If I remember correctly — and, let’s face it, I probably don’t, since I read them years ago and all out of order — Owls Don’t Blink (1942), the sixth title to feature Erle Stanley Gardner’s irrepressible P.I. duo of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, starts something of a hot streak for the series. Hired by New York lawyer Emory Hale on behalf of an unknown client to find an ex-model who was last heard of in New Orleans some three years ago, you know Gardner has something special up his sleeve when the resourceful Donald is able to produce the woman within twenty pages. From here, it’s a criss-cross of obscured motives and identities, and enough skulduggery for Yorrick’s remains.
Not only is Gardner’s sly prose tilted to maximum effect…
“Roberta Fenn was twenty-three when she disappeared. She was an agency model in New York. She posed for some of the ads, the petty stuff. She never got the best-advertised products. Her legs were marvelous. She did a lot of stocking work — some bathing-suit and underwear stuff. It seems incredible a young woman who had been photographed so much could disappear.”
Bertha said, “People don’t look at the faces of the underwear models.”
…it’s also rammed full of brilliantly tight descriptions…
The waiter brought our drinks. Hale paid for them. He picked his glass up, an expression of austere disapproval held in escrow on his face, ready to be delivered as soon as the first sip of liquid passed over his tongue.
…as well as a few more careful moments when Gardner seems to want you remind you that he knows how to write, dammit:
Great snow-capped mountains appeared ahead, guarding the edge of the desert like gray-haired sentinels. The plane jumped and twisted like something alive in the narrow confines of a pass between two big mountains, and then, so abruptly that it seemed there was no appreciable period of transition, the desert fell behind, and we were skimming over a citrus country in which orange and lemon groves, laid out in checkerboard squares, marched by in an endless procession.
Once Roberta Fenn is found, however — and look at the clever conceits employed there, like the different methods Donald utilises to show photos of the missing woman around without raising peoples’ suspicions and so reluctance to talk — the unfolding speed of the reversals, and the clever way new information is allowed to pile up and achieve a meaning of its own without spelling it out for the reader, more than matches the manner of its delivery. And Gardner deserves huge credit for the easy way that so much of his writing treats his reader as an intelligent person who has been paying attention, rather than stopping to explain each new development in tedious detail as you can’t help but fear would happen if anyone tried to write this a few decades later. This is slick, lithe, sinuous stuff, with each new person having their own reasons for muscling in on events, and Donald Lam’s quick-witted interpretation finding all manner of ways to both welcome them in and keep their instantly-suspicious involvement at arms’ length.
The complexity of people and events is aided by the fact that not only do the minor characters breathe (“Dat’s right.”), the various levels Gardner works into his plot all pay off in the final instance, too, with a good surprise villain and a very clever piece of separate late reasoning that ties in all the events. These novels don’t quite play fair, since you’re always aware of what Donald knows but the interpretations which go with that knowledge are well beyond the ken of any mere human intelligence, and waiting for the next development to be dropped on you is at least half the fun. Indeed, the chapter about two-thirds of the way through where he lays out three possible interpretations for the events to that stage might be the most ingeniously twisty thing Gardner ever put on paper…and that, as you may be aware, is saying something. The plot is thin, sure, but that disarming simplicity lends itself to a clever multiple reframings which surprise in all the best ways.
This also feels like a record of a certain period in history, too, with Bertha reflecting on “the way that young boys are dying, just because us older folks haven’t carried out our share of the responsibility” — notice how this comes into play later in the novel, necessitating a change in the series that Gardner managed very well indeed…assuming my faulty memory can be trusted — and the acknowledgement that on this side of the Atlantic, too, the newspapers were going in for gaudy sensation pieces at the expense of meaningful news stories. And all this weaves neatly and cleanly around the tropes we’ve come to rely on by this point: Donald’s magnetic attractiveness to women, Bertha’s embodiment of both the sacred and the profane — enough to keep things familiar without tipping into parody because of all the notes which have to be struck, expertly balancing the familiar and the surprising.
I’m rarely one to talk about the editions of the books I read, because the contents should be enough to compel on their own, but if you can read this in the Dell imprint pictured above, the experience is, I’m sure, improved by about 30%. Damn, Dell really knew what they were doing when they produced these books: they’re immensely satisfying from a tactile perspective, the print is clean and easy to read, there’s none of that overcrowded text you get when a publisher has tried to bash something out cheaply, and it just feels like a lovely book in every single way you could interpret that emotion. You should have a great time in whatever format you encounter it, but this really is just a gorgeous edition, no wonder they’re so highly sought by collectors. Snap it up if you get the chance.
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 Axe 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)
10 thoughts on “#1055: Owls Don’t Blink (1942) by A.A. Fair”
Well, this certainly bumps this to the top of my TBR pile! For such a workhouse, Gardner does have a genius for finding new directions in his repeated journeys, and this sounds like a great example. I’m especially intrigued by “the disarming simplicity” leading to “clever multiple reframings which surprise in all the best ways,” since this seems a very wining and modern combination.
Yeah, definitely buying this on that portion of the description alone.
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“New direction in his repeated journeys” is a lovely way to express it — the man was clearly a factory in human form, and how he kept his various plots distinct I’ll never know.
And the great thing about most of his work is that you dont have to read it in order, so you’re (mostly) free to cherry-pick the best titles and avoid the rest. And even when things matter — like the ending of this, which has implications in at least the next two books — it’s not like you can’t figure it out from context should you need to.
I wonder if that’s because he writes, essentially, very simple stories and just finds the most wonderful ways of complicating them over and over again…so that you get to the end having been put through the wringer only to go “Oh, so that’s all it was”. Complication for complication’s sake can work sometimes, it seems 🙂
I love that you called out the enjoyment of the edition. It’s the combination of the artwork, that tactile experience, and the print. I seek out these older Dell/Avon/Pockets/Popular Library editions because they tend to be the same price as more boring editions, and then you get that sense of a book to amplify the story.
Ooh, there’s a map back…
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Yes, and it looks lovely if a tad expensive! This is one I don’t have, and it sounds wonderful. Most of my Fair copies are unexceptional, but I do have a Mapback of Cats Prowl at Night!
Yeah, $25-30 is way too steep. I’ll just wait a year or two to find a cheap copy.
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I was reading about three other books simultaneously with this one, and it was always a joy to just pick this up — not even to read it, but just to hold it in the hand. Ebooks are great, but they’ll never replicate these simple joys.
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