#1011: Double or Quits (1941) by A.A. Fair

Double or Quits

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Where the novel of detection delights in tropes so as to better lull you in and then sock you with an unexpected development, I’m starting to suspect that the private eye novel likes tropes so that you’re as comfortable as possible throughout without ever having to pay too close attention. You sign up for wealthy families, suspicious deaths, shady hangers-on, and plenty of business malfeasance, all the better to then unfurl a complex final chapter explanation which probably works as well as anything else, but, hey, at least it was entertaining while it lasted. And the world absolutely has a place for that kind of book, just don’t expect me to get too excited when I encounter one of them.

I have not read Double or Quits (1941), the fifth book published under Erle Stanley Gardner’s A.A. Fair nom de plume featuring pint-sized P.I. Donald Lam and his bold as brass boss Bertha Cool, before, yet it was an eerily familiar read on account of how many of the very enjoyable tropes it ticks off. Hired by Dr. Hilton Devarest after a chance encounter to investigate who stole his wife’s precious gems from the safe in his study, it’s only a chapter or two before death intervenes and the various shady types in the Devarest menage start to assert themselves. The first third is really more a series of vignettes than a plot per se, introducing each person and their relationship in turn, albeit strung together by Donald’s mental acuity as he swiftly deduces what’s at the heart of the burglary and begins to dig deeper.

What just about elevates this about the standard fare in the genre of this time is that Gardner was a pro, and can plot slickly and write propulsively so that there’s always plenty going on and plenty of entertainment to be hewn from these standard introductions and events. His legal brain, for instance, renders the difference between accidental death and death by accidental means clearly and compellingly, and while that sits at the heart of the novel’s plot, giving us the title on account of the insurance company’s policy where payouts are concerned, he spins several other tales around it neatly, always compelling the eye elsewhere like an expert conjuror so that you’re not drawn to notice how thin everything is. When Corbin Harmley turns up with a debt of $250 to pay, for instance, Donald is quick to see the potential for ulterior motives…this gold spun out of nothing more than eye-catching straw and then left to linger for some time before he eventually gets round to remembering that thread. It’s fun, and never stands still, but also never really reads like a novel so much as a series of overlapping ideas.

Gardner’s characters here might rarely be more than haircuts, facial features, and attitude — all the better to trope you with, my dear — but he at least has an interested slant on their situations, hardly surprising for perhaps the best Situation Man in the business. When a professional yegg is uncovered in our midst, his take on the hardships of the profession is certainly novel…

“[W]hat does it get you? In the first place, you’re just working for a bunch of fences. You can’t move the swag without having a hook-up with some fence. You get ten thousand dollars’ worth of ice; the victim squawks it’s a fifty-thousand-dollar job; the fence pays you about a grand for the whole works. You work your head off to make eight or ten grand a year for yourself, and get as hot as a baked potato doing it. Even then the government can pull a Capone on you, and send you to the big rock for failing to pay your income taxes.”

…and Donald’s role as an interested personal friend of Nadine Croy, engaged in a bitter post-divorce custody battle with her ex-husband Walter concerning their 3 year-old daughter Selma, ends up serving about three purposes once everything comes out in the wash. But when the most interesting thing about the whole book is the revelation that you used to be able to buy tinned bread (“…All you need to do is put it in boiling water for about twenty minutes. It melts in your mouth.”), something has gone a little awry in your P.I. mystery.

Okay, that’s no strictly fair, there’s also the large as life and twice as profane Bertha (“You little bastard, I could slap your teeth down your throat. Shut up!”) who’s unfortunately backgrounded rather more this time after a busy spell in previous book Spill the Jackpot (1941), now trimmer following an illness and obsessed with…deep sea fishing? Look, Gardner’s rarely predictable, I’ll give him that, but I’m much more interested in Bertha when she celebrates in her refusal to kowtow to the expectations of conformity, and it feels like a few scenes here have Bertha inserted — the garage door test, for one — simply because Gardner recognises how popular she is. I don’t think Mrs. Cool ever became like Hercule Poirot, injected into things just because the public wanted to see her more, but a lot of her presence here, the dinner at Elsie Brand’s excepted, feels a little rote.

Still, one trope gets overturned, in that Donald actually wins a fight against someone — with thanks to Spill the Jackpot’s Louie Hazen, god I love Louie Hazen — but then he just sort of accidentalies himself into the solution and has to explain a lot of contortions from a hospital bed…and I fail to buy how he assures us some of it links up. These Fair books are something of a tightrope act up until the finale — the best of them pull off some sort of twisting, spinning dismount of breathtaking complexity, while others simply tell you how spectacular the dismount would have been if you’d been there to see half of it. Gardner’s always fun, but his greatness stumbles a little when you see how many of his conclusions clearly came from later night coffee-fuelled machinations rather than elegant plot design (and, as a general rule, once you reach a certain character density in his plots, you know you’re in for the former over the latter). Still, this was one of probably ten books he published in 1941, so maybe he deserves some slack.

Cool and Lam, then, remain an entertaining diversion from the horrors of modern life — fast, intelligent, profane, occasionally delightful, and always ready, willing, and able to slip out of whatever half-Nelson plot contrivance Gardner wrote himself into. As exercises in the novelist’s art they’re pretty tough to beat — it’s just a shame the quality of the finished product is often at odds with the degree of authorly skill it took to get to the finish line.

~

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. Spill the Jackpot (1941)
5. Double or Quits (1941)
6. Owls Don’t Blink (1942)
7. Bats Fly at Dusk (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. You Can Die Laughing (1957)
17. Some Slips Don’t Show (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)

3 thoughts on “#1011: Double or Quits (1941) by A.A. Fair

  1. I’m not sure how much this applies here, but I do hate it when a mystery has some great tension going into the final chapters, only for the author to fast forward and provide the solution as part of a retrospective. A retrospective isn’t always a bad approach (Death Watch and Hag’s Nook are some examples of it done well), but when the story is building up to an unimaginable crescendo, I can’t stand having the rug pulled and being left with “oh, the police chased him down and you should have seen the look on his face when he was cuffed.” My memory may be faulty, but I believe He Wouldn’t Kill Patience is an example of this, with that high tension scene in the reptile house suddenly jumping to events being recapped weeks later.

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    • Equally — and it doesn’t apply here — I hate it when the final chapters are just a chase to catch the bad guy, whose identity is established and scheme cleared up with forty pages left so that we can have a thrilling car chase or fistfight or…whatever. It’s doubtless an overspill to — or maybe from — movies, where there’s some Big Concluding Battle, but what looks thrilling on the screen and what reads as thrilling on the page has a very small overlap.

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      • Heh, yeah, there’d better not be more than a four page epilogue after the solution is polished off. Even those tend to be flimsy throw aways. The Case of the Crumpled Knave has the best one that I can think of, but that’s because there’s a bit of an unexpected reveal delivered in a subtle way. Damnit, I’m going to go read that last page one more time because it’s that good.

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