Saturday, February 6, 2010

The D.A. Calls It Murder, by Erle Stanley Gardner


This is why fans of vintage crime fiction have to make the rounds of their local used-books stores with some frequency. Yesterday, I dropped by one of my regular haunts, the Half Price Books outlet near the University of Washington, in north Seattle. I had gone there to unload some recent novels that I didn’t need anymore, and while I was waiting for an assessment of their value, I wandered amongst the tall wooden bookcases in the Mystery area.

Because I visit Half Price a couple of times each month, I don’t usually expect surprises. I pretty much know the store’s stock in my favorite genre. But yesterday, as I was wending my way through the G-H section, what did I see? Half a shelf of newly installed titles by Erle Stanley Gardner, brought in by a woman who had found them boxed up in the basement of a house she’d just purchased.

Thanks to my grandfather’s influence, I was a childhood fan of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason TV series, which was of course inspired by Gardner’s very long-running succession of books about a brilliant and determined Los Angeles criminal attorney. I’ve since read a number of the Mason books. And in more recent years, I have purchased all--and read most--of Gardner’s books about L.A. private eyes Bertha Cool and Donald Lam (The Bigger They Come), which he penned under the pseudonym “A.A. Fair.” My bookcases also contain collections of short stories featuring some of his lesser-recognized protagonists, among them con artist-thief Lester Leith, and millionaire adventurer Sidney Zoom. Since I’ll be working later this year on an essay about author Gardner, for inclusion in an encyclopedia of sorts, I have had my eyes open for material to add to my files on the prolific wordsmith.

Among the titles crammed onto that Half Price shelf were two fistfuls of Mason stories (in paperback editions dating back to the 1940s and ’50s), a few of Gardner’s standalones, and three of his nine novels starring Douglas Selby, the district attorney for fictional Madison County, California. I’d never read any of the Selby yarns, which were serialized in magazines before being published in book form between 1937 and 1949. So I snapped them right up, only later to discover that among my haul was Selby’s premiere, in The D.A. Calls It Murder.

In that novel, we find the young lawyer, newly elected on a reform ticket in his previously corrupt rural county, investigating a suspicious hotel death: The Reverend Charles Brower has perished in his room, apparently from an overdose of sleeping pills and a weak “ticker.” But as it turns out, the deceased wasn’t who he claimed to be, and his demise was anything but accidental. What’s more, he left behind an envelope containing $5,000, along with newspaper clippings about a movie actress (who just happened to be hiding in the same hotel) and a lawsuit over the proper disposal of a fat estate. With each new revelation in this case, Selby and his running mate, Sheriff Rex Brandon, face increasing pressure from both their neighbors in Madison City (which is described as sitting “less than a hundred miles from Hollywood”) and the local press. The back jacket copy gives readers a sense of Selby’s challenge:
Murder in a Downtown Hotel
Incompetent Officials Helpless

The damning newspaper headlines hit the D.A. like a block-buster. His brain echoed with Sheriff Rex Brandon’s warning:

“They’ll try to hoot us out of office!”

Doug Selby, the new D.A., replied harshly, “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of hooting to get me out of office.”

But that was before the unknown corpse turned up ... before a mud-slinging paper hired a newshawk to beat the D.A. to the killer.

Now, Doug pushed the newspaper aside and paced the room. “So they want to fight. O.K. We’ll trade punch for punch and winner take all.”
The winning cover of this paperback--released by Pocket Books in 1952 and showing, I presume, the handsome D.A. Selby in action--further contributes to its attractions. It is the work of Frank McCarthy (1924-2002), described as being “not only a prolific illustrator of paperback covers, magazine stories, and major advertising for films from the 1940s through the late 1960s,” but “an outstanding fine arts Western painter ...”

Over his decades-long career, McCarthy labored on behalf of publishers such as Avon, Dell, Fawcett, and of course Pocket Books. He was responsible for the covers on at least four Gardner novels, including one other Doug Selby book, The D.A. Goes to Trial. His fine artwork could also be seen on crime fiction by Ellery Queen (The Siamese Twin Mystery), Agatha Christie (A Murder is Announced), and Harold Q. Masur (You Can’t Live Forever), and even more frequently on western tales turned out by the likes of Davis Dresser (The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley), Clifton Adams (Gambling Man), and Luke Short (The Branded Man). Unfortunately, neither of the other two Selby novels I found yesterday--The D.A. Cooks a Goose and The D.A. Draws a Circle (the latter of which became the basis for a 1971 TV film and unsuccessful series pilot, They Call It Murder, starring Jim Hutton)--boasts jacket art by McCarthy.

Lawyer-turned-novelist Gardner wrote too fast to always produce exceptional fiction. But given the right plotting elements and enough time to work, he could be a damn good storyteller. I’ve heard favorable comments about the Doug Selby adventures. Three of those books should at least provide me with an introduction to the series. I’ll keep my eyes open for more.

After all, you just never know when forgotten works like these will suddenly be offered for sale ...

3 comments:

Scott Parker said...

"...an encyclopedia of sorts..." That sounds intriguing. I haven't read nearly the volume of ESG books you have but he is always one I look for. The Mason books are everywhere. The A. A. Fair titles are the ones I seek the most. Just the other day, I saw (but didn't buy; WTH?) a non-Mason; non-Cool/Lam ESG book. Forgot the title. Might have to return. I have a trade paperback called "The Danger Zone" that features some shorts stories with one-off characters. I'm between books. Might pick that one up.

Jeffrey Marks said...

Gardner wrote this one fast, but it was a great novel for him. One of his best. The small town feel and the various clues make the book have an almost Queenian feel to it.

Leigh Russell said...

This is a great cover. Even the colour seems to indicate the period.