Sunday, November 16, 2014

The D. A. Breaks a Seal: Review

This novel is the seventh of nine in one of Erle Stanley Gardner's non-Mason series. It features Doug Selby who serves through most of the series as the District Attorney in fictional Madison City, California. The books follow him as he's newly elected to the position until he enlists in the military as intelligence officer during World War II and then sees him back as the D.A. once the war ends. The Selby novels work as a sort of antithesis to the Perry Mason books with Selby's biggest opponent, A. B. Carr  portrayed as corrupt and unscrupulous while Selby, the D. A., is more concerned with justice and equity; not interested in his reputation as a prosecutor or about his image in the press.

The story finds Selby on a week's furlough before heading back to the war in the Pacific. He decides to stop in Madison City to visit with old friends--Sheriff Rex Brandon, reporter Sylvia Martin, and fellow-lawyer Inez Stapleton--and immediately finds himself drawn into mysterious circumstances. Inez is preparing to battle A. B. Carr in a lawsuit over a contested will. When Selby and Sylvia notice Carr meeting strangers at the train depot by way of white gardenias on their lapels and, later, a man who had ordered a white gardenia turns up poisoned in his hotel, Selby's instincts are on high alert. He's quite sure the mystery man was mixed up in Inez's current case, but how? Once the man is identified and it's shown that Inez herself had been in contact with him but will only answer "No comment" to any questions posed to her, Selby knows he's on to something. He plays a few spectacular hunches and manages to help Brandon arrest a killer, Stapleton win her court battle, and give Martin the inside scoop on a the story behind it all.

The D.A. Breaks a Seal was first published in 1946, but obviously covers some time earlier because Major Selby is headed off somewhere unnamed in the Pacific to, as his friend Brandon tells him at the end of the novel, "Clean up the Japs." So the war isn't quite over for Selby. There is also mention of difficulties for anyone wanting to travel purely for pleasure--a point of interest when Selby is investigating one of the gardenia-wearers and how she managed to travel by train to Madison City. Of course references to mass train travel and Pullman cars also give a hint to the time period, but overall the story has a rather timeless feel to it. You know you're reading about early- to mid-twentieth century, but beyond the mention of Selby's military service, there isn't much to nail it down tighter than that. A nice general period atmosphere to cloak this solid courtroom drama. ★★  


LuAnn @ BackPorchervations said...

Ah. This book reminds me of the 2 or 3 vintage "Perry Mason" books I found in a used book store basement in Cedar City, Utah. I gave them to my brother that Christmas. I love the whole black & white era mysteries and thrillers.

J F Norris said...

Very cool cover! Is that a UK edition? I've never seen that before. Still haven't read any of the Selby books. Or the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool series, for that matter.

fredamans said...

Not sure I would read this but I do know of the author and have read something by him before. It may have just been quotes though... can't recall.
Great review!

Major said...

Of the Selby books, I read the 1937 outing, The DA Calls it Murder, maybe the first one. The first third of the story is better than the remaining part. Gardner sets up a plausibly corrupt county and medium-sized urban setting, with powerful local businessmen and mud-slinging newspapers. But then the subplots get tangled, the characters act improbably. Selby has a self-aware, rational approach to detecting, which is interesting.

Bev Hankins said...

John--stole that cover from the interwebs. Wish I owned it--but my only copy of the book is in the 3-in-1 Detective Club Edition.