#937: “This Bertha Cool is a card all right.” – The Knife Slipped (1939/2016) by A.A. Fair

And so for a look at what might have been.

For the uninitiated, a quick history: In 1939 Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, bet Thayer Hobson, president of William Morrow, who published the Perry Mason novels, that he, Gardner, could submit a book to the publisher under a pseudonym without being detected…and get it published on merit alone. Whether this was sheer authorly vanity, a way to get around flooding the market with too many books by the same author — John Dickson Carr (as Carter Dickson), John Rhode (as Miles Burton), and Donald Westlake (as, among others, Richard Stark) are just a toe in the ocean of authors who have utilised the same approach — or a legitimate desire to give new characters a chance to flourish without the oppression of comparison to the rightly popular Mason, history does not record. Whatever the motivation, Gardner submitted The Bigger They Come, a.k.a. Lam to the Slaughter (1939) and it was picked up by William Morrow (if I remember correctly, Hobson claimed to have seen through the guise pretty quickly — the legal shenanigans at its heart something of a giveaway, not least because Gardner had used the same trick before in another story).

Thus, Bertha Cool and Donald Lam were born and, under the name A.A. Fair, Gardner set about writing more books featuring the characters. He submitted The Knife Slipped to be the second entry in the series…only for William Morrow to baulk at publishing it, and for Gardner to write Turn on the Heat (1940) in its stead, which was published as Cool and Lam #2. The Knife Slipped went back into the drawer, and no more was ever said about it until Jeff Marks, in researching a biography of Gardner that I’m really quite desperate to read, found references to it, and its reason for being rejected, along with the complete manuscript, among Gardner’s papers — you can read more about that from Jeff here — and the book was published in 2016. What we have here, then, is the starting point of a truncated multiverse, since the events in this novel are never referred to in the other 28 Cool and Lam books to follow it, and to all intents and purposes never actually happened in that canon.

But is it any good? And did it warrant being rejected in the first place?

“People want to know.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sticks fairly closely to what would become the Cool and Lam M.O. — a simple case that turns out to have more about it than either of the main characters had suspected, with some great plot revelations and an attractive young woman who can’t help but fall for Donald along the way. When the youthful Mrs. Cunner arrives at the offices of the B. Cool Detective Agency with her mother Mrs. Atterby, it is to discuss the prospect of divorce from Eben Cunner, who his wife has reason to believe is being unfaithful. In short order, Donald tracks down Eben Cunner, discovers the young blonde woman who is keeping him company…and then apparently stumbles into something a lot more complex than a simple divorce that will result in a frame for murder neatly constructed around Donald’s frequently knocked-unconscious person.

At this early stage, the relationship between Bertha and Donald is still fairly nascent, with it being far from certain whether she’ll have any need for his services (“So far, I’d never had a full month’s work…”) while keeping him on an insufferably tight leash expenses-wise. They’re still trying to work out how much they can trust each other, and Donald’s occasional lapses in judgement when it comes to the handling of the case will cause Bertha plenty of headaches throughout. The same ideas would crop up in Turn on the Heat — Donald deliberately tries to keep Bertha in the dark there to protect here, where here it’s in part done to confound her — and the leap from this book to that isn’t so great that the relationship between the characters could be taken as cause for this book failing to see the light of day.

No, the key change is mainly in the characters as individuals, rather than in how they relate.

Donald is merely a slightly less focussed version of the man you might know from the canon: useless in a fight (Gardner seems to delight in thinking up new ways to describe his narrator’s lack of physical prowess, with “He isn’t any bigger than a second hand on a lady’s wristwatch” perhaps being my favourite), morally flexible enough to know when to bend the rules, and with a savage streak in his character that will see him find some way to take vengeance on those who wrong him. He seems to fall especially hard, and how, for Ruth Marr herein, to the point that he’s willing to push aside his doubt about the story she tells on discovery of the murder and help her despite being pretty sure that she’s more tied up in it than she appears, and part of me wonders if the decision to have Donald knocked for a loop quite so quickly was one Gardner was pleased to be able to reverse: in the canon, it’s usually his respectful nature which wins the hearts of the women he encounters rather than him being the one to plummet into every pair of pretty eyes he encounters.

