Friday, August 30, 2019

FFB: Death at "The Bottoms" - A. B. Cunningham (a repeat)

Busy planning a vacation and tending to our rooftop garden (splendiferous photos coming tomorrow!) so I've little time for a new post. Here's a rerun for you instead, a review originally posted back in 2011. This is one of my favorites by Cunningham, a sorely underappreciated American mystery writer who wrote about crime in rural Kentucky.


*   *   *


Here's an odd cast of characters for you: Snotnose Kale, Bigfoot Paden, Dummy Axling, Carlyn Aljor, Wib Turner, Butch Thord, Keb Folden, and Rod Kloth. Are we in Harry Stephen Keeler territory here? Maybe some kind of Damon Runyon tale with quaintly dubbed gangsters? Could it be some Lil Abner style murder mystery? The last guess isn't too far off. These are the people of A.B. Cunningham's WW2 era Kentucky in his fourth novel Death at "The Bottoms."

This is the first book by Cunningham I've read and I'm glad I chose this one as my introduction to his work. It's one of those old-fashioned backwoods detective novels that has echoes of the kind of detection done by Hesketh Pritchard's November Joe and not a little bit of Sherlock Holmes.

The victim is Vivian Beck and she appears to have been attacked by a pack of dogs that has been roaming and attacking livestock. Her body has been found in deep snow with several sets of dog tracks surrounding the immediate area. Farmers in town have been keeping their shotguns by their doors in case they hear the marauding canines. Sheriff Jess Roden, Cunningham's series detective, almost immediately sees that the wounds that caused her death could not have been made by dogs or any other animal. Why? Because many of them contain rust stains and flecks of corroded metal. Roden's investigation of the crime scene is only the first instance of some interesting fundamental detective work.

In a surprisingly violent scene early in the book a group of overgrown delinquents bent on ending the dog pack attacks go on a killing spree savagely and sadistically doing in a number of pets unfortunately running loose in the area. When Roden gets word of the dog killing spree he and a friend set out to avenge the town's pets. Roden sets his own dogs (he owns five) on the men with a hidden agenda in mind. He wants to have a few of the men incur dog attack wounds so that he can compare them with the wounds in the corpse of Vivian Beck. This is how the law works in rural Kentucky in the early 1940s.

As the book progresses it becomes increasingly odd. It seems to be suffering from a schizoid identity. While it is definitely a detective novel, the characters, the extreme violence and the dark tone make me want to treat it differently. It's almost as if Cunningham managed to create his own version of country noir not unlike the plots found in Daniel Woodrell's crime novels which were written more than forty years after this book. Although there is no real doomed obsessive love story here as in noir, there is a love triangle of sorts. Also, the characters are grotesque enough to have been created for a typical noir story.

Bigfoot Paden is a moonshine maker with a still hidden away in an abandoned mine. Carlyn Aljor is a femme fatale of a nurse taking care of Ivy Martin, an ungrateful invalid, but spends her time seducing Chas Beck, the victim's handsome husband, whenever she has a chance. Then there's Dummy Axling, a deaf mute who is a key witness but whose communication skills are almost completely absent. His wild gesticulating and grunting lead only to more confusion rather than clearing up the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of Vivian Beck.  Finally, there's Big Nig, the token stereotyped black character complete with insulting phonetic dialect.  He's deputized by a US marshal in order to persuade moonshiner Bigfoot Paden to cooperate with the law. Big Nig's major scene is a Kentucky duel of sorts with the moonshiner. Bigfoot is armed with a fish gig and the giant black man threatens to cut Paden to ribbons with his straight razor he conveniently carries on a string around his neck. You don't find these kinds of characters in Agatha Christie, do you?

The finale has a few nice twists in store and I was genuinely taken by surprise when the murderer was unmasked. There's the usual summing up in the final chapter in the manner of a typical detective novel and all the odd angles of the story suddenly are revealed in their true light. The grotesqueness of some of the characters is what serves as the main form of misdirection in this book. The reader spends so much time appalled by their actions and words that he fails (as does Roden) to see what is really going on. Cunningham must be given credit for putting a very American spin on his mystery novels.

