses at the trial. If only Gardner had written a series about a crusading judge, we could have come full circle! LOL.
    Perry Mason is also not often troubled by newspaper reporters but in the Selby series we see just how important the press can be … especially if you’re an elected official who needs to keep on getting re-elected. I also think the Selby series has what might be the most realistic writing Gardner ever did about romantic relationships. Perry Mason doesn’t have one — Della Street, much as I love her, is too perfect to be real — and Donald Lam just sleeps with women and doesn’t love them. But Doug Selby has to juggle the attentions of two women, and none of the three is perfect. In the course of the series there’s some great romantic interaction, and it’s really never clear who’s going to end up getting married, if anyone!

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    • I’ve read #3 to #8, so have the resolution of that triangle still to come (possibly…it’s been a while). There’s definitely that element of the Reverse Mason that makes these books interesting — it just gioes to show how much a “good guy” and a “bad guy” are a matter of perception and subjectivity.

      The Bill Eldon universe was a perfect setup to explore thid idea — those two novellas are so rich in character and motivation it’s actually difficult to believe they’re as short as they are; he gets more out of that cast in one slim book than it seems feasible, especially considering the jack-knife plotting he also crams in…goddamn, how did he do it?

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    • It’s interesting to me that in the U.S., television shows have explored every aspect of the legal system except the judge. There was one series about a female judge that I don’t remember. But the U.K. does take the judge into account much more. Is that a matter of social interest or a difference in the legal systems of both countries, I wonder?

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      • Perhaps there was that respectful horror of ever daring to imply that a judge could be anything less than unimpeachable in their conduct and decisions. Unscrupulous lawyers, or credulous juries, may be faulted becaue they were — after all — merely human; juidges, one gets the impression from this type of legal plotting from this era, were seen as occupying a sort of higher strata than these mere mortals and so were perhaps off limits.

        The choice of murderer in Crooked House, say, was possibly considered shocking but fine by the standards of the age, but had the killer been a judge…well, the Establishment (including the police and MPs, oh how times have changed) always seems to be this sort of sine qua non and as such no suspicion should be cast upo them. rather like the servants, of you think about it: how would the typical GAD universe operate without either of them?!?!

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        • Ah, but then Christie supplied us with a murderous judge, didn’t she? If your theory is correct, I wonder how shocking that revelation must have been!

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        • Hmmm, I take it that’s some sort of hint:

          creep up on me…creep…creeper…vine…ivy…Poison Ivy…Batman…batsman…cricket…test…exam…examining magistrate…court…criminal…burglar…breaking an entering….being quiet…creep…creeper…vine…

          Ahhh, dammit…!

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        • NNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

          Santosh, I have not read that novel! But since there IS a novel that talks about a [EDIT] on the back cover, I fear I have been SPOILERED!!!!!

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  5. I have never been a huge Gardner fan, probably read too many of the later Mason novels at an early age. Certainly his work from the 30s and 40s has a lot more pep to it and this is a series I really don’t know anything about – thanks for the public service JJ 😉

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  6. I am always seeing Gardner books on my second book shop crawls and never read any so I’m thoroughly excited for it now. Was Gardener a law man in a previous life before writing? Or just taken with it?

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  7. Gardner is one of my secret (well, o.k., not so secret) vices. Loved the Shelby series. His most intriguing character was Terry Clane and sadly there aren’t enough books in that series. Gramps Wiggins was another fantastic character. Cool and Lam of course are classic, couldn’t possibly do a series, it would be too corny.

    I used to watch Perry Mason from my bedroom window through my neighbor’s upstairs window (I was supposed to be in bed). My parents watched it too, so I got audio from downstairs. Never missed an episode 🙂

    One of my favorite scenes is in The Case of the Bigamous Spouse, when Mason and Della travel to a mountain town in pursuit of evidence. The scene is very, very funny and reminiscent of a scene right out of Gramps Wiggins’ world.

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    • I have read a fair chunk of Gardner, but I don’t think I’ve seen more than a small handful of the TV episodes spun from his work. I have a distinct memory of Raymond Burr stalking around and badgering someone in a courtroom in that none-more-Mason way of confident irritation — and the theme song lives in the mind of every conscious person on the planet — but specific details of episodes…no.

      It is wonderful to know that others rate him as highly as I do, though. I always think he runs a chance of being one of the forgotten brilliants of the genre, as if his sheer productivity will count against him for the lack of obvious classics.

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      • My mother (RIP) was a huge Gardner fan. In fact, it was she who turned me into a mystery buff when she bought me my first Trixie Belden mystery. Nancy Drew followed and the rest is history.

        It’s hard to find fellow Gardner fans. I agree with you that he is a great and often forgotten talent. His scheme (explained in the first Lam/Cool book) by which Donald Lam got himself disbarred was brilliant and at the time, would have worked. Unlikely that a Bar Association would have “credited” the attorney with “giving” such advice, but it was a great hook and a fantastic way to meet Donald. Gardner was a smart lawyer and a good, solid writer. His mysteries are solvable but many of them stumped me.

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        • The “stumpability” factor in Gardner can be high at times because, I think, of his plot wheels that means you’re not able to foresee where everything will definitely lead…partly because he didn’t know himself! Foreshadowing be damned!

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  8. Perry and Donald tended to think on the fly so often the reader could not keep up with them. One thing that used to annoy me: Drake was supposed to be a hot shot detective, but in almost every novel, Perry tells him how to go about finding things out 😀

    Gramps, on the other hand, was a combination of intuition and good old experience. He was Gardner’s Miss Marple if you’ll pardon the comparison.

    Selby was a thinker and a plodder who often had an epiphany that solved the case, unlike Perry and Lam, who seemed usually to know where they were going in advance.

    Interesting fact about Gardner: he often had as many as four stories going at once. He dictated them and had a secretarial staff to rival Merill, Lynch Pierce, Fenner AND Smith 🙂

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