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 "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 legally 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, 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)


  1. My parents had this book on their bookshelves, a green and white Penguin edition. I never read it, but had a sudden flashback to seeing it: as a child I was trying to work out what the title could possibly mean. It sounds really good in fact. I'm always surprise by the amount of detail and the slightly unusual scenes, ESG gets into his books: usually the very prolific authors don't bother so much..

  2. I have wanted to try this series but haven't yet. Very convincing review, John, maybe I will like the DA books even better than the Perry Mason books. And thanks for explaining "interlocutory decree of divorce". I have heard the term but not really understood it.

  3. John – Your review has me reconsidering my decision to stick with Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. I’ve felt his non-Mason books were not as strong or as enjoyable. You may have hit on the reason when you said Mason is a shifty manipulator. Yes, he is, and watching him at work is great fun. But I will keep an eye out for this story.