The Knife Slipped, by Erle Stanley Gardner (2016/1939)

cover_bigMy regular readers may already be familiar with the fascinating story behind this novel. It was found among the papers of the late Erle Stanley Gardner and the story of how it now comes to be in print is probably an entire essay by itself — in fact you can read about it here in the blog of my friend Jeffrey Marks, who’s currently writing a much-anticipated biography of Gardner. Jeff cleverly put two and two together and identified the manuscript as having been rejected by Gardner’s publisher at Morrow as the second novel in the Cool & Lam series. Thayer Hobson, according to Jeff, thought there wasn’t enough character development for both Cool and Lam, and also that the novel was “too risqué for the audiences”. (See below for the details.)

So the novel was written in 1939. That’s my best guess, because the volumes before and after are cited in Wikipedia as having been published in January 1939 and January 1940, respectively. After Jeff Marks brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime, it was published for the very first time a few days ago (December, 2016). Hence the unusual date after the title above.Truthfully, its first edition is December, 2016. But it is quintessentially of 1939.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here for fans of Cool & Lam, but I suspect if you read this novel you may well become a Cool & Lam fan even if you weren’t before.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

Donald Lam is a skinny little runt who is smart as a whip and down on his luck. He’s staying employed at the shabby little detective firm of Cool & Lam at the whim of Bertha Cool, an extra-large matron with chubby fingers that glitter with diamonds; she has a mind like an adding machine and a mouth like an open sewer. Sorry. There’s just something about Gardner’s writing in this book that makes me use language like that; I think that’s more metaphors in one paragraph than I usually use in a longer piece. But all the language in this book is short and punchy and terse and vulgar, and it’s left me wanting to get a lot of pulp-fiction metaphors out of my system.

bigger-they-come1

An early representation of Bertha Cool in Pocket #228

Anyway, Bertha is keeping Donald on a short leash. In their first meeting, 1939’s debut novel, The Bigger They Come, he more than proved his worth but took Bertha out of her comfort zone. Donald demonstrated, in that novel, that his disbarment had deprived the bar of an excellent lawyer, when he manipulated a little-known loophole in the law to allow someone to literally get away with murder. Bertha knew that Donald’s talents could make her money; she just had to find a way for their clashing personalities to get along.

Bertha is keeping Donald short of money, but he’s not starving, merely hungry. That makes him grateful to accept assignments like the one that arises after mother-and-daughter clients Mrs. Atterby and Mrs. Cunner hire Bertha to find out the identity of the buxom blonde that Edith Cunner’s husband is keeping in an apartment. However, that’s just the start. After Donald tracks down Mr. Cunner and the blonde, and makes friends with the building’s pretty switchboard operator, Ruth Marr, he finds out that Cunner has yet another apartment under another name. Ruth has a crush on Cunner, and Cunner spends an evening with a steady stream of police officers and firemen who drive up to his place in official cars, stay a few minutes, and leave.

The plot is fascinating, so I won’t reveal much more. There is, of course, a murder; the police are looking for Donald and Ruth Marr, whom it seems have been framed. It seems as though Cunner is connected to a city-wide corruption scheme, and there are already political reformers on the case. Bertha smells money and decides to … well, I’ll let her tell it to Donald.

“Bertha said, … ‘He called the police and told them I was trying to blackmail him.’
‘Were you?’
‘Not exactly. Bertha was trying to cut herself a piece of cake, and –‘
‘And what?’ I asked.
‘And the knife slipped,’ she said.
‘But I suppose it’s my finger that’ll be cut,’ I said.
‘For Christ’s sake, Donald, don’t be such a pansy! In this game you’ll be getting in jams all the time. Get the hell out of here and lie low until I can find out what it’s all about. Bertha won’t be idle, lover. Right now I’ve got something by the tail, and I don’t know whether it’s a bear, a lion, or just a bunch of bull.'”