“I have nice eyes. Everyone says so.”

The real difference is Bertha, however. In the canon, her profanity and bluntness is invested with an air of cynicism as if she’s playing a character even she doesn’t quite believe is real, whereas here she goes into every encounter leading with her chin, and her blasphemy, crude language, and staggeringly unapologetic nature drive all before her:

Bertha Cool said, “Let’s quit beating around the bush. What’s her husband doing, cheating around, going to whorehouses, or keeping a mistress?”

Edith Cunner raised startled, tear-reddened eyes to stare at Mrs. Cool.

Mrs Atterby said reproachfully, in a low voice, “I always use the word ‘houses of prostitution’ in talking to Edith, Mrs. Cool.”

“I don’t. I call ’em whorehouses,” Bertha said acidly. “It’s easier to say. It’s more expressive, and it leaves no room for doubt.”

And, later in that same meeting:

“You guarantee results?” [Mrs. Atterby] asked.

“Hell, no” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do — get him seduced?”

Bertha’s truculent, aggressive nature with clients is part of the fun of these books, but she seems on especially venal form here, being as hardboiled with these distressed women as she is with the tough-talking and -acting policemen who want to detain Donald when he finds himself at a murder scene. “Sons of bitches” and “bastards” lay strewn across her path, and it’s possible that this hard-edged approach might have been a little too much for William Morrow to want to take on in the fairly demure 1930s. But there’s the argument that this could have been toned down in rewrites — I doubt Gardner was a big rewrite man, but notes for the secretaries who typed up his manuscripts could have no doubt been supplied — and doesn’t in itself seem enough to distinguish from the books the publisher was happy to accept in later years.

No, I think the reason for this novel’s rejection goes slightly deeper than that, and can’t be put down to simple matters like Donald taking a bath in the rooms of Ruth Marr when they’re fleeing that murder charge, nor any of the associated moral lip-pursing that such events might have given rise to (“She was as conscious of her sex as a kid is of a new bicycle on Christmas morning.”). I think that, if anything, this seems at times to veer into a cynical frame of mind that plumbs depths which even champions of the Noir fiction America was producing at the time might be surprised at, and that, taken in consort, these touches probably sank the whole artifice. I’ll attempt to discuss this as generally as possible, but inevitably some references to plot events might get a bit too close to spoilers for the hyper-aware among you and so feel free to skip the following set of paragraphs if you don’t want anything about this even vaguely hinted at before you read it.

“Starting…now.”

The most obvious example, and the one I’m most relieved to see excised from the character of Bertha Cool, is the attempts she makes to feather her own nest — giving rise to the title — when the full scope of the plot they stumbled upon becomes clear to her. The idea of Bertha “cutting herself a slice of cake” via immoral means runs contrary to how the character would go on to develop in the canon, and putting such a nakedly avaricious nature at the core of the book would inevitably have limited the life span of the series…unless, of course, she went through some sort of moral rearrangement, but then you’d have to deal with several books in which she is little more than repugnant and grasping. Bertha is many things, not all of them necessarily pleasant-sounding, but a leech and an opportunist of this nature is not among them.

Secondly, comments made by Donald make it clear that this book was written near the outbreak of World War 2, which was still very much a European preoccupation in American eyes at this time:

Half of [the newspaper] was devoted to statements by politicians that the citizens would never have to fight another war on European soil, and listing new legislation that was planned to keep America isolated from European troubles. The other half was devoted to the speeches of high officials calling European rulers liars, crooks, thieves, and gangsters.

