I wasn’t expecting to get a review out today, but a sleepless night and the ice-cube-on-an-oil-slick-fast prose of Erle Stanley Gardner combined to make Gold Comes in Bricks (1940), the official third entry in the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series, fly past in no time at all. No, you didn’t miss anything, I haven’t yet reviewed the official second entry Turn on the Heat (1940) — I still don’t own about half of this series, having disposed of my original copies yeeeeears ago — I’ll try to fill in the gaps in my collection and reintroduce chronology from now on. Did I mention my sleepless night? Distraction was needed, and Gardner always delivers in that regard.
The plot here is a little more conventional than in the duo’s debut The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939): a chance encounter brings the B. Cool Detective Agency to the attention of the wealthy Henry C. Ashbury, as a result of which the scrawny-but-brilliant Donald finds himself posing as the man’s personal trainer in order to investigate what might be behind his daughter Alta’s $10,000 payments to gambling collective the Atlee Amusement Corporation. Things are, of course, complicated by simple expedients like Alta being nobody’s fool and blowing Donald’s cover almost immediately, and before long Donald finds himself posing as businessman Charles E. Fischler to buy up stocks in a gold prospecting firm…yeah, the wheels screech on those changes of direction sometimes, but holy hell ain’t it ever entertaining.
To the surprise of precisely no-one, there’s a legal dodge to be found at the heart of this, which enables Gardner to add C. Layton Crumweather to his rogues’ gallery of magnificent legal bastards. There’s something about Gardner’s ability to make charming these people squeezing their way through the tiniest legal loopholes that goes a long way to attenuating their ‘bad guy’ status: it’s hardly their fault if the system in which they operate sanctions such dodges, even if their moral willingness to get their hands dirty should come rather more into consideration. Crumweather is up to his neck in shady dealings, but the man is difficult to dislike:
“Very clever,” I told him.
“Thank you,” he said, flashing his teeth in a grin. “I thought it was pretty good myself.”
For all the plot mechanics, this is a pretty good character piece: the Ashbury household comprising Henry, Alta, Henry’s second wife Carlotta (“She looked me over, and I felt as though she’d rubbed her hands over me.”), Carlotta’s son Robert (“His face didn’t have any particular expression, and all I could think of when I looked at him was the ad for the contented cows.”), and hanger-on-cum-business-associate Bernard Carter (“The fat on his cheeks would push up under his eyes so that you could only see narrow slits when he was laughing, but if you watched those slits closely, you saw that the eyes behind them hadn’t changed expression a bit.”) is well-drawn and clearly under the matriarch’s thumb. Carlotta Ashbury’s frequent, stage-managed brushes with ill health and heightened blood pressure since her marriage to Ashbury, all enabled by quack-to-the-rich Dr. Parkerdale, make her more of a manipulative presence than Crumweather and a far more hissable presence. She’s fascinating in so many ways, and wonderfully underplayed by Gardner’s trenchant prose.
Every time Mrs. Ashbury had a dizzy spell from eating too much, Dr. Parkerdale became as gravely concerned as though it were the first symptom of a world-wide epidemic of infantile paralysis.
We also get more of a sense of what makes the Cool and Lam partnership work (“You have something I’ll never have, Donald. You’re resilient. Put pressure on you, and you bend. Then as soon as the pressure is removed, you spring back. I’m different. Put pressure on me, and I put pressure back. If anything happens, and I can’t put any pressure back sometime, I won’t bend, I’ll simply break.”), as well as how hyper-efficient secretary Elsie Brand gets through the day (“I have one system with Bertha. I do all the work she hands me. When I’ve finished, I leave the office. I don’t try to be friendly with her. I don’t want her to be friendly with me. I’m just as much a part of this typewriter as the keyboard. I’m a machine — and I try to be a good one.”). It’s little touches like this that, while perhaps a little on the nose, show the bonds that will drag these people through so many cases without ever doubting that they have each others’ backs.
And it’s little character touches that round out the various necessities for the plot: Alta’s explanation of the holiday romance she entered into is really a little heartbreaking, Donald’s insight on the workings of people and their lives that engenders so much loyalty from even the most casual acquaintance (Bertha’s attempts to understand this is characteristically wide of the mark, further enforcing the co-dependency of their relationship, especially when her hard-headedness saves Donald’s bacon) will squeeze him out of more than one jam. The treatise on rivers depositing gold from old-man-of-the-woods Pete is as brilliant as it is simple, and but for Donald’s easy way with the suspicious hermit would have remained unknown; and the way the whip-fast brain of Donald is able to turn it to his own advantage is rather superb.
The only really duff note is that Gardner’s plotting isn’t quite up to the careful construction of his Doug Selby books, nor the best of the Perry Masons, and so the denouement when it comes is sudden, overly-talky, twisty as all hell, and a frank left-field surprise that Donald only sees because Gardner has decided that that’s how everything ties up: in short, a real curate’s egg. The capricious nature of Gardner’s writing hardly makes this clunkiness a complete surprise, but the sudden omniscience of our everyman narrator is a jarring change of a blatancy that makes you think “Hmmm, he probably dictated this over a weekend” where before the developments felt smooth, organic, and surprising in a more considered way. For all Gardner’s famous prolificacy, you’d never accuse him of writing anything really cheap — how many others, having grown up through the pulps, would throw out words like “avoirdupois”? — but for the joins to show so glaringly after such a seamless and sublime adventure is a little bit of a shame.
Still, for a sleepless night this was precisely what I needed: fast, clever, unpredictable, easy on the eye, and a few hours spent with people you close the book itching to visit again. Sometimes, that is enough.
The Cool & Lam series by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair:
1. The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939)
2. Turn on the Heat (1940)
3. Gold Comes in Bricks (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)