Delightfully put, and it turns out not to be bull. There’s actually a twin plot structure to this; Bertha is pursuing the money off-stage, and Donald (and Ruth) are running around for our amusement, trying to stay out of the hands of the police while finding out more about what’s going on and pursuing the identity of the murderer. Finally Donald comes to a crucial realization about the clothing choices of a mysterious visitor to the soon-to-be corpse and identifies the murderer; Bertha swoops in and finds a way to extract the maximum amount of money from the situation.

In the final chapter, Bertha informs Donald that he has to leave town for a while, essentially so that the solution to all the crimes can come out the way she wants it, without the inconvenience of Donald’s testimony. “Remember, lover, what Bertha Cool said. She wouldn’t cut herself a piece of cake without seeing that you had a slice.” So she makes arrangements for Donald to “follow a witness” to Honolulu on a cruise ship so that he can take life easy … and reveals that she knows more about the situation than Donald has suspected when Bertha makes the trip even more attractive; the witness is a beautiful young woman with a crush on Donald (who describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”). “… Bertha Cool deftly speared a French pastry and transferred it from the platter to her plate. Her eyes were twinkling with humor. ‘Now try to say “no,” you little bastard,’ she said.”

Why is this book worth your time?

gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

It’s probably pretty clear that I’m a big Cool & Lam fan; I used to say I’d read all 29 of them, but now I’m happy to say that I’ve read all 30 (and I dearly wish there was another box full of manuscripts in an archive somewhere). I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that, to me, the Cool & Lam novels represent ESG’s attempt to have more fun with his writing. Perry Mason is always an officer of the court, but Donald Lam actually spends the night with women, and Bertha Cool slaps women around about once a book and swears like a trooper. The Cool & Lam novels are just as fast-moving as Perry Mason’s adventures, and there’s a fairly high amount of detection involved in the stories; just that they’re a little sexier and a little more vulgar.

 

This particular volume is fascinating, at least to me, because I can see the direction in which ESG could have taken Cool & Lam from this novel. To be honest, this novel is quite a bit “harder” than the volume that actually took its place as the second Cool & Lam adventure, and more so than any volume at the top of my memory. In this one, Donald is about to be murdered when he beans his opponent with a rock and nearly kills him; Donald empties the man’s wallet (calling the money “sinews of war”) and leaves him in a ditch unconscious with the murder gun slipped into his holster. Bertha allows the real murderer to escape in exchange for large amounts of money, deliberately stirring up trouble with city politics in the process, and sends Donald to Honolulu so he won’t have to testify to the inconvenient truth. This is NOT Perry Mason pronouncing sententiously that he’s an officer of the court. This is Bertha Cool delivering a lecture on how city politics works (at the end of chapter XII) that will curl your hair with its cynicism and accuracy. She describes a middle class woman to her face as a bitch, a slut, and a tart in the course of three sentences; near the end of the book she hits a middle-aged woman “flush on the jaw” — “like a man”. And there is no love lost between Bertha and Donald; as noted above, when Bertha is cutting herself a slice of cake, she doesn’t care if the knife slips and cuts Donald.

In fact I’m at a loss as to why this novel was rejected for lack of character development of the main characters, although I think that ties into the second reason it was rejected. There actually is a lot of character development here, it’s just that it’s very risqué for the audience of 1939. Donald spends the night with a female witness — to my mind, unusual for 1939, at least that it’s pretty clearly stated that she’s available for sex — and quixotically tries to rescue her from the consequences of her romantic inclinations. (There’s a lovely moment of writing where a woman describes herself as a “nymphomaniac”, or what we would today call a sex addict, but Donald realizes that she’s been sold a line by a man who wanted to break their engagement  … and he doesn’t tell her, merely allows the reader to see that he knows what happened.)

Here’s a little passage that I think is very revealing of Bertha’s character:

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

In the same conversation, Bertha delivers this little speech:

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, cut out the weeps! By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do — those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighborhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.”