Friday, August 23, 2019

FFB: Secret Sceptre - Francis Gerard

THE STORY: The preposterous plot of Secret Sceptre (1937) reads like a matinee cliffhanger serial overloaded with harrowing incidents, gruesome murders, hairsbreadth escapes and eleventh hour rescues. Sir John Meredith investigates a murder by decapitation carried out by men in armor and eventually uncovers an ancient secret society made up of men entrusted with protecting the Holy Grail.

THE CHARACTERS: Our hero is the inscrutable Sir John Meredith, a Foreign Office agent who becomes a policeman almost by accident. In this seventh book in sixteen book series he is aided by Sergeant Beef (who is nothing like his namesake created by Leo Bruce) and some other associates from both Scotland Yard and both Foreign and Home Offices. Meredith is not at all a likable man in this book. He comes off as arrogant, classist, and racist. Surprised? I'm not. He has little patience for anyone, insults people to their faces passing it off as wry wit, is constantly telling his colleagues to shut up and is generally one of the worst examples of the ubermacho self-styled aristocrats found in pre-WW2 era fiction written by British men. Took a while for me to warm up to him, but even then I didn't' think him the ideal candidate for the protagonist of a sixteen book series. Maybe he becomes less haughty and sarcastic as the series progresses.

Thankfully the book is filled with interesting and colorful characters along the way like Dermot O'Derg an Irish mercenary "born several centuries too late" whose "out of time persona" makes him the stand out in the very large cast. O'Derg is a powerful red haired man who might have been descended from Vikings despite his obvious Irish speech and heritage. He falls hard for the requisite "pale beauty" of the novel -- Daphne Birrell, sister of sculptor Nicholas Birrell, of one the many handsome young men who met a grisly end over the course of the book.  (For some reason Gerard likes to kill of "handsome young men" with an almost gleeful sadism.  No sooner has a "handsome young man" appeared within the story he is almost immediately dispatched with callous cruelty. Wonder what that's about!)

Apart from O'Derg it's the villains who steal the show. There is the sadistic American who speaks with an indeterminate foreign accent Al Cartell-Ardew, the master criminal of the novel who is constantly slapping the face of his Asian-Jewish servant Li-Fu Isaacs. There is a Russian secret agent who join forces with Cartell-Ardew. And let me not forget the motley crew of oddball criminals Cartell-Ardew hires in order to free a prisoner who he needs for his master plan. In one of the more hilarious portions of this very odd book Cartell-Ardew engineers a prison break that seems like a Mission: Impossible episode as written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. The group of crooks masquerade as French prison experts and demand a tour of Broadhurst prison then manage to ferret out their targeted inmate all without once resorting to violence.

INNOVATIONS:  Secret Sceptre is a strange mix of straightforward adventure with hard edged violence and loopy farce. I'm convinced that Gerard was in fact parodying all of the superhero protagonists of British pulp fiction. The prison break sequence alone is evidence enough. Gerard's irreverent humor mixes groaning puns, Abbott & Costello wordplay, a couple of dirty jokes (one about "Lord Hereford's Knob" amazingly escaped the blue pencil of the 1937 editor at MacDonald), and low farce clearly are all signs of high spirited fun. Nothing is meant to be taken too seriously here. Witness this pointless and ridiculous exchange between Daphne and Nicholas as they snack on pieces of melon while lounging in their pajamas and dressing gowns:

"Why must you make those disgusting sucking noises, Nick?"
"Can't help it," he replied, "the damn thing drips so and I haven't got a bib."

