Twenty-one years ago, Mrs. Amelia Lintig started divorce proceedings against her husband, naming the practice nurse at his surgery as co-respondent. Before the matter could be resolved in court, Dr. Lintig and his nurse and Mrs. Lintig all took a powder and left the sleepy township of Oakview behind them, apparently for good. And now, someone wants to hire the B.L. Cool Detective Agency to track down Mrs. Lintig for reasons of their own…a mission complicated by the discovery that quite a few people have been looking for Mrs. Lintig in recent months. And then some of those people start dying.
Yes, we’re back to the works of Erle Stanley Gardner under his A.A. Fair nom de plume, 30 novels featuring the duo of stocky, magnificently profane 50-something Bertha Cool and her sole permanent investigator, the hot-headed, brilliant in tactics but useless at fisticuffs “runt” Donald Lam. I’ve filled in most of the gaps in my collection, thanks in no small part to the efforts of blogging friends, and will hopefully acquire the six or seven I still need as I tackle these books (broadly…) chronologically. And the headline news is that second book Turn on the Heat (1940) is an altogether more satisfying experience than the first, The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939), if only because it’s less geared towards a single legal loophole and more intent on giving you a swift and surprising time.
In short order, Donald (via Bertha) is hired by Mr. Smith, travels to Oakview, makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Marian Dunton who works the newspaper office with her elderly uncle — there’s nearly always a beautiful young woman who’s drawn to the irrepressible Donald — then gets bested in an entertainingly brief fight (“Something like a pile driver caught me on the back of the neck, and the next I remembered I was lying fiat on my back in the dark trying to figure where I was.”) and is run out of town. In chapter two (and for once I’m not kidding about that) he then sets about trying to put these events into some sort of pattern, not least because when they track down Dr. Lintig and confront him with the revelation that at least one person who sought information in Oakview claims to have been working for him, the man claims to have no knowledge of any such endeavour. The plot thickens…
Quite apart from a devastatingly easy read that glides along on beautifully streamlined prose — I tried to read this in more than a couple of hours to see if it could be done, and only remembered that intention when I’d finished — this is also as much an example of the wiseacre private eye of lore as it is an examination. Donald’s lack of physical prowess in combat will recur again and again, and for some reason it never gets old…
“Good Lord, what happened to your eye?”
I said, “I stubbed my toe.”
…but he’s also possessed of a clear ethical streak, where he’s happy to do anything that will endanger himself professionally so long as he’s able to keep Bertha free and clear…which, given Bertha’s truculent, untrusting nature, isn’t always possible. The way these two have no reason to trust each other and yet come to so quickly is one of my favourite features of this series — they share little common ground even in matters of principle, yet remain unhesitatingly committed to ensuring the safety of the other in a really quite staggeringly symbiotic relationship.
There’s an undoubted pleasure in seeing Donald think his way out of situations that other — I didn’t say “lesser” — authors would simply have their hero solve with fists and/or guns, but it’s also pleasing to see him caught out by how just little a rube the countrified Marian turns out to be, and how much he leans into her being able to pretend to be a rube in order to secure the success of his own plans. Indeed, Donald is surrounded by very competent women here: Bertha herself, happy to engage in the rough stuff her ace man can’t handle, Marian, seething with the thankless existence she must endure in the post-war slump Oakview is suffering through…
Her eyes sparkled with the intensity of her hatred. “If I could only find some way to shake the dust of this dead town off my feet,” she said, “I’d be on my way so quick it would surprise you.” She pointed her finger towards a little closet, and said, “My hat and coat are in there. Show me a way to make a living in the city, and I won’t even stop to put on my hat and coat.”
…a switchboard operator who impresses Bertha so much she suggests Donald marry her on the spot “before someone else beats you to it”, even the highly capable Mrs. Lintig herself, who appears after a 21-year absence and then vanishes a day later just as dead bodies start appearing…everywhere Donald Lam turns, there’s a woman who got there first. Sure, he’s the one to put it together come the end, and his delivery of justice is something to behold, but it’s interesting just how much character Gardner crams in to a plot that rarely sits still and remains perfectly lucid and surprising throughout.
If I can fault it on anything, it’s that the culprit for the murders does rather come out of nowhere, so that we’re not really given a chance to see for ourselves how they became a murderer, and the main physical threat to Donald throughout is allowed to get their comeuppance off-page and in a rather roundabout fashion. Maybe it’s the traditionalist in me, but I did sort of want Donald there to look him in the eye when he was beaten…but that, I suppose, is for books where such events matter — Gardner’s more interested here in the existence of justice than its strict observation (he perhaps got enough of that in Perry Mason’s courtroom scenes) and so we must satisfy ourselves with off-page score settling and like it. Interesting, too, that in its 1939 setting “the war” is still the one that ended in 1919, with the other, more pressing conflict being reduced once more to “the European situation” — not a criticism, just interesting to have this window on how these events would have been viewed at the time.
This, then, is an early high mark in the series, and one that thoroughly justifies its reprinting by Hard Case Crime a few years back. Fascinating that something which wallows so fully in the tropes of the private eye novel — politics, strip clubs, the intersection of the two, corrupt cops, etc., etc. — can feel so fresh and energetic even 80 years later. It won’t convince those of you who aren’t sold on Gardner to love the man, but it is a superb example of why the guy was so damn good at what he did. I have 27 books remaining in the series, some of which I’ve never read, and I honestly can’t wait to press on.
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)