And she also mentions casually that married men are lousy lovers, and she’s tried two of ’em. Having read all 29 books, I don’t remember any other instance in which Bertha mentions having had lovers.

I think there’s plenty of Bertha, but perhaps not enough Donald here. And that’s perhaps because the quality of writing in this book, in terms of subtle characterization and descriptive writing, is well among the strongest of any of Gardner’s work. Gardner knew better than to tell — he only showed, for the most part. (We’ll except the last few novels he wrote in the late 60s, though.) Here, the showing of Donald’s character is subtle and enlists the reader’s help to fill in the blanks. If you’re not paying attention, you miss the conclusions you’re supposed to draw. When you read the book, try to figure out what Donald’s actual attitude is towards Ruth Marr, start to finish throughout the book. To me, it makes Donald seem more like a fallible human being who is capable of holding two different attitudes towards the same woman at the same time. But in order to realize what’s going on, you have to pay attention to what his motivations are — and Gardner never tells you those, he only shows you.

For me this book is fascinating because there is an indefinable difference between the 29 canonic novels and The Knife Slipped. Starting with the title, which doesn’t match the cadence of the others. This Bertha is more aggressive, particularly about the business she accepts; my recollection is that later on in the series she wants nice quiet divorce work rather than political or murderous minefields. This Donald is more on the economic knife-edge, although it’s earlier in his career; later in the canon he also tends to sleep on the couch rather than bed the damsel. Certainly the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand is quite different here and not the ally to Donald she later becomes.

I can sort of understand why a cautious editor might not want to publish a book that displays Bertha Cool as a greedy overweight amoral quasi-criminal. To be honest, her personality only really has one note in this book. To me it is a fascinating and rich note, but she doesn’t change in the course of the novel. Donald’s personality is displayed in a subtle and intelligent way, at least to me, but I’ve had the benefit of reading 29 other novels in which he’s featured. It’s entirely possible that my appreciation of this novel is coloured by the other 29. If your (or that editor’s) view is that there’s no character development, I’d be hard-pressed to gainsay it.

fools-die-on-friday-movie-poster-9999-1020429460

Dell 541 (left) and its reissue, #1541 (right), in which the girl has more clothes on and Donald’s still not peeking

What is certain is that everything is a bit more crude — no, a lot more crude. I can’t prove it, but I believe ESG never went as far as saying “whorehouse” in any other novel. Bertha’s amoral view of politics and government is quite strong stuff for 1939, I think, at least coming from an author like Gardner whose stories were fit for the prudish editor of Black Mask. Oh, sure, women are frequently unclothed in Donald’s vicinity, but he never actually goes much beyond passionate kisses. And as you can see in a nearby illustration, they usually have more of their clothes on. To be fair, there is a suggestion in the final paragraphs of 1941’s Double or Quits that Elsie Brand and Donald have had sex. But that’s merely because Elsie laughs at a nurse’s warning that Donald might be “abnormally stimulated” by a caffeine injection. In this book, a girl with whom Donald has spent the night (passed out) walks in on him in the bathtub and hands him a glass of tomato juice, “as utterly casual about it as though I’d been sitting in a chair at a lunch counter”, then walks out wordlessly.

 

There are plenty of these sorts of little jarring differences of tone in The Knife Slipped, and I have to say that figuring out what’s different was quite a bit of the pleasure for me with this book. If you’ve already read your way through A. A. Fair, I suspect that will be quite pleasurably for you as well.

There’s another part of this book that is quite pleasant to contemplate and that’s the amount of sheer detection in it. Bertha and Donald are smart people who know what it means to be a detective. They know, for instance, that the police will routinely stake out their offices. They know that if you’re a man wanted by the police, the last place they’ll be looking for you is a department store tearoom. They know that a man in a tuxedo never gets stopped by the police, and that an overweight dowager in an evening gown with fists full of diamond rings can get past an apartment manager like nobody else. And they are both capable of understanding the precise meaning of a witness’s description of a pair of men’s pants where the police do not, which lets them solve mysteries where the police cannot.

