A 1957 Abram Games-commissioned cover
by Edwin Tatum - others can be seen here.
A man known to be hitch-hiking through Madison County in California is found dead in a cabin at an auto park in the middle of the night. The cause of his death doesn't appear to be suspicious: it was a cold night, he had been in a sealed cabin fitted with an unflued gas heater which was turned up high, and he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning (and in 1938 there seems to be no associated health and safety concerns; it is taken for granted that everyone knows the risks involved in heating with gas and must accept the consequences of any misuse). But there are other circumstances about the death which do seem odd. The dead man had been found in possession of a gun and a rambling note which suggested he had been lying in wait for someone unnamed whom he was intending to kill. The hitch-hiker's accidental death may have prevented a murder, and Douglas Selby, the local District Attorney, is called in to investigate.
Erle Stanley Gardner describes a system of law enforcement in which the district attorney, the sheriff, and even the coroner are elected to their offices, and he sketches some of the problems inherent in such a system. These seem to stem from a widespread expectation of favourable treatment in return for electoral support, almost a sense of entitlement. Even the local newspaper reporter, a close friend of the D.A., is keen to remind him of what is expected in terms of inside information and preferable treatment, and to hint at the likely consequences for the next election of his not obliging.
Elections have been held recently in the small town of Madison City and they have brought to power, in new D.A. Doug Selby, a man who is honest, confidant and determined, but also young and inexperienced. It is these latter qualities which see him treated as an upstart by the town's leading businessman, Charles DeWitt Stapleton, who is perhaps perturbed to find that a more accommodating D.A. has been defeated. He mocks Selby, suggesting that he overestimates himself and cannot 'hold a candle' to the more experienced D.A.s of nearby San Francisco and Los Angeles. But in pursuing the investigation into the hitch-hiker's death his own way, Selby manages to uncover a gambling racket and solve a hit-and-run death in the course of a single weekend. The businessman's taunts may have hit home initially, but by Sunday morning, with his big city counterparts willingly acknowledging their debt to him, Selby feels vindicated.
Selby seems offered as a model for an effective small town D.A. He has all the essential qualities: he is pragmatic, incorruptible, hard working, self-sacrificing, motivated by a desire to make a difference in his community, and willing to stand against those who would misuse their power and influence to protect their own. Throughout the novel there is a sense of one good man taking on the misguided elements in the community for the good of the common people. The minor forms of corruption and cronyism are seemingly so entrenched in this small community that an effective man in these circumstances must also be an heroic one.
Erle Stanley Gardner also considers how easily such corrupt systems can come about in a small town and the dynamics which underlie their development. Stapleton, for example, as the main employer in the town, has the power to determine who has a job and who hasn't. People treat him differently, and he has become accustomed to being fawned over, to having his opinions taken seriously, and with getting his own way in all things. It is such a small step to then think of himself as a special case, more important than everyone else, and that the application of justice in the town should be distorted to accommodate his wishes.
So on one level the book is a procedural following the D.A. as he determinedly pursues the story behind the death of the hitch-hiker wherever it goes and irrespective of any pressure brought to bear, and as he gradually and unexpectedly unravels a series of associated crimes, entirely on account of his thoroughness. But on another level it is a story affirming a certain moral code, which particularly emphasises the importance of hard work for every member of a community. It also warns about the corrupting influence of success, power, and wealth and suggests that the effects are not isolated to the individual concerned, but can radiate out and affect the family, the community, and other completely unrelated lives.
First published in 1938; published in Penguin Books in 1957.
Penguin titles with Abram Games-commissioned covers.
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