Thursday, February 27, 2020

The D.A. Goes to Trial by Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

#4 of 9 in the Doug Selby series. The full series is:

  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937) 
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

 Major characters:

  • Mark Crandall, bank director who witnessed an odd event
  • John Burke, a.k.a. Allison Brown, an accountant
  • Thelma Burke, his wife
  • Unidentified hobo, deceased
  • George Lawler, head of Los Alidas Lumber Company
  • James Lacey, Arizona rancher
  • Oliver Bennell, a greasy bank president
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin Chief of Police
  • Jed "Buck" Reilly, deputy sheriff in Tucson, Arizona
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion 
  • Inez Stapleton, Selby's old girlfriend, now an attorney
 Locale: Madison City, California and Tucson, Arizona

Synopsis: One night, outside Madison City, a hobo is struck by a train and killed. It appears accidental. However, a number of odd aspects soon come to light.

Bank director Mark Crandall approaches D.A. Doug Selby with a concern. He had recommended John Burke for employment as accountant at the Los Alidas Lumber Company. Then he saw him meeting with a broker, but going by the name of Allison Brown. Suspicious of financial wrongdoings, he asks Selby to investigate. The problem is there has been no crime - so nothing to investigate.

Meanwhile, it comes to light the dead hobo was seen earlier at the home of John Burke, getting cozy with Burke's wife, Thelma. Selby finds auditors at work at the lumber company, but bank president George Lawler brushes that off as routine and claims nothing is wrong.

The coroner fingerprints the hobo's body as part of routine identification. He contacts the hobo's brother, Horatio Perne, who requests an immediate cremation. This is done, the ashes sent to the brother, but they are returned as undeliverable. It appears the cremation may have been ordered to delay identification, but Selby has the fingerprints.

Selby and reporter Sylvia Martin fly to Tucson to find Thelma Burke has run off with Arizona rancher James Lacey, who was her first husband. Some have identified the dead hobo as her curren husband, John, but some are absolutely certain it is not him.

There are lots of suspicious circumstances, but still Selby finds no crime. Then George Lawler is found shot in his bank vault, the vault looted. Now there is a crime.

With a tentative identification of the dead hobo as John Burke, Lacey and Thelma are arrested on a murder charge. They retain attorney Inez Stapleton, Selby's rebuffed former girlfriend, so now they are legal adversaries as well.

Review: I have always enjoyed Gardner's writings about the desert - both in fiction and nonfiction. This story has a lot of action taking place at an Arizona ranch in the desert, and the descriptions of the ranch house and the desert itself are a treat. It is obvious ESG is quite familiar with a desert environment.

The chain of events leading to the two murders turns out to be quite complex, and after a certain point I cease trying to follow it all in my head and just take the writer's word for it. There are a lot of events, but really no red herrings. Everything, no matter how trivial, is all tied together at the end.

Not only does this story present a lot of loose threads, there is also the tension between Selby, Inez Stapleton (the former girlfriend, now defense attorney), and current flame Sylvia Martin. There are a lot of dagger-stares between the two women.

The usual ESG court scene is surprisingly brief.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Penthouse Murders by Raymond Holden (1931)

About the author: Little is known (by me) about this author. Wikipedia has an article on author William P. Holden, but I am not convinced it is the same person; as the one in the article wrote books of poetry and music history, no fiction is mentioned.

Locale: New York City

Major characters:
  • Tappan Willett, wealthy New Yorker
  • Charles Corlear, his wealthy friend
  • George Harper, private investigator
  • Eliphalet Barnwell, found dead on the penthouse terrace
  • Julio, Barnwell's manservant, found dead inside the penthouse
  • Barbara Holger, last person to see to Barnwell alive
  • Rufus Polhemus, Barnwell's attorney

Synopsis: Two wealthy New York City buddies, Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear, live together summers in the city while their families head off to the luxurious suburban estates. One night they decide to go to a penthouse party of an acquaintance (Eliphalet Barnwell), and on the way pick up their P.I. friend George Harper. 