Summing up: I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did unless you’re already very familiar with the other 29 Cool & Lam novels. 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. It’s funny, vulgar, and occasionally exciting (the scene where Donald is about to be murdered by a corrupt official is excellent).  My friend Jeff Marks, an expert in all things Gardnerian, puts this in his “top 10 of the Cool/Lam cases, and perhaps even in the top 5.” I’ll go a little further; this is one of my top three Cool & Lam cases, and even in my top ten of all of Gardner’s work. Sad that it hasn’t been a part of the Cool & Lam oeuvre from 1939, but this late publication in 2016 fully deserves its place as what we might call “number 1.5” in the full 30 volumes.

My favourite edition

There’s only one paper edition currently, from Hard Case Crime, December, 2016. It’s shown at the top of this column with cover art depicting the 21st century burlesque artist Dita von Teese, heaven knows why. I am frankly planning on buying a couple of mint copies of this first edition, sealing them up and laying them away. I recommend you do too — you won’t lose money on it.

 

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)

Double or QuitsAuthor:

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his Perry Mason series, of course, but this was his best-known pseudonym. His Wikipedia entry is found here. As A. A. Fair, he wrote 29 novels about the private investigation team of Cool and Lam: Bertha Cool, a tough middle-aged professional detective, and Donald Lam, a scrawny gumshoe and disbarred lawyer who is the protagonist of the stories.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1941 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “E”, “Read a book with a detective ‘team’.” Cool and Lam are a corporate team of private investigators. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The edition I re-read for this post is at the top of this post; Dell D361, with cover art by Robert McGinnis, a 1960 reissue of the original Dell mapback #160 (later reprinted as #718).

The first edition was Morrow, 1941. Many, many paperback editions exist, including some interesting ones from England. There was a 1942 edition as part of a three-in-volume from Detective Book Club in 1942 (with Christie’s The Body in the Library and an F. Van Wyck Mason title), and a 1946 Triangle Books edition that apparently used the same cover art on the dust jacket as the first edition, which has doubtless led to some difficulties over the years.

dell0160About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

After a lengthy illness, Bertha Cool has slimmed down from her former 220 pounds to a mere 160 pounds “of solid muscle”. As part of her recovery process, she’s taken up fishing. Donald Lam accompanies her to the pier one day, and the two meet a prospective client, wealthy Dr. Devarest. His wife’s jewelry has been stolen and he wants it recovered but, before Donald can get to work, Dr. Devarest is found dead in his garage, poisoned by carbon monoxide. 

dell0160backAt this point in the book, an important event happens that is pivotal to the remainder of the series (this is volume 5 of 29).  Up to this point, Donald has been Bertha’s employee, but he faces up to her here and demands a partnership stake in the agency. Bertha refuses and Donald resigns and announces that he is moving to San Francisco. After his three-day vacation in San Francisco, Bertha arrives and capitulates; henceforth it will be Cool & Lam on the office door, and they will jointly supervise faithful secretary Elsie. Bertha realizes that, although she is highly competent at the ordinary detective business, Donald has the brilliant mind and detective instincts that are necessary to bring in the big money. She hates the idea, and they continue to bicker like cat and dog for the remainder of the series, but Bertha’s first love is money and she does what she has to do to bring it in her direction.

dell0718After this brief segue, Donald knuckles down to work. An important point in the book is whether Dr. Devarest died by accident — specifically, was it by “accidental means” or “accidental death”. If it was by accidental means, the insurance company must pay double. However, Donald and the insurance company are aware of the precise difference, and Mrs. Devarest hires Donald to make the insurance company pay $80,000 instead of $40,000. As happens in every book, Donald meets and romances a couple of attractive young women to get information and leads (and continues his long-standing flirtation with the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand). However, one unique thing happens in this book. Donald is about 5’6″ and weighs 130 pounds and never carries a gun; in nearly every book he is beaten up by someone. In this novel, though, is the only recorded instance of Donald winning a fight (against an insurance adjuster). In two previous books he’s taken boxing and jujitsu lessons and this is the only time that they pay off.

