Skip to Content
ublogo print

University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The D.A. Holds a Candle

cover image By: Gardner, Erle Stanley (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (287)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 254: PS3513 A6322 D29 1945
Contributor: J. Shorten


Era: 1930s Author as on Cover: Erle Stanley Gardner Geographic Locale: Madison City, California (fictional), 60 miles from Los Angeles, perhaps a desert town Date of Publication: 1945  |  Original Date: 1938 Setting: rural, with some scenes in a small town and two scenes in Los Angeles between the Los Angeles police and a gambling racket. Local elite family (owner of the local sugar factory) and the local demi-monde (young men who frequent a semi-legal gambling parlor beyond the town limits.) Motives: Stapleton kills a young woman in a hit-and-run in San Diego. He panics, drives away, and sells the car on the advice of his gambling partners. The woman's father traces the car to Madison City and tries to take it to the police. He is found by the gambling partners, to one of whom (Handley), Stapleton owes $20,000, which cannot be collected if Stapleton is charged. He knocks out Watkins and puts him in a room in a local auto-hotel cabin, and asphyxiates him by turning up the gas on the open flame heater.

Plot Summary

District Attorney Doug Selby speaks to young Ross Blaine who has forged a cheque. Blaine confesses it is to pay off a gambling debt at the local gambling parlor, run by Oscar Triggs. Selby and Sheriff Brandon pick up a vagrant and caution him. The vagrant is then found dead of carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but Selby suspects murder. As Selby follows up one clue after another, the vagrant's death eventually leads to the smashing of a Los Angeles gambling ring and the local industrialist's son being accused of manslaughter.

Major Characters

Douglas Selby (Doug), adult male, "a handsome young man with curly hair, a devil-may-care glint in his penetrating eyes, and a forceful, although shapely, mouth", "tall, young, filled with the vigor of enthusiasm", county district attorney

George Stapleton young adult male (mid-20s), spirited, high-strung, no occupation as his father is rich

Carlo Handley adult male, "Chicago Dick", 40s, dark, thin-faced, long-fingered wavy black hair, restless eyes, gangster

Emil Watkins adult male, about 50, "light hair, high cheekbones, thin lips", carpenter

Marcia Watkins mid-20s, mother of illegitimate child

Rex Brandon adult middle-aged male, "twenty-five years older than Selby. His hair was sprinkled with gray. His face had been tanned to the color of saddle leather, and his legs were bowed from years spent on horseback, but his step was alert and springy", county sheriff

Sylvia Martin adult female, young, "trimly efficient, reddish-brown eyes", newspaper reporter

Rex Blaine adult male, 24 years old, former assistant bookkeeper

Charles DeWitt Stapleton middle-aged male, owner of the local sugar factory, town big wheel

Oscar Triggs adult male, short, bald, green eyes, late 40s, owner of the gambling parlor

Madge Trent adult female, "blonde, trim, graceful, eyes", gambling parlor hostess


fists, gas heater

Level of Violence

there is a fight scene when the LA police break open a gambling den. Terse description of violent events.


no sexual events per se, although one of the victims was the mother of an illegitimate child. Selby is interested in Inez Stapleton, sister of the suspect, but does not let his interest get in the way of his duty. As Inez says, "The friendship of a woman doesn't mean a damn thing to you, compared with that job of yours, does it?"

Gender Roles

progressive; Sylvia Martin is a newspaper reporter, and at the end of the book, Inez Stapleton reveals her plans to become a lawyer. Illegitimacy is treated sympathetically, and Marcia Watkins, the mother of the illegitimate child is portrayed as being self-sacrificing for sending her daughter to boarding school. The Victorian reaction of her father, Emil Watkins, (i.e. cutting off contact with her) is treated as being archaic and reprehensible.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

a bottle of whiskey and three empty glasses are the key to the mystery. Carlo Handley is a heroin addict and heroin is used to knock out Madge Trent, witness to the murder of Emil Watkins.

Law Enforcement

local bigwigs exert pressure on the district attorney. D.A. Selby is warned that he is making "a major political mistake" and that "being elected to an underpaid office in a relatively unimportant county has given you exaggerated ideas of your own authority and importance. You men in these outlying rural communities...can't hold a candle (whence the title) with these crime specialists."

Added Features

reference to the Depression and how it has blighted young people's opportunities: "there aren't the opportunities now there were a few years ago....there's plenty of room at the top, but you can't start climbing without first elbowing your way to the bottom of the ladder. I know something about young Blaine. His mother sacrificed a lot to give him a good education. But he can't use it, because he can't get a start. His education fitted him for a place at the top of the heap. It didn't show him how to scramble around at the bottom. Teaching a kid how to drive a high-powered automobile doesn't fit him to drive plow horses." The 1945 edition includes a message from the U.S. Victory Waste Paper Campaign, reminding readers to save paper scraps, cartons, brown bags, newspapers etc. so they can be put to work again. "That is the least we can do to carry on the job of making the world a happier place for us to live in."

Subject Headings

California/ Gambling/ Public Prosecutors/ Asphyxiation/ Illegitimacy/ Heroin/ Depression (1929)/ Law and Lawyers