“The devil of it is, this isn’t like one of those detective stories, which you can solve by merely pointing the finger of suspicion at the guilty person. This is a real life, flesh and blood murder case, where we’ve got to produce actual evidence which can stand up in a court of justice. I’ve got to find that murderer and then prove he’s guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.” (Doug Selby in The D.A. Calls It Murder)
My Book Club is filled with such an eclectic mix of people that coming up with a book to satisfy us all is well-nigh impossible. Heck, finding a title that half of these well-read bloggers haven’t already covered is no small trick. That may be why we end up so often with long-forgotten novels dusted off from some archive and republished as a reminder that ninety years ago some dried-up Lord or drunken journalist slapped on an alias and wrote three mysteries.
As a result, we almost never select a title from a famous or prolific author. And now look at us! At the end of our last meeting ,we came up with the books we want to read from June through October, and three of these are by extremely famous mystery writers, one of which happens to be one of the most prolific authors of all time.
I’m speaking of Erle Stanley Gardner, that larger-than-life American attorney who loved the law but was bored by his job. And so he turned to writing, first with dozens and dozens of short stories for the pulps and then with something like one hundred and thirty novels, eighty-four of which chronicled the cases of the most famous defense attorney of all time. Perry Mason debuted on the page in 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws, and by the end of 1934, Gardner had churned out four more Mason novels, one of which, The Case of the Howling Dog, appeared that year on movie screens everywhere. Five more films followed in the next few years (my buddy Sergio wrote a great article about them here), followed by a successful twelve-year run on the radio in the 40’s and 50’s and then, starting in 1956 came the classic TV show starring Raymond Burr as Mason, with Barbara Hale as Della Street, his adoring secretary and William Hopper (Hedda’s son) as detective Paul Drake.
I’m such a Perry Mason fan that I own the series. Many years ago, I even read some of the books. And I’m excited to talk about all of that . . . next time. For you see, today’s post has nothing to do with Book Club except that reading a Perry Mason novel prompted me to begin exploring some of Gardner’s other work. With so much writing to his credit, I could not become a Gardner completist if I tried . . . but, for some time now, I have been interested in tackling the two other major series he created. This fall, Otto Penzler will be re-issuing The Bigger They Come, the debut of that cynically scintillating P.I. team with a “Jack Sprat and the Mrs” sort of vibe: Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. We’ll get to those two when that book arrives.
For now, I want to look at the series over which my buddy JJ has raved at The Invisible Event. In nine snappy novels published between 1937 and 1949, Gardner decided to give some love to the other side of the law, the stalwart crusaders for decency over at the District Attorney’s office. To do this, he created a character who is as driven to get the job done as Perry Mason but is otherwise a wholly different sort of fellow.
When The D.A. Calls it Murder begins, Doug Selby has been newly elected district attorney of Madison (substitute for Ventura) county right outside of Los Angeles. In eighty-four novels, we learned almost nothing about who Perry Mason was or where he came from, and Gardner is likewise not playing any games with us here. As far as Selby is concerned, this is what we learn:
“(He was) a handsome young man with curly hair, a devil may care glint in his penetrating eyes, and a forceful, although shapely, mouth.”
That’s it – that’s all we get. Oh, as his first case moves along, we learn that Selby is a man of high honor who only ran for D.A. in order to clean up the corruption festering in the town he loves so much; that he is rather earnest and gullible when it comes to the ladies; that the ladies love the glint in his eye and that forceful, although shapely, mouth! Selby’s also smart enough – or, in Madison County, daring and foolish enough – to see a suspected suicide as a murder. When the meek, apologetic little minister who was staying in a room at the Madison Hotel on the same floor where Selby had his campaign headquarters, enough little details scratch at Selby’s brain and cause him to pressure the coroner to perform an autopsy.
Despite being a world-famous author and a big-city attorney, famous for establishing a “Court of Last Resorts” to investigate instances of injustice perpetrated against mostly poor and minority defendants who couldn’t hire good enough lawyers, Erle Stanley Gardner was known to enjoy camping and fishing and relaxing in the country. Thus, even though there’s a similar heroic vibe between the roguish defense attorney Mason and the earnest prosecutor Doug Selby, something very different is going on here.
First of all, while the Perry Mason novels contain very little in the way of continuity, you can tell from the start that Gardner is building a folksy but troubled community, complete with a set of regular characters and certain long-held grievances, for his readership to get to know and love. Selby ran on an anti-corruption campaign, and the corrupt powers that be are eager to eject him from office by any means available, dirty tricks included. Madison County has two newspapers: The Clarion, which supported his candidacy, and The Blade, a nasty rag that hires a muckraking journalist to find – or manufacture – any dirt on Selby that he can.
This adds a tremendous amount of pressure to Selby’s first investigation, particularly as the seemingly mundane little victim turns out to have held many secrets. One of these involves a glamorous Hollywood movie star named Shirley Arden, who takes a fancy to Mr. District Attorney. Every time she seems to be leading him down the garden path, Selby strikes back with a stirring speech about his purpose that would do justice to any leading character in a Frank Capra movie. There’s a certain corniness here that one never finds in the more cynical environs of Perry Mason’s L.A., but Gardner still manages to insert some fine set pieces and, despite an occasional descent into mawkish sentimentality, makes us care about this town and these people.
And, fortunately, Doug Selby doesn’t have to go it alone. He had run on a double ticket, and the new sheriff, Rex Brandon, functions as a sort of fatherly Paul Drake to the new D.A.:
“(Brandon was) a man some twenty-five years older, wearing a big sombrero, his leathery face creased into a friendly smile. It required a close inspection to show the hard determination of the gray eyes.”
Also fighting the good fight beside Doug is Sylvia Martin, ace reporter for the good paper – which makes her more of a Lois Lane than a Della Street. What I like about Sylvia is that, although she clearly shows a romantic interest in the guy, she’s also a lot smarter than Doug when it counts. She points him back in the right direction more than once here, and what’s nice is that he ends up appreciating it. Sylvia will return throughout the series. Unfortunately for her, but fun for us: it looks like she will meet a rival for Doug’s affections who appears in the second book and sticks around for a while.
There are other regular characters introduced here: Harry Larkin, the coroner, for whom the case gets very personal when the killer attacks someone he loves; and Otto Larkin, the police chief, who we barely glimpse here but who I suspect will become more important – especially since he seems morally suspect.
I wouldn’t call Selby’s first case particularly scintillating, but the whole novel, heavy on dialogue and emotion, moves quickly, and the characters are likeable enough to warrant a revisit . . . or eight of them! Gardner is most interested in setting up a larger arc for our leading man: a charming little California town battling its own form of political rot that Selby sets out to clean up. If I remember JJ’s reviews correctly, Doug’s arch-nemesis (and probably the best character in this series) shows up in the third book. I, for one, am looking forward to meeting him. (It may explain why the only filmed appearance of Doug Selby, the 1971 TV-movie They Call It Murder, is based on this third book. Luckily, that film is available on YouTube, so I’ll be sure to watch it as a companion to Book Three!)
I will shortly return, switching sides back to the defense for a classic Perry Mason adventure – courtesy of Book Club.