Sunday, 4 January 2015

Penguin no. 1870: Two Clues
by Erle Stanley Gardner

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     'I thought so,' the sheriff said. 'You know, I don't know much about these new-fangled things, so us old-timers have to rely on human nature and character, and figuring what a person would do under certain circumstances and...'
     'That,' Walworth announced harshly, 'is all bosh. The man doesn't live who can judge guilt or innocence by physiognomy or by trusting to the perceptions of his auditory nerves. It's merely a means by which the old-fashioned officer gave free rein to his prejudices. It's no more reliable than locating a well by a forked willow stick.'

Two Clues is a volume comprising two short novels, The Clue of the Runaway Blonde and The Clue of the Hungry Horse, both set in the small rural community of Rockville and both relating the well-deserved triumphs of the ageing sheriff Bill Eldon.

In Rockville, the prospect of publicity, eagerly sought by some while determinedly avoided by others, is a constraint on how life is lived, and this gives power to those who make spreading information their business, from gossiping housewives to the proprietors of the town's two newspapers. When Lew Turlock's teenage daughter is found not to be at the home of a friend she said she was visiting, for example, it is keeping her deception quiet which is of uppermost concern to her father because he fears for her reputation; no one seems too concerned about ensuring she is safe.

It is as if every action in this small town must be conditioned on the possible consequences of other people hearing of it, or on how details could be misinterpreted or misused to advance the agenda of a rival, whether this concerns the behaviour of a teenage daughter or the actions of those seeking to retain public office. Information is a weapon, but it is all spin, and those with influence seem very willing to intentionally distort facts for advantage or revenge. At present the Sheriff finds that he is the target of this kind of concerted effort.

The District Attorney, the leading business men and the owners of the local newspapers all agree that Bill Eldon is past it. They are keen on new blood, and they scheme to take advantage of every misstep and setback in his investigations in order to characterise them as the fumblings of an old man clearly behind the times, and someone who should no longer to be trusted with keeping order in this small community. And because they are impatient, they would like to short cut such a process by engineering a situation in which his failure will be inevitable. Even the law-abiding and upright are shown here to be subject to temptation.

It means that even those who would normally support Bill and wish him no harm find themselves watching their backs, wondering at what point they should join with his opposition for fear of going down with him. In the first of these stories it is the Undersheriff who wavers, and in the second it is the Coroner. The Sheriff is aware of all this but he takes it in his stride.

The Case of the Runaway Blonde begins with Sam Beckett ploughing the field of a newly-purchased farm in the dark of an early evening. The rising moon reveals the dead body of a young woman lying on the newly-ploughed soil, with the perplexing feature that no footprints surround her. Bill Eldon is in the early stages of his investigation when the D.A., intent on employing the latest methods, brings in a criminologist who is confident he can solve the crime, and who is happy to provide the newspapers with a detailed account of his rival's inadequacies. But the criminologist doesn't know what he doesn't know, and a lack of background knowledge leads his investigation astray.

One year later the newspapers are still awaiting an opportunity to repay Eldon for succeeding where the criminologist failed, and in The Case of the Hungry Horse his inadvertent misidentification of a teenager found dead in the Calhoun family's barn seems to have given them their chance. The girl's body had been found in an occupied stall with the imprint of a horseshoe upon her forehead, and Eldon finds himself mocked by the press for insisting that it is unquestionably a case of cold-blooded murder. He alone has noticed that the imprint of the horseshoe doesn't match the horse.

It is a conservative novel, quietly making the case for what could be lost in a headlong embrace of novel methods of detection.  The Sheriff may know little about identifying fingerprints, he may have no understanding of chemical analysis, and he may be completely unaware of appropriate methods for safeguarding evidence, but he has a deep local knowledge, and this turns out to be far more important in working out what has happened in each of these crimes than any clinical analysis.

I recognise that the two stories could be characterised as short and formulaic, and that the characters could be dismissed as caricatures, as there was never any doubt about who was going to succeed. But they were still enjoyable to read: Bill Eldon is a likeable character, the two stories are well-plotted, and Bill Eldon's accounts of how he determines each solution are interesting. I also thought the underlying message was a wise one; even in my own field too much enthusiasm for the new and the complex is liable to lead people astray.

First published in the U.S.A. 1947. Published in Great Britain by Cassell 1951. Published in Penguin Books 1964.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 967: The D.A. Calls a Turn
Penguin no. 1239: The D.A. Holds a Candle


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  3. On the strength of your review I read this and had a lovely time. Thanks!



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