Sunday, 20 October 2013

Penguin no. 967: The D.A. Calls a Turn
by Erle Stanley Gardner

You're from the city. When someone asks you about your father-in-law, you say, "He owns a ranch." That's what it means to you. It means more than that to a man who's rooted in the soil the way Freelman is. It means that he's carved out a little empire for himself and his family with his two hands. He's done it by steady, patient labour, by shrewd planning. He's making his living, not by juggling finances or out-trading the other man, but by producing it from the ground itself. That does something to a man's character. It makes him straightforward, direct, and very positive of the difference between right and wrong. He may be inarticulate, but don't ever make the mistake of thinking that because he is inarticulate he's dumb.

Perhaps 'calling a turn' is an American expression which never made it to Australia, as even by the end of the novel, when the D.A. had solved the puzzle surrounding a suspicious death, it was not clear to me exactly which of his actions constituted calling a turn.

Whatever it means, the D.A. calls this turn in November 1941, so several years have passed since the events described in The D.A. Holds a Candle, the only other Doug Selby story I have read. Selby is still the District Attorney of Madison County, a rural citrus-growing district near Los Angeles, and he remains a single man living alone in a bachelor flat. In the intervening years, Inez Stapleton - a romantic interest from his pre-political life - has headed East, completed college, and returned to Madison City to establish a law practice, but she hasn't managed to overcome her jealousy with respect to Selby's close friendship with Sylvia Martin, a reporter on the local newspaper Clarion, even though this relationship does not appear to have progressed during her absence.

Doug Selby and Rex Brandon witness a traffic accident late on the evening of Thanksgiving Day. They are summoned to the area by a phone call from a man who has clearly had too much to drink and who is experiencing what is called 'a crying jag' - overwhelming feelings of regrets induced by too much alcohol and the proximity of a holiday weekend. He hopes the sheriff will extricate him from the situation in which he finds himself - incapacitated by alcohol and in possession of a stolen car - but the sheriff's only concern is to ensure that he doesn't get behind the wheel.

But getting behind the wheel is just what he appears to do, and Selby and Brandon arrive in the area in time to see his car head down the hill directly into the path of a truck and another car. In the aftermath of the ensuing accident they send the intoxicated driver to the morgue, a family to the hospital, and find temporary care for a small dog recovered from the wreckage.

If Selby was less thorough it would have ended there, but he doesn't miss the disparity between the condition of the dead man's attire and the state of his fingernails. Dressed in a shabby, ill-fitting suit and reeking of alcohol, the dead man looks and smells like a vagrant, but a vagrant with professionally manicured fingernails, and on further investigation Selby also notes that he is wearing silk socks and handmade shoes. The dead man is soon identified as the wealthy supermarket tycoon Desmond Billmeyer, and when the autopsy suggests that he actually died a few hours before the crash, the D.A and the Sheriff begin to suspect foul play.

Doug Selby seems far more relaxed and confident in his role as district attorney in this later story, and no longer concerned with how his efforts might compare with those of his counterparts in nearby Los Angeles. There is little room for complacency, however, as the rivalry between Madison City’s daily newspapers and his tendency to feed stories to the Clarion via Sylvia Martin mean that The Blade relishes any opportunity to publicly call him to account. The opposing newspaper is an enthusiastic and vocal critic of any action of his which they perceive to be a mistake or of anything he is judged to have overlooked, and so he must solve crimes and solve them quickly. The day to day activities of the D.A. still seem to be the only news in town.

And even if his small-town status no longer concerns Selby, the story itself is underpinned by comparisons between the values of those from the city and those from the town. Smugness seems an essential trait of any visitor from the city, and Gardner seems determined to illustrate the baselessness of such pretensions. The local inhabitants are rather pointedly portrayed as sensible, capable, honest and skilled, and as possessing an integrity the city dwellers lack. They are people who never lose sight of what is important.

The two lawyers who become involved in the case of the suspicious death provide a contrast which illustrates this point. While Inez Stapleton will only represent clients telling a story she can believe, Alphonse Baker Carr, who has recently moved to the area from L.A., is unconstrained by such concerns; he will represent anyone, his only thought being for what will deliver him the biggest profit. As a man seemingly without principles he also provides a contrast to Selby whose primary concern is always to uncover the truth. A.B. Carr goes to great lengths to hinder Selby's quest to solve the mystery by hiding witnesses and by refusing to let them tell their stories.

This is the story of a D.A. trying to solve a puzzle under pressure. He faces criticism from a hostile press, competition from a reporter on the make, and obstruction from an unprincipled lawyer, but unlike his opponents his only interest is in uncovering the truth so that justice can be delivered. The story is diverting, fast-paced and easy to read, but it didn't impress me in the same way as The D.A. Holds a Candle.

First published in Great Britain 1947. Published in Penguin Books 1954.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1239: The D.A. Holds a Candle


  1. I always find it irritating when an author ventures to compare a sterling son of the soil with a slicker from the scarlet city. I would quote from a much greater detective than Doug Selby in the story "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches": "It is my belief Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." The good and the bad are found in both locations. I am not aware that having to get up at 4 in the morning to slop the hogs in some way makes one more virtuous.

  2. I love the Perry Mason books, though it's been a long while since I've read them. I didn't know or had forgotten that Gardner wrote another series.



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