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the d.a. holds a candle

28 december 2010

Better known for his Perry Mason series, Erle Stanley Gardner had a concurrent hit series of novels featuring D.A. Doug Selby, the clean-cut, incorruptible face of the law in quiet Madison City, California.

Madison City is so quiet that its backwaterish character helps provide the title of an early Selby novel, The D.A. Holds a Candle. A bigwig blocking character tells Doug Selby, "You men in these outlying rural communities . . . can't hold a candle with these crime specialists" from places like Los Angeles (110). Which leads to my next investigative question: what does it mean to hold a candle with (or more often, to) somebody?

Brewer's 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines "candle-holder" as

An abettor. The reference is to the practice of holding a candle in the Catholic Church for the reader, and in ordinary life to light a workman when he requires more light.
So it appears that "holding a candle" would be done by someone's professional inferior – not far from what we'd call "carrying your jockstrap," perhaps, but a more refined version thereof, from a time before artificial light. And if you couldn't even do that, you were a putz indeed.

Naturally Doug Selby is quick to retort "I might surprise you. I might even turn up holding a candle!" (111). Which, if you follow it through, is like zinging back with "I can so carry your jockstrap!" Though I suppose we never do think through all the denotations of dead metaphors.

The designer of the 1956 Pocket Books cover didn't read as far as page 111, evidently. Instead of Doug Selby holding a candle, the designer gives us a slightly blowsy dame in a black negligee split up to her ribcage, grasping a lighted taper in a ravish-me pose. She doesn't represent any character in the novel, as far as I can see. She's just holding a candle to them.

Aside from its inappropriate depictions of come-hither blondes, a 1956 Pocket Book is still a handsome item, well worth its original list price of 25¢. Red-edged pages prevent the pulp from blackening at the touch. The font is acceptably large even for my fiftysomething cataracted eyes, thanks to narrow margins and a stylish inset of the page number within the text at the top of each page. In the endpapers are AMAZING OFFERS like "Seven Thrilling New Mysteries Worth Over $19 for $1.00" if you write away to the Dollar Mystery Guild, Rockefeller Center, New York 20, N.Y. Someday, I want to clip one of those coupons, write away, and see what happens. Surely an offer that AMAZING must still be good.

But I, um, digress. What about The D.A. Holds a Candle? It's a contrived mystery story with a twisty plot, involving the corpse of a would-be murderer who seems to have died accidentally before getting to pull off his crime. Now, just in actuarial terms, how many murderers lying in ambush are killed by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning? Doug Selby asks himself the same question, and follows it wherever it leads, even at the risk of his political career.

Good stuff, and made better by Gardner's nickel-plated dialogue. A sample exchange between the manager of a gambling hell and the L.A. County Sheriff:

"Do you have a warrant?"

"I have a John Doe warrant and a sledge hammer. Are we coming in?" Blake asked.

"We don't recognize John Doe warrants here," the man said, and started to slide the partition shut.

Blake drew back the sledge hammer and said, "How about this?" (162)
Ah, the days before the Warren Court.

Gardner, Erle Stanley. The D.A. Holds a Candle. 1938. New York: Pocket Books, 1956.