En route to the Welsh coast in order to get to Fishguard where Slim Shardoc, an American crook is being held for questioning Meredith has a car accident. While speeding down the foggy road a boy on a bicycle appears seemingly out of nowhere and he swerves and skids to avoid hitting the boy. He gets of out of the wrecked car and swears up a storm in Hindustani which Gerard graciously translates for us: "Now may Shaitan gather thee to his bosom in the nethermost pit which is seven times heated."  And then -- "John put his head back, raised his fists to the sky, opened his mouth and howled like a wolf, at which the small boy, hastily remounting his bicycle, peddled frantically into the darkness."

As the outrageous story progresses, the bodies pile up, the offbeat sense of humor becomes increasingly ludicrous and the climax seems like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail four decades before that comedy troupe ever thought up their King Arthur saga parody. Even if Gerard's description of the Knights of the Holy Grail is presented as deadly serious, the mix of nationalism and sanctimonious dogma in which the secret society members espouse their mission "to keep England English and Christian," the scene and group ultimately come off as absurdly risible while simultaneously being scarily resonant in our isolationist narrow-minded age. The Knights exploit the local superstition about a haunted abbey where they are headquartered by dressing as white robed monks thereby hoping to be seen as ghosts if anyone might accidentally encounter them in their nightly vigils. Typical of Gerard's eccentric humor the Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Grail is an ornithologist whose keen observational skills aided by his high powered binoculars prove very helpful at a key moment.

I'll leave it at that. You must read the book to discover the rest on your own.

THINGS I LEARNED: Arabic lessons! Meredith suspects that Al Cartell-Ardew is not American at all. Using his knowledge of Arabic and Muslim culture Meredith tells his police colleagues that the man's name is an Anglicization of al kātil adū which translates as "deadly enemy." The actual 21st century transliteration of the Arabic for deadly enemy is alqatil aleaduu.

QUOTES:  John Meredith had the reputation of a complete lack of scruple, but this applied only to his methods, not to the end in view. He was one of those men who believe that if you have to fight at all, every weapon is justifiable.

THE AUTHOR: The most complete and interesting biographical information written about Francis Gerard appears on the rear flap of the Tom Stacey reissue of Secret Sceptre, the edition I own. Most of the bio blurb is quoted verbatim below with some additional trivia in brackets added by me:

"Francis Gerard was born in London in 1905. His father was French and much of his childhood was spent in France. He began to write while working in London as a dealer in precious stones. His first stories appeared in The Thriller [a weekly magazine that published the work of several well-known and prolific crime fiction writers like Gerald Verner, Berkeley Gray, Leslie Charteris and James Ronald].

"During the war he served as Major in the Essex Regiment, while his wife worked at the foreign Office. In 1946 he moved, with his family and aging parents, to Natal where he became a South African citizen. Gradually he wrote less and less, devoting much of his time to politics instead. Springbok Rampant, a semi-autobiographical account of his reasons for leaving Britain, was published in 1951. [The title is a heraldic reference pointing out Gerard’s lifelong interest in heraldry and coats of arms, an interest which featured prominently in Secret Sceptre and frequently turns up in his other fiction.]

"He married twice and had three children by his second wife. He died in 1966."

Sir John Meredith Adventure & Crime Novels
Number 1-2-3 (1936) (US title: The 1-2-3 Murders)
Concrete Castle (1936) (US title: The Concrete Castle Murders)
The Black Emperor (1936)
The Dictatorship of the Dove (1936)
Fatal Friday (1937)
Red Rope (1937)
Secret Sceptre (1937)
The Prince of Paradise (1938)
Golden Guilt (1938)
Emerald Embassy (1939)
The Mind of John Meredith (1946)
Sorcerer's Shaft (1947) - only in a minor role
Flight into Fear (1948)
The Prisoner of the Pyramid (1948)
The Promise of the Phoenix (1950)
Transparent Traitor (1950)
Bare Bodkin (1951)

Friday, August 16, 2019

FFB: Girl Missing - Edna Sherry

THE STORY: Carlton “Carlo” Ives is the epitome of a ne’er-do-well playboy. He’d rather spend money at the race tracks, fancy restaurants and hotspot bars. He’s never had a real job in his life. Now he owes $14,000 to hardnosed bookie and OTB kingpin Nick Archer. Last ditch attempt to reconcile with his wealthy father who had offered his son employment and a chance to redeem himself proves futile. When approached by Archer with an offer he can’t refuse Carlo finds himself agreeing to act as Archer’s racetrack agent. After signing a contract that will award Carlo 10% of all jobs undertaken and 40% of “special projects” Carlo learns he has been hoodwinked into taking part in a kidnapping scheme.