They arrive at Barnwell's penthouse. As they are going in, they meet a woman (Barbara Holger) on her way out. Once inside, they find Barnwell dead - stabbed - on the terrace. No one seems to be around. Harper heads out in pursuit of Holger, as she must have been the last one to see Barnwell alive. Willett and Corlear call the police, and while looking around, find Barnwell's manservant, Julio, alive and well, sleeping in his room. The police arrive. While they investigate, Julio is now found with a knife in him - dead. 

Barnwell's attorney, Rufus Polhemus, arrives for an appointment with Barnwell, unaware he is no longer living.

Harper follows Holger to her apartment. She attempts to escape but Harper finds her in the adjacent building. While in his custody, she sustains a minor gunshot wound also.


There are some issues with this book. 

  • Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear and two cardboard characters who are really not necessary to the plot, they only serve to introduce P.I. George Harper, who takes the plot forward. While Harper investigates, Willett and Corlear amuse themselves by instructing the police how to do their jobs. One of these characters could be easily cut, perhaps both.
  • There is only one female character to be found (but in her defense, she does have three identities!)
  • Some of the description is ... well ... you decide: "The unshaded kitchen globe, accustomed to casting its radiance upon flour-drifted meatballs, batter bowls, and dismembered vegetables, dropped a kind of shroud of pallor over the lovely face of Miss Barbara Holger, who was laid out like a large salmon on the linoleum."
  • Barbara, shot through the arm, calmly brushes it off and continue with life as usual.

This book had a great premise - a murder (Julio) occurring while the police are present, but no murderer to be found.

As the last few pages approached, I was skeptical all the loose ends could be wrapper up - there were too many outstanding: the coded message? who killed Barnwell? who killed Julio? how was it done with the police present? who shot Barbara? Why does she have three different identities?

The Barnwell murder is the primary puzzle, and the murderer is, indeed, revealed. We find the murderer used the old dodge (well, in 1931, it could have been a new dodge) of injuring himself following the murder, to make it appear he is an additional victim).

The big letdown is the Julio murder. At the end, this is brushed off with a speculation that someone came in the window and did it, then left. Sigh.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (1933)

About the author:  See this Wikipedia article.

Major characters:

Staff of Pym's Publicity:
  • Victor Dean, deceased from falling down the stairs
  • Death Bredon, the new copy writer
  • Other copy writers: Mr. Ingleby and Miss Meteyard
  • Copy Chiefs: Mr. Hankin and Mr. Armstrong
  • Mr. Pym, owner 
  • Mr. Willis
  • Mr. Tallboy, group manager for the Nutrax account
  • Assistants: Miss Rossiter and Miss Parton
  • Mr. Prout, photographer
  • Pamela Dean, the late Victor Dean's sister
  • Dian de Momerie, wealthy dilettante who runs with the party crowd
  • Major Tod Milligan, drug distributor
  • Inspector Charles Parker
  • Lord Peter Wimsey
Locale: England

Synopsis:  Pym's Publicity is a busy advertising agency with a chaotic staff. Between floors is an iron spiral staircase, which some have always considered unsafe. Copy writer Victor Dean has just fallen down these stairs and died as the story begins, and Death Bredon is coming in as his replacement. Bredon is curious about the incident, and finding a note from Dean suggesting something is fishy at Pym's, leads him to suspect murder. He seeks to learn about it, and strikes up a friendship with Dean's sister, Pamela. 

Through Pamela, Bredon is introducted to the drug party crowd of enchanting Dian de Momerie. Bredon attends a party in harlequin costume, and begins a teasing on-again, off-again relationship with de Momerie; always remaining in his costume to hide his identity. He becomes a legend, appearing without warning.

Bredon finds the connection between the party crowd and Pym's is the method of distributing drugs; which led to the murder of Dean, the man who knew too much.


A very nice page-turner, I did not mention Lord Peter in the synopsis as it would be a spoiler. 

The sudden revelation of the identity of Death Bredon came as a surprise to me, I should have seen it coming.

The chaotic activities at Pym's are sometimes hard to follow, with a parade of every employee challenging the reader to keep track of who's who. The descriptions show some of the true absurdities of corporate life. 

Much is made of the fact that Victor Dean did not relinquish his hold on a book during his fatal fall, yet this turned out to be a big red herring which never was brought up again.