Donald works away at the twin questions of death by accidental means and Mrs. Devarest’s missing jewelry.  He performs an interesting piece of extended deduction with a counterweight which may or may not have been attached to the garage door which trapped the doctor in the exhaust-filled garage. Lam learns there’s an ex-con working as Mrs. Devarest’s chauffeur, and the late doctor may or may not have been having an affair with his nurse. Meanwhile, the querulous, hypochondriacal and self-absorbed Mrs. Devarest might be carrying on an affair with her own physician, Dr. Gelderfield, who seems to be dancing regular attendance on a patient who has largely imaginary problems. Pretty young Nollie Starr, the nurse, has apparently absconded with the jewelry but is nowhere to be found — except that Donald figures out where she is in a single morning with a clever ruse — she rides her bike to play tennis early in the morning, so he searches all the tennis courts at the crack of dawn until he finds someone who meets her description. Donald then tells Elsie to come down and smash Nollie’s bicycle with her car and tell her to report it to the Auto Club; when the compensation claim is made, Donald gets Nollie’s true address and not the fake one she’d provided. Nollie is soon found strangled (with a pink corset string that’s been wound tightly around her neck by twisting it with a potato masher, which is a pretty bizarre murder method) and Donald has another crime on his hands. And the jewelry is still missing, although it is starting to look possible that someone with access to the late doctor’s safe had a hand in the jewelry’s disappearance.

As is common in the Cool & Lam novels, Donald ends up on the run from the police, who want to arrest him; Donald has to stay one step ahead of the police and the murderer. There’s a great scene near the end where Donald is hiding out at Elsie’s apartment, and she’s making him a great big steak dinner. Bertha and a police lieutenant show up unexpectedly and Elsie is bullied into serving them Donald’s steak dinner while he hides a few feet away. Donald finally realizes the murderer’s identity a few minutes after the murderer has inveigled him into taking a long drink from a bottle of whisky that’s been heavily adulterated with morphia. Donald phones the police and confesses to everything he can think of, just to get the police and an ambulance to his location in time to save himself. In a charming and clever finish, Donald is in the hospital and has been given a huge dose of caffeine to counteract the morphia; the caffeine produces a talking jag and the final chapter consists of him explaining all the inter-related crimes to a fascinated Bertha and the police lieutenant, talking like a machine gun. 

5020631953_d222b88486_zWhy is this book worth your time?

It’s hard to say just how much influence Erle Stanley Gardner had upon the course of detective fiction; in one sense, he was a very successful writer of pulp-style stories with complicated, fast-moving plots and very little characterization who wrote pretty much the same thing over and over again. But then again, he sold three hundred million copies of his books. He captured in a massive and authentic way the attention of a huge number of Americans, and more fans around the world in 23 languages.

In the 1950s in North America, when you talked about Perry Mason or Erle Stanley Gardner, people knew exactly who you meant. Perry Mason was at the top of the television rating charts and the books were selling at the rate of 20,000 units a day. I can remember as a child seeing a spinning rack of paperbacks in a drugstore; of the four sides of the rack, two were devoted to Perry Mason novels. Gardner influenced an entire generation of people about what a detective looked like and how he acted, and I have to think that every mystery writer who is currently over about 40 years old owes him some kind of debt.