THE CHARACTERS: Girl Missing (1962) implies an abduction or kidnapping, but for a while it almost seems as if our unlikable but stunningly gorgeous (of course) young couple will turn out to be the criminals not the victims. Maybe not robbing banks with machine guns, but causing trouble and wrecking lives all the same. They are definitely bad news when they get together. Veronica Sheldon confesses to Carlo that she is “short on morals” and she’s a rebellious thrillseeker. She agrees to go out with Carlo, a profligate of the worst sort in the eyes of her parents and hoity-toity sister Libby, just to piss off her family. Carlo secretly pursues Ronny in a petty form of jealous revenge for the way her sister openly snubbed and insulted him. Carlo has already been presented to us as an anti-hero but one that the reader is not exactly rooting for. When Carlo is recruited unwittingly into Nick Archer’s kidnap scheme Ronny Sheldon is the first person he thinks of as the best target for a quick and easy payoff. Ironically, Carlo’s entry level criminal act will be a transformative one for both he and his intended victim.

Sherry gives us lots of background in an economically told story. We learn of Carlo’s love/hate relationship with his father and the reasons he feels entitled to a life of luxury, his short lived relationship with Libby Sheldon, and his resentment and anger towards everyone who he believes gave him a raw deal leads to a crescendo of petty revenge.

Likewise, we get a capsule life history of Nick Archer (born Archezzo) from his indoctrination as a teen into the world of betting as a debt collector and gofer to running several off-track betting parlors and becoming a figure of intimidation in the horseracing world. Sherry tells of his devotion to his family, how he and his deaf mute sister were orphaned at an early age and how Nick took care of them both afterward. We also get a brief tale of how Nick met his right hand man Harry, a Korean War veteran, who saved Nick from an attack by couple of juvenile delinquents who tried to mug the betting parlor impresario. Harry turns out to be loyal but with a bitter ingrained streak of sadism leftover from his war days that makes it all too easy for him to be groomed into Nick’s hitman permanently taking care of crooked employees who cross the boss.

Nick is being pursued by federal agents for tax evasion in a subplot that will have significance in the final chapter. Nick’s wants to escape trial for what all gangsters usually go to prison for. With Harry’s help he dreams up a kidnap plot and will use the ransom to help fund an escape plan that will get them to Mexico and then Switzerland. They exploit Carlo Ives’ $14,000 debt coming due in less than two days and figure they can allow him to be their patsy. Archer secures Carlo’s involvement with cleverly thought out frame-ups. Basically he extorts Carlo to carry out the kidnapping out of fear of being accused of other worse crimes, crimes that never actually took place but for which enough proof will be concocted to make them seem not only possible but plausible and with Carlo at the center of them all.

The kidnapping takes place exactly as planned but when Carlo discovers he is also to become one of the victims he begins to see the error of his ways. At this point there is a major shift in the action and an almost sudden transformation in Carlo’s character. Carlo is determined to turn the tables on his captors, rescue both he and Ronny, and turn the real kidnappers over to the police. The final chapters are rife with action sequences that seem perfectly engineered for the movie screen and Sherry inserts more than a couple of neat surprises for both Carlo and the reader before the final page is reached.