The interplay of Bredon (as the harlequin) and Dian de Momerie is rather fairy-tale, especially the forest scene with him playing the pan pipes in a tree to Dian below. Dian becomes enchanted with this mysterious figure, reminding me of Luisa and the bandit El Gallo of The Fantasticks.

The chapter "Unexpected Conclusion of a Cricket Match" is a highly detailed play-by-play of the game, which didn't mean anything to me - not being familiar with the game - but the ending of the game did provide a plot element as a catalyst to wrap the story up.

The method the drug dealers use in dealing with security risks gets a bit repetitive, send them out on the sidewalk and a convenient truck jumps the sidewalk and runs over them (happens 3 times).

The denouement explains the involvement of Pym's and the drug trade, a clever little strategem involving the use of the advertisements themselves, a World War II -era espionage staple.

PS> If  you enjoy books set in advertising agencies, also try The Hand of Power by Edgar Wallace, which features Pawter's Publicity Services.

Also please see this review by Bev Hankins on My Reader's Block.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The D.A. Draws a Circle by Erle Stanley Gardner (1939)

#3 of 9 in the Doug Selby series

The full series is:
  1. The D.A. Calls It Murder (1937)
  2. The D.A. Holds a Candle (1938)
  3. The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939)
  4. The D.A. Goes to Trial (1940)
  5. The D.A. Cooks a Goose (1942)
  6. The D.A. Calls a Turn (1944)
  7. The D.A. Breaks a Seal (1946)
  8. The D.A. Takes a Chance (1948)
  9. The D.A. Breaks an Egg (1949)

Major characters:

  • Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C.", shyster lawyer of choice for guilty parties
  • Rita Artrim, A.B.C.'s neighbor
  • James Artrim, Rita's husband; killed in car accident prior to story
  • Frank Artrim, Rita's disabled father-in-law
  • Abner Hendrix, Rita's father
  • Ellen Saxe, Frank's nurse
  • Peter Ribber; wanted by L.A. for larceny
  • Morton Taleman, the naked victim
  • Doug Selby, D.A.
  • Sheriff Rex Baldwin
  • Chief of Police Otto Larkin
  • Sylvia Martin, crime reporter for The Clarion

Locale: Madison City, California

Synopsis: Madison City is alarmed when shyster L.A. lawyer Alphonse Baker Carr, "Old A.B.C.", buys a home in the Orange Heights section of town. His neighbor, Rita Artrim, asks D.A. Doug Selby what can be done about it. Nothing - he can buy a home here if he wants to, nothing illegal about it. 

The L.A. police contact Selby. They are looking for Peter Ribber, believed to be a client of Carr. He has a star tattoo on his arm. Shots are reported near Carr's house, police find a naked body in the barranca (ravine) between the Carr and Artrim homes, and the body has a star tattoo. It isn't Ribber, though, but one of his buddies Morton Taleman. He had been shot twice in the same spot, by different guns. The case becomes one of determining which shot killed him. Meanwhile, Frank Artrim, Rita's disabled father-in-law, goes missing - and blood is found in her basement.

Selby is convinced Carr is shielding Ribber, and Rita is hiding her father-in-law. Selby tracks odometer readings on their cars to find they are being driven similar miles - perhaps to a hideout. He draws circles on a map to try to find the hideout.

Review: Oh, the neighbors you find in the ritzy hill section: hard-drinking NIMBY Rita Artrim who detests her new lawyer neighbor, sleazy A.B. Carr. Carr actually comes across quite pleasant, just doing his job in the most courteous way he can. The sub-plot of the competition between county officials (Selby and Brandon) and city officials (Larkin) is nastier than the conflicts with Carr, and perhaps a peek into a true situation that exists out there. This type of conflict never shows in the Perry Mason series where law enforcement is one big happy family; and it adds to the tension and drama. 

Ribber is being held for trial and the jail visits by Selby to try to shake him up are quite funny. 

The gradual location of the hideout using circles on a map demonstrates the thoroughness of police work. There is a surprise at the end when the hideout is found.

Secretary Amorette Standish is back, popping in and out of the office - I am so used to the Della Street character I am always expecting something to develop with her, but no go. Selby would rather hang out with stylish Brenda Starr-like Sylvia Martin, who has no fear of chasing down bad guys in a tight skirt and high heels.