Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mount TBR #16

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The DA Calls It Murder – Erle Stanley Gardner, 1937

This is the first book featuring DA Doug Selby who appeared in nine mysteries from 1937 to 1949. It opens with Selby and his friend Sheriff Max Brandon flushed with victory in their recent election to office in Madison City, about 100 miles north of Hollywood. As Brandon is a faithful pard right out of pulp Westerns, Selby’s GF Sylvia Martin is a typical Gardnerian heroine along the lines of Della Street: smart, savvy, insightful, and devoted.

The first third of the story is better than the remaining part. Gardner sets up a plausibly corrupt county and medium-sized urban setting, with powerful local businessmen and mud-slinging newspapers, The Blade (Republican) and The Clarion (Democrat). As for the story, a corpse is discovered in a hotel. His wife is summoned from Nevada, only to fail to identify the body as her husband. She promptly demands her expenses be paid for her wasted trip.

Selby takes up detecting duties to gather details about an envelope containing $5,000, a lawsuit over an estate, and a movie scenario of an unintentionally hilarious melodrama titled Lest Ye Be Judged. Also involved are a high-tech camera and a poisoned dog (take it easy – Gardner was a dog lover so the dog is going to be okay). Selby questions a movie star who lays a lot of New Age California woo on him. Selby also comes within an ace of being hypnotized by the motion picture actress. The scene in which they come to an agreement about where their relationship is going will call to mind scenes between, say, Ida Lupino and Ronald Colman.

The subplots get tangled, the characters act improbably. This is balanced by Selby’s rational approach to detecting, summed up as, “People focus on ‘What’s in it for me’ but their proximity to each other doesn’t mean they are involved with each other – don’t get distracted.” Plus, Gardner’s highly readable prose drives the story effectively. We readers can always trust his stories to move.

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