INNOVATIONS: Sherry does a neat job of making a thoroughly detestable character like Carlo Ives into someone the reader wants to win and in the end will admire. Even if it seems as if he has an all too easy epiphany and metamorphosis from spendthrift playboy into daring hero willing to risk his life for his girl, Sherry manages to make it fairly convincing. But Carlo doesn’t get off scot free. Ronny will have the last word; she’s far from forgiving when she discovers the truth.

Oddly, Nick seems to be the most sympathetic of the bunch. Having read Tears for Jessie Hewitt a few months ago I’m intrigued by the way Sherry skillfully creates these seemingly villainous men who still have a smidgen of humanity in them for either their family or a loved one. In Nick’s case it is his devotion to his sister that redeems him and keeps us from seeing him as utterly bad. Though Anna is present throughout the entire crime (Nick and Harry use her farmhouse as the kidnap hideout) it is always clear that she will never be implicated in any way. Nick always has in mind her safety first. Several arguments take place when the murderous Harry wants to eliminate all witnesses, but Nick is adamant that Anna is not to be harmed . She is after all incapable of speaking which reluctantly Harry sees as an excuse to leave her alone. Ultimately, Anna’s inability to hear or speak save her life.

THINGS I LEARNED: This is the second novel of Sherry’s I’ve read that involves horse racing and gambling. This time I learned all about the world of off-track betting and how the unusual methods in which money is collected. Early in the story, during a section explaining how Nick became such a “star” in the eyes of his gambling parlor mentor Frankie, we watch as Nick in his teen years acted as a spy who helped ferret out a couple of crooked employees who were stealing from Frankie.

QUOTES: The taxi driver, looking at [Carlo & Ronny] in the rear mirror, summed them up with admiration touched by envy: As good-lookin’ as anything in the movies. An’ prolly rolling. Some people have all the luck. But luck has a way of running out.

Carlo: “We’ll give the classy joints a miss so you won’t be spotted.”
Ronny: “Oh skizzy. Take me to a real low dive.”

The place was crowded with young married couples in the middle-income bracket from all over town who liked good food and enjoyed dancing. But to Ronny’s artless, enraptured eyes, they were all branded with delicious sin. She sprinkled her comments with carefully memorized beatnik phrases. The couples were, of course, “shacked up,” the band was “far out,” Carlo was a “cat” she could “relate to.”

Friday, August 9, 2019

FFB: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn - Philip Craig

US 1st edition (Doubleday, 1969)
THE STORY: A quartet of unlikely exploring adventurers set out for a little known island off the coast of Sweden. There they hope to find proof that the events described in the epic poem Beowulf were based on historical fact. Professor Cyril Ashman is sure that they will find Beowulf's tomb and a hoard of ancient treasure on the island.

THE CHARACTERS: Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn (1969) is narrated by grifting poker player Luther Martingale who has a past littered with trouble and scandal. He was forced out of Weststock College by an angry manipulative literature professor who learned that Luther was responsible for getting his niece pregnant. Subsequently she chooses to have an abortion. Prof. Ashman not knowing the truth of the matter suspects that Luther abandoned her and left her to take care of matters on her own. Luther's future depends on his getting a college degree and that degree has to be from Weststock all because of his wealthy relative. Aunt Delia has taken a liking to her nephew and is proud of the Martingale men having a long history of being matriculated from Weststock. If Luther manages to graduate successfully with a degree from Weststock he will be her sole heir and stands to gain millions from her estate.

As the novel opens Luther is engaged in an elaborate scheme to win as much money as he can in a series of poker games from his very poor card playing opponents. Hopefully he can use the winnings to bribe his way back into the good graces of the Weststock admissions team. Astoundingly, he finds himself with the title to a yacht after a round of feverish games (and a combination of wily skill and incredible luck) in which he trounced a foreigner named Beorn Wiglafson. Luther having taken all his money leaves Wiglafson with no other choice but to offer up the yacht as collateral in lieu of cash poker stakes.