The thing is, though, that as I mentioned above, all the Perry Mason novels are sort of the same — all 82-some-odd of them. There’s a very clear pattern that repeats pretty consistently, although it did change in one crucial respect as the series progressed.  In the earliest novels, Perry will hit people, commit petty crimes (like break into a witness’s home or disable his car), and just generally raise hell in order to protect his client.  In the first series novel, TCOT Velvet Claws, Perry’s client thinks it’s possible that Perry committed the murder to protect her. As time progressed, Perry became more and more aware of his responsibilities as an officer of the court, and once or twice delivered a sharp lecture about how there was a big difference between his own sharp but ethical practice — juggling guns around so that no one knew which was which was a favourite pastime — and, you know, illegal stuff. Especially after the influence of the television series and its artificial morality had a strong influence, Perry developed a huge stick up his ass and became more of an armchair detective, leaving PI Paul Drake to do all the work.

And I suspect that’s where Donald Lam came from, and with him Bertha Cool as a foil; Gardner wanted to have more fun with the writing. Gardner wrote a dozen Perry Mason mysteries before 1939, when he published the first Cool & Lam novel, and I suspect he was just bored with Perry’s necessity to stay on the side of the angels. Donald Lam is everything that Perry Mason cannot be. Mason is ethical and uptight and a cypher — in the entire course of the 82-or-so books, we never see his apartment, we never learn anything about him, we never know his history or his politics or, indeed, anything about him personally except his taste in food. His constant desire for steak dinners and cocktails and baked potatoes is like a trophe in the series, and there are many, many scenes set in a restaurant where Perry has a conference over dinner, or is interrupted by a client, or a witness, or a telephone call as his steak is being delivered. Poor Paul Drake is constantly surviving on soggy hamburger sandwiches and coffee.  If it weren’t for food, they’d be invisible in their own books.

Donald Lam, on the other hand, chases girls and frequently catches them. He is saucy, witty, vulgar, brash, arrogant, and really sneaky and underhanded. He is the PI who cuts corners, taints witness testimony with bribes, commits petty crimes in the furtherance of his investigation, and is constantly lying to women about the degree of his attraction to them. But they certainly have an attraction to him, possibly because he’s just a scrawny little guy and he worms his way into their affections because he constantly knows things, or can do things, that will help them. Especially when it helps them avoid the police, jail, and/or the attentions of the killer.

Donald Lam is just a hell of a lot more fun than Perry Mason or even Paul Drake, because Donald Lam is always having a lot more fun. There’s more to it than that, though. Lam is also a much more interesting detective, per se, than Perry Mason because he’s hands-on. Paul Drake gets results and brings them back to Mason for consideration, but we don’t often learn exactly how he got those results. With Donald Lam, we see what it’s like to be a detective. We see him read people and get it right. (For instance, in the opening sequence, he assesses Dr. Devarest’s relationship with his wife sufficiently accurately that he grasps the point of why the doctor has set up his study in a certain way, where Bertha misses the point completely.) We see the little tricks he uses to get information. (Like having Elsie smash Nollie’s bicycle deliberately, in order to get her address when she claims compensation from the auto club.) We see his knowledge of the law, above and beyond that of most people’s — he knows the precise difference between “death by accidental means” and “accidental death” and how it will affect the widow’s compensation. More to the point, Donald knows that a widow who feels she’s been cheated out of $40,000 will want to hire a detective agency to prove that that $40,000 is rightfully hers. He’s good with physical evidence — there’s an extended sequence where he demonstrates that he understands how a counterweight on a swinging garage door works better than anyone, perhaps even better than the murderer. He’s imaginative; we know this, because he’s capable of coming up with theories about why people would commit certain criminal acts and then correlate those theories with the actual evidence, which leads him to more investigative paths to prove his theories.

