WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel. This is a work of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solution is not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of this classic work so that you will enjoy it without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
Beautiful Doris Kane drives into “Madison City”, California (based on Ventura) to visit her newlywed daughter Paula and her husband Jim Melvin. When she arrives at the house, there’s nobody home and nobody’s been there for a while; there’s a letter in the mailbox from well-known shyster lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr (“old ABC”). A snoopy neighbour mentions the Melvins had a wild party where there might have been a pistol shot. And when Doris investigates the spare bedroom, the bed is drenched with blood. Doris runs for the law. But when she leads slow-moving, hard-punching Sheriff Brandon and handsome war hero District Attorney Doug Selby back into the house, the letter is gone and the house is spotless.
Selby and Brandon continue to investigate. ABC shows up, as does Jim Melvin. He tells Doris the story of some Hollywood type who got drunk and shot himself in the arm. Jim is working to sell a lucrative project to Madison City (newfangled parking meters that reset to zero when the car leaves, thus doubling the take) and tells Doris he and Paula have moved temporarily to a secluded house for reasons connected with the considerable political machinations necessary to get the project across. Jim takes Doris back to the other residence and puts her to bed, the couple mentioning that they have a female house guest who hasn’t been sleeping too well. In the middle of the night, party girl Eve Dawson makes her way into Doris’s bedroom, looking for company and conversation; she’s accustomed to music, dancing, liquor, and company, and she’s been secluded and isolated while she recovers from — a recent bullet wound. The two house guests chatter for a few minutes, then Doris falls asleep. But in the morning, Paula Melvin discovers that Eve Dawson has been stabbed to death with a big carving knife.
This kicks up Selby and Brandon’s investigation into high gear, but everyone’s clamming up quickly. When they go to the little town of Highdale to interview Eve Dawson’s mother, they learn — from, among others, a garrulous cab driver who is under the mistaken impression that people don’t recognize him as a blabbermouth — that beautiful Eve had left town to seek her fortune and was apparently on the verge of Hollywood stardom (at least according to Eve). They also find the source of the carving knife, a local hardware store, which recently sold its last such knife in stock to, of all people, old ABC. The trail of evidence leads to Eve’s roommate, a hard-edged beauty named Eleanor “Babe” Harlin who never met a nickel, or a wealthy man, she didn’t like. Her diamond-hard demeanour enables her to rebuff the lawmen in classic style. Meanwhile ABC has been busy in the background, muddling the trail on behalf of all the politicians and money-men profiting from the civic affairs of both Highdale and Madison City. Every time Selby and Brandon learn something, ABC and the politicians muddy the waters and fiddle with the meaning of the clues, constantly keeping the detectives on the defensive as everyone starts moving around at top speed. Meanwhile, Selby’s ally and sometime romantic interest Sylvia Martin, a reporter for the Madison City Clarion, mobilizes her story to counteract Selby’s political antagonists who control the other city newspaper, the Blade.
As things start to come to a head, someone slips a non-fatal dose of barbiturates to Babe Harlin; then two more characters eat some chocolate creams that appear out of nowhere and find themselves drugged. Intrepid Doug Selby works out what must have happened, then makes an arrest. And in a dramatic showdown finish, Selby realizes that he has enough evidence on old ABC to convict him of criminal conspiracy and put an end to his nefarious career. But the slippery ABC wriggles out of the worst of the charges by embarking on a dramatic and very surprising path with a key witness. The reader is left anxiously awaiting the developments in the next novel that will grow out of this wild twist at the end of the novel. If I’d read this book when it first came out, I would have immediately placed an order for the next volume and anxiously awaited it for a year!
This is the eighth novel in a series of nine about Doug Selby, published between 1937 and 1949. From the jacket flap of the first edition: “Too much candy, too many knives, too many politicians, and a great deal too much of suave unscrupulous A. B. Carr make this one of Selby’s toughest and most brilliant cases.” I have to agree.
It’s not clear to me why Erle Stanley Gardner (ESG) gave up writing this series in 1949. As near as I can tell, it was easy money — take the same type of plot that would underpin a Perry Mason novel, turn it inside out so the lawyer is the villain and the district attorney is the hero, and … the mixture as before. ESG had a great hand with a story hook, and this novel starts with a bed full of blood that gets the reader’s attention immediately and never lets it go. The plotting is complicated but the reader can always grasp it. Also, unlike some of the later Perry Mason novels, everyone’s motivations throughout the action make complete sense, even though those motivations aren’t easy to see. The writing is smooth and clear, with just enough description to give you a picture of where you are and what you’re seeing, but it’s the characterizations that carry the plot, and at this point ESG was at the height of his powers.