"Beowulf fights the dragon"
illustration by Lynd Ward
(Heritage Press Ltd Ed., 1939)
When Luther learns that Prof. Ashman has an obsession with discovering the tomb of Beowulf, who he is certain is not just a legendary figure of the epic poem but a real person, Luther comes up with a plan to make the literature professor's dream come true. Using his newly acquired yacht, a few choice crew members, and some obscure manuscripts the professor owns, he will find the island and Beowulf's tomb and burial site.

Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn is the story of the band of adventurers made up of Luther; Dottie, Luther's former girlfriend and hopefully future wife; Professor Ashman, her uncle; and Beorn who after a violent attempt to re-possess his yacht is surprisingly recruited to helm Gate of Horn and navigate safely across the Atlantic to the Scandinavian coastline. The bulk of the story is made up of a detailed nautical adventure in which slowly but surely Luther and Beorn become comrades at sea, Beorn's gruff malevolent nature gives way to his inherent affability and the two become an excellent team as they sail the alternately calm and furious ocean. Without Beorn's near supernatural knowledge of weather and oceanography Luther would never have made it to the island. When they two men meet up with Uncle Cyril and his niece (who wisely flew to Copenhagen ahead of the sailors) everyone is in for awesome shocks and marvelous surprises on the island of Beowulf's ancestors.

UK 1st edition (Macmillan, 1970)
Craig has a deft manner in sketching out his four characters. There are fascinating cat-and-mouse scenes between Prof. Ashman and Luther in both the beginning of the book and the ironic finale. He tries his best to make Dottie appear to be an independent woman not so easily taken advantage of, but we only see her through Luther's arrogant chauvinistic eyes and she often comes across as a horrible depiction of an abused woman. At one point he refers to her as "a sexy wench by any standard" and actually says this about her when she refuses his advances in their post-abortion relationship: "I watched her undulate away. If only I had the character to assault her! A good rape might do her good." It's extremely hard for me to see this as wit or ironic humor in the context of the first 45 pages. Thankfully this is the only instance of raunchy offensive chauvinism but it ruined my opinion of Craig as a writer. He was 35 at the time and working in a liquor store after being fired from a college for being too liberal with his teaching methods and too coarse in his writing. Callow youth? Who knows.

Truly the best part of the book is Beorn. The way Craig manages to transform his character from indignant and malevolent poker loser to comrade at sea to deceitful Judas is remarkable. Beorn is described as a giant Viking, ageless in appearance, menacing in his physicality, and otherworldly in his knowledge of Mother Nature and her fickle ways. At one point I was certain it would be revealed that he was an immortal descended from Beowulf's ancestors and warrior colleagues. As it turned out I was not far off the mark. There is one glaring clue Craig gives very early in the book and does not refer back until the climax once the four adventurers reach the island. It's an ingeniously calculated moment. I'm sure most readers will miss it and the climax will come as a nifty and gasp inducing surprise. Beorn is genuinely the best character in the book and it is thanks to his magnetic presence I whipped through this 190 page novel in practically a single day.

THINGS I LEARNED: As you can imagine sailing and ship navigation are prominent throughout the story. I learned loads of yachting terms and all sorts of unusual facts like the use of a completely different set of sails during stormy weather.

Beowulf, illustration by Lynd Ward
There are several sections that discuss the history of the Beowulf epic poem, its various translations, and the continuing (at the time) debate on whether or not the poem is based on historical fact. Prof. Ashman uses Schliemann's discovery of Troy as proof of the historicity of Homer's Iliad as the basis for his own expedition to prove Beowulf was real. Among the many facts I learned (perhaps relearned since I did study Beowulf in my high school Brit Lit class) was the earliest English translation dates to about 1000, three centuries after its initial Scandinavian composition.

The novel's title comes from a passage in The Odyssey when Odysseus is speaking to Penelope of dreams and she answers him that dreams are hard to understand. The passage Ashman quotes from memory is: "Twain are the gates of shadowy dreams,/The one is made of horn, the other ivory;/Such dreams as pass the portals of ivory/Are deceitful, and bear tidings that are unfulfilled./But the dreams that pass through the gate of horn/Bring true issue to whoever of mortals behold them." Beorn's yacht is named Gate of Horn.

