Sunday, 16 August 2015

Penguin no. 1620: The D.A. Draws a Circle
by Erle Stanley Gardner

Morning found Doug Selby lying in that condition of delicious drowsiness which is half sleeping and half waking, a warm, lazy languor. Birds were hopping through the eucalyptus tree which shaded his window. Down the slope were the fronds of palm trees, and below them Madison City, glinting in the early morning sunlight, seeming fresh washed and sparkling in its cleanliness. Overhead the blue-black of the California sky showed as a vast depth of cloudless azure. The morning sunlight, splashing through the window to glint on the counterpane of Selby's bed, made crime seem distant and remote, a hideous man-made nightmare superimposed upon a universe which was attuned to the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves.

A resident of Orange Heights, one of the better residential areas in Madison County, calls the police late at night to report the sighting of a naked man running along the edge of the deep canyon which separates her property from her neighbour's. Not long after, and just as the police arrive, a pistol shot is heard. Three young boys find an unclothed body the next day in a cleft of the barranca, and there is no doubt that the victim has been murdered. Perplexingly, he has been shot twice, with both bullets following almost the same trajectory and passing through the same bullet hole. More perplexingly, one bullet has been shot directly into the victim's naked flesh, and the other has been shot through fabric.

The chances of convicting anyone of the murder seem remote, as the forensic science of the time has no way of determining which of the two bullets was responsible for the man's death. It seems to everyone in rural Madison County that a clever subterfuge of this kind has all the hallmarks of the intervention of a big-city lawyer, one with a brilliant mind, a good understanding of the law and an affinity with criminals. A.B. Carr is just such a lawyer and he has recently taken up an unwelcomed residence in Orange Heights. His lavish and spacious property abuts the barranca in which the victim's body was found.

This is the third of the D.A. novels that I have read. Each has been the story of a young and inexperienced but incorruptible small town D.A., with very few allies, who must prove himself afresh with every case while being undermined by those who would prefer to have a more accommodating lawyer in the role. The early odds always seem to be against him succeeding, but then he will find a way to deal with the situation without compromising his values. I think, though, that in The D.A. Draws a Circle it would be fair to describe him as sailing a little close to the wind, but with the best intentions; I cannot imagine a lawyer getting away with such stratagems today.

The D.A. stories focus on the politics of law enforcement. Until recently, Madison County had been under the control of a political organisation which had infiltrated the police force and the offices of the Sheriff and District Attorney, and which was used to running everything its own way. The corrupt system had been successfully maintained through the control of information, with stories published in the local newspaper The Blade calculated to keep the public on side, and always voting in a way which suited those in power. The delivery of justice was never anyone's end game; it was always about power and control. As the current D.A. notes, guilt can be considered a flexible concept, with the public willing to accept that whomever the police arrest must be the person responsible.

But in the most recent elections, something went awry. The voters of Madison County didn't act in accordance with the political organisation's plan, delivering instead an incorruptible pair in Sheriff Rex Brandon and D.A. Doug Selby. Selby must work to deliver justice with The Blade as his constant and vocal critic, and although he cares little for his image or for personal success, Selby must now manipulate the media in his turn, just to keep ahead of his enemies and keep the corrupt from power.

First published in America 1939. Published in Penguin Books 1961.

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


  1. Clearly not our grandfathers' Perry and Hamilton. I wasn't aware ESG wrote anything but Perry Masons. These actually sound more interesting, with the local politics playing a role.

  2. I love Gardner's Perry Mason and his Cool and Lam series under A.A. Fair but I don't think I had ever noticed this Doug Selby series. I visit your blog about once a month or so so I can hopefully get several great reviews at once and did that today. A short time later I was going through some you might like movie recommendations off my Amazon Prime choices and there was the 1971 They Call it Murder based on the book. I see it as sign to read the book and then see what Jim Hutton and the screenwriter did it. While the Wikipedia article says Gardner edited the screenplay it also called a "loosely base on" type of script!



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