And there are some great characters in this book too. Alphonse Baker Carr is just wonderful; you really get a full picture of this glad-handing, smooth-tongued lawyer who is so sneaky, he could follow you into a revolving door and come out ahead of you on the other side. He’s the equivalent of Perry Mason, but minus the moral code and responsibility — and whenever he’s on the scene, he heats up the room and intensifies the action. Another wonderful character is the minor one of the talkative cab driver. ESG doesn’t make the novice mistake of telling us what this guy is really like. Instead, everything that everyone says, including the driver himself, is written as though everyone believes what this doofus is saying about how he’s a model of closed-mouthedness is 100% true. But the reader grasps the picture, through subtle and clever writing, and sees that Doug Selby is counting on the cab driver to spill the beans everywhere he goes, which will suit Selby’s purposes just fine. Babe Harlin is another perfectly-written character; you can see her the hard shell of beauty and grasp the rough-and-tumble life that’s brought her to this point, hooked in with these sleazy politicians. Even Doris Kane, who is not much more than a minor character, in the few glimpses we see of her is a fully-formed character who leads us into the action in the first chapter by seeing Madison City with the eyes of a stranger.
I can’t say there is much to support my idea, but I’ll hesitantly suggest that the reason that ESG stopped this series was — the characters were too human. Over the nine volumes, Doug Selby has relationships with both reporter Sylvia Martin and someone who’s not in this volume, Inez Stapleton. Given that many of the characters in this series are the exact opposite of their professional counterparts in the Perry Mason series, Inez is a kind of Della Street gone wrong; the daughter of a wealthy family who is sweet on Selby before he runs for political office but, when Selby convicts her brother of a crime, the family loses its social pre-eminence. This is something like what we learn about Della Street in the earliest volume of the Perry Mason series. But where Della became a secretary, Inez went to law school and now is a frequent courtroom antagonist of the district attorney. Sylvia is a staunch ally of the DA and maintains that position here, but it’s pretty clear she’d like to be Mrs. Selby some day. I can’t tell you precisely what ABC gets up to here, for spoiler reasons, but it’s a significant development in his character’s life and lifestyle and represents a real advancement and change. And I think that’s the problem. ESG wasn’t really comfortable with characters who changed as they grew and progressed; it wasn’t really his comfort zone. Every Perry Mason novel is pretty much the same, and similarly with his Cool & Lam series. Even Selby himself changes throughout the series; at the beginning he’s idealistic, later he goes off to war and comes home a hero — but a slightly more cynical hero, more willing to believe the worst of others on short notice, and automatically assuming that he has political antagonists and they’re working against him.
Again, I have to say I don’t know of any evidence to support this suggestion. Gardner was an excellent, prolific and diversified writer, with large numbers of series characters available to him. He could have simply decided to focus on Perry Mason because that’s something he was guaranteed the public would want to buy. If he ever mentioned in writing why he stopped writing this series, I’m not aware of it; I just have a sense of what was going on, that’s all. But what this means, of course, is that this may well be the most well-characterized series he ever wrote. You can trace the development of the characters through these nine delightful novels, and I think you will enjoy them if you do. But this also means that it’s important to start with the first volume and not this one, the eighth. If you’ve read the previous seven, you’ll enjoy this one a LOT more, and you will be anxiously awaiting your chance to get your hands on the ultimate volume.
My favourite edition
It’s pretty clear that when you have a mystery that involves a beautiful and, shall we say, slutty girl who’s found dead in bed in nightclothes, the cover art is, five times out of the six variations above, based on that Good Girl Art (GGA) selling point. It’s just a natural. When you think of how many covers of this period were GGA when there wasn’t any reason for it, well, you have to expect this cover to be GGA. That being said, I actually like the edition at the very top of this piece (which, as is my habit, shows the copy at hand from my collection), Pocket #1010 — mine is the third printing. Silver Studios, who produced the cover, cleverly managed to get TWO beautiful women in nightclothes onto the cover in a nice graphic way. Ordinarily as a collector and sometime dealer, my attention is frequently drawn to valuable editions or the true first — in this case, the Morrow edition is, yes, GGA, but the illustration seems muddy; the colours are muted and not really attractive.