QUOTES: It was no surprise that men of those times, unlettered, unable to know anything of the world beyond their senses, except for what old men and bards told of past days and far lands, were so filled with fatalism and superstition. In literal darkness, it is easy to accustom yourself to the fragility of life, to the necessity of bravery, and to the ready belief in monsters. How else could a man of that time feel? Without books to tell him of his history, to keep his mind sure, in the accumulated experience of the men who preceded him and wrote down their experience, he was, in every generation, a First Man in an unknown world.

Men alone, without history. No wonder that the bards sang of heroes, for the people were in need of heroes to prove by their might and valor that men could survive or, failing that, could, in death, triumph against their enemies and, nearly, death itself.

(courtesy of philiprcraig.com)
THE AUTHOR: Philip R. Craig was born in 1933 in Santa Monica California, raised on a small ranch in Colorado. He studied religion and philosophy at Boston College during the late 1950s where he facetiously claimed he really majored in fencing and minored in bridge (two pastimes that crop up in his mystery fiction much later in his life). In 1962 he achieved an MFA in creative writing at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and went on to teach English and writing at several small colleges in Massachusetts. Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn was published by Doubleday's Crime Club in 1969, but he would not have another novel published for two decades. He is best known for a series of mystery novels set on Martha's Vineyard where he and his family eventually settled (his wife was originally from Edgartown). A longtime member of several crime fiction writing associations and attendee of many mystery writing conferences Craig's career includes over twenty mystery novels and one cookbook written in collaboration with his wife. He died in 2007. For more on his books and a detailed and wittily composed biography visit his website, still maintained by his family.

Friday, August 2, 2019

FFB: The D.A. Calls It Murder - Erle Stanley Gardner

THE STORY: Newly elected district attorney and sheriff for Madison County, California, Doug Selby and Rex Brandon, have their work cut out for them. A dead body is found in Room 321 of the Madison Hotel and the owner and police want to hush it up as a suicide but The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937). Doug Selby takes charge of a case involving alternate identities, blackmail, arcane divorce laws and a missing heir.

THE CHARACTERS: Doug Selby is the polar opposite of Perry Mason. Mason is a criminal defense attorney while Selby is a prosecutor. Mason is shifty manipulator willing to do anything, even break the law in order to protect his client who is almost always innocent. Selby is upstanding and thoroughly decent, but with a very short fuse of a temper. In his first outing Selby must prove himself to be the people’s choice for D.A. and stand up to the inherently corrupt and grifting locals who have come to depend on the graft laden police and former D.A. When the owner of the Madison Hotel wants the possible suicide hushed up as quickly as possible to prevent bad publicity Selby must deal with ingratiating demands, implied favors and tacit bargains that Sam Roper, the former D.A. had in place with the hotel management. Selby will have none of it. He knows that something is suspicious about the death of the minister. And publicity cannot be avoided when they learn that the minister is not who he says he was. After bringing in the widow all the way from Nevada to identify the body she insists that the man is not her husband. Who was he? And why was he pretending to be Rev. Charles Brower?

1st US paperback, 1944
(8 printings over six years
with this cover)
Selby has a gal pal reporter in the person of Sylvia Martin. She represents a paper that backed Selby in the election and she wants the scoop on the minister’s murder. If Selby will give her the facts first she promises to report the truth and wipe away the bad press he is getting from an ugly tabloid whose specialty is insinuations and innuendo. The editorial staff are eager to besmirch Selby’s good name and make him look not only incompetent in his first week as district attorney but imply that he’s more corrupt than Sam Roper, his predecessor.