It’s only a momentary flash, but the sense that trouble is brewing elsewhere, and the trouble might yet spread beyond its current confines, is undeniably raised here. As such, there are several excoriatingly-written passages in this novel which feel almost custom-tooled to undermine public confidence in Ordered Society and its leaders, not least the blow-your-hair-back brilliance of the closing stages of chapter XII in which Bertha holds forth on the corrupting power of political influence. Written 83 years ago, it feels alarmingly current still, and goes to show just how little things have really changed in circle of power despite the hope of any sane society that we elect leaders to make our lives better. No, I’m not ‘getting politicial’, but read it and tell me I’m wrong.

Equally, when Donald and Ruth attend the Yucca Club in search of Eben Cunner, Gardner skewers the nightlife therein with a piquancy that stung even my jaundiced eyes, effortlessly capturing the sense of scepticism, mistrust, disinterest, and self-delusion festering below the surface:

Here and there, a couple who were evidently married to each other and were trying to recpature some of the lost spirirt of courtship were getting more and more bored with each drink — and each other.

Later on, when Bertha takes Donald to task over this feelings for Ruth (“Christ…it’s just a biological urge…”) it’s clear that no vestige of romance is to survive unaddressed and without being found throughly wanting — Bertha having apparently had two husbands and so under no illusions where the heart is concerned. I wouldn’t say this is a negative book per se, but there’s a definite air of punctured ambition and hope about it, and you wonder if William Morrow, with one eye on the international situation and the ecomonic difficulties that the US was still cowed beneath, had in mind, like, a slightly peppier, more uplifting tone. It would be no simple job to erase these passages and replace them with wisecracks, and was perhaps quicker for Gardner to just narrate another book over a weekend in order to fulfil his contract…which is my guess as to why this never saw the light of day at the time.

“You can start reading again.”

It also explains why Gardner didn’t simply rework this for the third, fourth, fifith, or other books in the series — he chose to veer these characters away from the tonal elements that dominate herein — and is perhaps the only justification that explains why this book went unpublished for so long…because it’s actually rather superb. The plot leaps along, with Gardner’s assured hand guiding you through developments that lesser authors would struggle to make half as clear in twice the word count, and the various aspects dovetail brilliantly, showcase his stacking of events ingeniously, and leaves open a moral quandary for you to wrestle with before suckering you with a superb surprise ending that shows Donald near his best and his partnership with Bertha entering the same sort of phase that would be achieved in the book which replaced it.

Honestly, this might even contain some of the best passages of writing Gardner ever dictated: Bertha explaining about the morals of divorce work or the quagmire of political investigations, the enlightened approach taken to women’s rights and the sexual mores of succeeding generations…as well as a compact, fast plot there’s much here to commend, and much that makes it increasingly unlikely that Gardner simply forgot he had this waiting in a drawer. You don’t write books like this and forget about them, no matter how many secretaries you have to employ to keep up with your output.

We are positively blessed at present with the amount of undiscovered material from Golden Age authors coming to light, not least because so much of it is of such a high quality. Adding an additional text to the corpus of two such beloved characters, then, was something of a risky gambit, but it’s wonderful to report that this stump of a parallel universe is engaging, thrilling, complex, funny, and fundamentally far too interesting to have been left untouched for so long. To be honest, the only thing I don’t like is the cover — it has nothing to do with what happens in the book, and they seem to really want you to know it’s a painting of Dita von Teese (I had to look her up…) as if that’s notable in some way. The contents, however, come very highly recommended indeed.

~

See also

Noah @ Noah’s Archives: There is a certain crude energy about it that is exhilarating; the writing is great, the plotting is excellent, and for me the characterization was fascinating. The loose ends of the plot are tied off in a very satisfying way in the final moments of the book…[T]his is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work.

~

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)

4 thoughts on “#937: “This Bertha Cool is a card all right.” – The Knife Slipped (1939/2016) by A.A. Fair

  1. Trivia: Did you know that a pilot was made in 1958 for a Cool and Lam TV series? I’m glad it didn’t go ahead. They would have needed to sanitise the characters the way they sanitised Perry Mason. Erle Stanley Gardner was way too grown-up for American TV in the 50s.

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    • I wonder if it would find any traction if made today; I feel Donald and Bertha might seem a little too unconventional for the mores of a modern audience.

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