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.

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