Selby also has to contend with the secretive actress Shirley Arden who has a special room at the Madison Hotel c complete with private entrance and all-expense paid for by an anonymous benefactor. She enters the case because Selby and Sheriff find among the personal effects of the dead minister a pile of press clippings with Shirley’s name and photo all over them. There are also newspaper articles about a high profile lawsuit involving the rightful heir to the Perry estate. Both the mystery surrounding Shirley Arden’s private retreat at the Madison Hotel and the Perry lawsuit will tie in with the murder of the mystery man in Room 231.

1950 Pocket edition, (9th prtg)
INNOVATIONS: Gardner was a master at convoluted plotting and The D.A. Calls It Murder is one of his trademark stories filled with interlocking subplots and neat little twists. Only Gardner could manage to find a way to make the nasty poisoning of a German Shepherd and the subsequent rescue of the dog become one of the most crucial clues to the unraveling of all the mysteries.

This particular novel is remarkable for Gardner’s portrayal of the women characters who usually come off as either wiseacres or vamps. But Shirley Arden is far from a typical wily vixen archetype found in his pulp fiction. Gardner has a unique understanding of the perils of celebrity in Hollywood and gives Shirley a monologue both trenchant and poignant about how she views her fan base and how she values her private life.

One of the most unexpected scenes comes when Sylvia accompanies Selby to the home of Mrs. Larrabie, the real widow of the murder victim. Together they deliver the dismal news of her husband’s violent death and his curious masquerade as a different person. The scene is a rare example of Gardner's understanding of women and how they are better suited to take care of each other in times of trouble. Selby may have the difficult task of breaking the news, but it is Sylvia who takes on the burden of comforting Mrs. Larrabie, a total stranger, and who is overcome with emotion herself when she sees how the widow takes the news stoically. In an ironic touch Sally finds herself being comforted by the grieving widow.

Cardinal C-295, 1958 1st thus
QUOTES: Shirley on how she views her public: "They're like telegraph poles whizzing by when you're traveling on a Pullman train, if you know what I mean. They tell me things about themselves and I smile at them sympathetically and work my eyes; but all the time I'm thinking about my last income tax return, how long I'm apt to be working on this present picture, whether the director is going to listen to what I have to say about the way I should say "Farewell" to my lover or whether he's going to insists on doing it according to some standards which don't register with me. I give my fan my autograph and turn loose my best smile on him. I know I'm never going to see him again and he's in sort of a daze anyway which he's conjured up to wrap around me as an aura."

Shirley on her keen observational skills: "Men who tell me how much they admire my acting are quite numerous, but it's not very often one comes in contact with a man who's so completely genuine, so wholeheartedly sincere as this man [the murder victim]. Naturally, as a woman, I noticed his clothes."

"You're a very prickly porcupine. When your quills are out, Mr. Selby, you're exceedingly difficult to deal with."

THINGS I LEARNED: A portion of the problem with determining the rightful heir to the Perry estate has to do with a marriage that was performed when an interlocutory decree of divorce was still in effect. The most concise definition comes from Law.com: "Interlocutory decrees were most commonly used in divorce actions, in which the terms of the divorce would be in force until a final decree could be granted... The theory was that this would allow for a period [of time] during which a reconciliation might be [reached...]. Interlocutory decrees of divorce have been abandoned as a procedure in most states because they seldom had the desired effect and appeared to waste the parties' time." California still allows for
interlocutory decrees in divorce; the time period can not exceed six months.

In the novel Charles Perry marries Edith Fontaine while he was in effect still married to his first wife. Edith has a child and Charles thinks this is his rightful son, but in the eyes of the law he was not legally married to Edith since his first marriage was still in effect under the interlocutory decree. When the first wife died it is generally believed that Charles never remarried Edith again in a legal ceremony and so his son could not truly be considered his heir. Charles brother Herbert is contesting the will and claims he is the true heir. A search is on to find out whether or not Charles ever remarried Edith and who might have performed the ceremony and where it took place so a certificate of marriage can be produced. This is why the several ministers in the story become extremely important.


Doug Selby Detective Novels
The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)