A little while ago, on this very blog, it took me just under three years to work my way through the nine novels Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about D.A. Doug Selby. At that rate, I shall be reading the 30 Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books published by Gardner under his A.A. Fair nom de plume for the next decade (and then the 88 Perry Mason books will see me well into retirement). Famously written by Gardner to prove that he could get a book published on merit alone, The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939) finds a pair of great characters still unformed, and makes a good time out of a fun premise while not yet reaching the heights this series would.
Hired by Bertha Cool as the sole operative in her detective agency, Donald Lam is tasked with tracking down Morgan Birks, currently in hiding after his role in a betting scandal came to light, and serving him with divorce papers so his wife Sandra can move on with her life. And from this simple idea does Gardner grow some lovely complications: Sandra’s far-from-dear brother Bleatie is in town to support his sister in her hour of need, her friend Alma Hunter is just the right mix of vixen and vulnerable to hit Donald where it hurts, and someone else appears to be looking for Morgan Birks…
The genius of the Cool and Lam books is in taking the archetypes of the hardboiled genre and inverting them: Bertha is no svelte, coquettish sylph but an overweight woman in her 60s who is coarse, unsparing, and suprisingly gentle at times. Donald — I had forgotten that his name isn’t really Donald Lam — is far from the rough-and-tumble P.I. of yore who, Continenal Op-lite, takes the hits and keeps on comin’, sharing only his height (five-and-a-half feet) with Hammett’s knight, and weighing 127 lbs (about 57 ks in real money), with the only punch he throws landing on his opponent “without [him] appearing to have noticed it”. Bertha’s tough as they come, but an old woman and so is treated respectfully; Donald’s in over his head and impressing no-one at first, but has a short fuse and a tendency to lose fights and then respond with devastating strategy. They’re a blast, having surely some of the most wildly entertaining adventures the subgenre ever saw…but this introduction is good without ever catching fire.
The plot hinges on two key events: one that the established mystery reader will see coming almost immediately, and one that — if you’re ignorant of the book’s reputation — comes out of nowhere and, while brilliant, is hard to get too involved in. What saves it, because the first half is staggeringly conventional, is Gardner’s ability to take a trope and pivot it to a far more arresting use. After throwing that punch, say, Donald takes a beating from a hoodlum who, cleaning him up afterwards, offers advice on how to improve his fighting in a “voice holding a note of impersonal boredom as though he’d been softening people until it had become a routine chore, and he felt aggrieved about being called upon to perform it after five o’clock”. When they track down the man repsonsible for the beating and he assumes they’re seeking vengeance, Bertha’s reply is magnificent:
“Nuts,” Mrs. Cool said. “We’re not wasting time over that. You beat him up — it’s good for him — toughen him up some. Beat him up again if you want to, only don’t leave him so he can’t go to work at eight-thirty in the morning. I don’t give a damn how he spends his evenings.”
The expectations of the P.I. subgenre, too, rarely play out as hoped: Donald makes a bust of trying to break into an apartment, Bertha refuses to give him a gun for the most sublime reason imaginable, and when Donald tracks one down on his own it ends up causing far more trouble than anyone could have foreseen. Yet it stops short of mere pastiche: Donald’s ability to figure stuff out coming from the fact that “when [someone]’s weak somewhere, nature makes [them] strong somewhere else”, and Bertha’s hardboiled largesse is big enough to recognise the value of him standing up for himself in the interview that opens the book (many others, it seems, flee before the burning nebula of Bertha’s scorn). And, of course, some pithily-written moments really help things along:
She stood staring at me. Her eyes were round. There was an expression in then I couldn’t exactly classify. For a moment, I thought it might be fear.
A seam of cynicism runs through things without ever feeling like posturing, too: the hardship of the time is represented in the sheer number of people responding to Bertha’s advert — Donald himself has been “pounding the pavement” looking for work with little money to his name, and Alma Hunter is moved to ask him “Tell me, what happened to you to leave you do down on the world?” — and Mrs. Cool’s perspectives on marriage are, perhaps, rather refreshing for the era, and she’s certainly under no illusions about their increasingly obstreperous client: “She doesn’t impress me as being a particularly wide-open type. She’s secretive and furtive as hell. You ask her what the weather is, and she’ll find some way of avoiding the subject very tactfully, stopping just short of telling you whether it’s raining or sunny, hot or cold”.
Sandra Birks said, “Well, if you want to know the truth, I think my attorney made a mistake in recommending you. I’m sorry that I ever came to your agency.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Cool said in the voice of a perfect lady discussing the latest novel, “it is regrettable, isn’t it, dearie?”
We end up in a brilliant place where you watch a lot of things happen with no possibility of knowing why, building up to a denouement lacking the plot construction of “such subtlety that the clues are completely concealed” we would hope for, but nevertheless hard not to admire. The legal ingenuity is such that you wonder how anyone but Gardner could be suspected of writing this, but maybe his output was already so prodigious that it was difficult to believe he’d have the time to write yet another book (that he had used the same idea in an earlier story didn’t even give the game away to Raymond Chandler if reports be believed — but, then, Chandler never was a big one for clues…). The promise is clearly here, however, and a decade spent revisiting these — and, in some cases, merely visiting them — is going to be a delight.
Mike @ Only Connect: [T]he Fair style, true to its pulp origins, is more glib than fresh. Similarly, although Gardner excels at planting ingenious clues, his plotting is complex without being tight. Like the beating that Lam receives, and from which he recovers with astounding ease, this first Lam and Cool novel comes on strong but leaves no lasting impact.
The Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series by A.A. Fair
1. The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939)
2. Gold Comes in Bricks (1940)
3. Turn on the Heat (1940)
4. Double or Quits (1941)
5. Spill the Jackpot (1941)
6. Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)
7. Owls Don’t Blink (1942)
8. Cats Prowl at Night (1943)
9. Give ’em the Ax, a.k.a. An Ax to Grind (1944)
10. Crows Can’t Count (1946)
11. Fools Die on Friday (1947)
12. Bedrooms Have Windows (1949)
13. Top of the Heap (1952)
14. Some Women Won’t Wait (1953)
15. Beware the Curves (1956)
16. Some Slips Don’t Show (1957)
17. You Can Die Laughing (1957)
18. The Count of Nine (1958)
19. Pass the Gravy (1959)
20. Kept Women Can’t Quit (1960)
21. Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)
22. Shills Can’t Cash Chips, a.k.a. Stop at the Red Light (1961)
23. Try Anything Once (1962)
24. Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
25. Up for Grabs (1964)
26. Cut Thin to Win (1965)
27. Widows Wear Weeds (1966)
28. Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967)
29. All Grass Isn’t Green (1970)
30. The Knife Slipped (2016)