And as a human being, he’s also much more interesting than Perry Mason. Mason has Della Street and Lam has Elsie Brand, but Donald and Elsie have a much more natural and realistic relationship; and it’s fairly clear that they have actually had sex, although Gardner cannot say so due to the mores of the times. (In the final two paragraphs of this particular book, a nurse warns Elsie that Donald might be ” abnormally stimulated” by the caffeine and the implication is that he’ll attack her sexually. “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”) Throughout the series, Donald is much, much more attractive to women than Mason — or even Paul Drake. Over and over again, Donald encounters beautiful young women who don’t take him seriously, but who later find themselves falling for him without knowing why. He’s charming and witty, but he’s not sexless like Mason. Gardner was never known for characterization, but I’ll suggest that Donald Lam is perhaps his most well-written character. He’s absolutely his most human protagonist.

Ultimately, the Cool & Lam novels are less formulaic, less predictable, and more quirky. I’m not sure why they never gained the public’s attention as much as the Perry Mason series; possibly that had something to do with CBS’s advertising process for the TV series. If you want to read a book that shows why Erle Stanley Gardner was a good plotter, but without aching to remove the stick from Perry Mason’s ass, you should definitely give Cool and Lam a shot. The earliest books are the most interesting and fresh; by the end of the series (and the Perry Mason series also), Gardner was played out of new ideas and was reduced to inventing unusual hooks and then writing tepid books around them.

It’s interesting to note that in 1958, CBS produced a pilot for a proposed Cool & Lam series, directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, starring Billy Pearson as Donald Lam and Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. It never went anywhere, sadly; I’m not sure why. It would have been very unusual to see an overweight, hard-edged woman on TV in the late 50s, and Benay Venuta was more statuesquely beautiful and icy than “160 pounds of barbed wire”. Billy Pearson actually played a jockey in “TCOT Jilted Jockey” on the Perry Mason series, so he was the right size and weight for the role, but he and Venuta just didn’t seem to have any chemistry. And possibly CBS didn’t care to have so much power in the hands of Paisano Productions, since negotiations about the Perry Mason series were apparently already difficult. You can see the first 30 seconds of the credits on Youtube here.

1024038465Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, some deluded person in California wants $950 for a first edition, VG in jacket. The more reasonable prices are clustered around the vicinity of $100 to $200; not many copies are offered but my general sense is that not many are wanted either. A. A. Fair doesn’t seem that collectible. It seems odd to me that the Detective Book Club edition commands prices in the $50 range but it may well be that this is because the three-in-one volume contains The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which makes this far more attractive to Christie fans than Gardner completists.  Experienced collectors will be aware that Triangle Books editions are pretty much rubbish, but I still see them listed with extraordinary prices. They were very, very cheaply made, and I have to admit that if you can find one that has survived in decent condition, you have a rarity. Their paper stock was especially awful; I’ve occasionally had the experience of having a page crack in half as I was turning it. I’ve never met a Triangle collector; I can’t think of what would motivate someone to collect ugly reprint editions of good books, but it takes all kinds. I’ve seen at least one copy of the first edition wrapped in a facsimile of the Triangle jacket (as noted above, they used the same cover art).

I think that the most collectible editions are paperbacks; pride of place goes to the Dell mapback #160, because there are so many mapback collectors. Dell #718 has a cover by Fred Scotwood, not well known and not much collected; however, there is a dreamlike quality to the illustration that is quite attractive. Dell D361 has the McGinnis cover shown at the top of this post, and he’s widely collected. There are a couple of interesting UK paper editions, one from Corgi and one from Guild Books; I have no idea how collectible these are in the UK but I suspect there are plenty of Corgi collectors.

Vintage Golden Card 001

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

Here’s another of my favourite puzzle mystery writers.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Yes, the author of Perry Mason is one of my favourite mystery writers. I have to say my affection goes back a long, long time. I was a precocious kid who read his way through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at an early age and moved directly into the mystery section of the local library — which, since at the time I was living on a small Armed Forces base, was composed of a bunch of Perry Mason novels and some writers I’d never heard of.  Perry Mason was fairly tame to adult sensibilities, and when I asked my mother to explain why Perry Mason was so interested in Della Street’s ankles as she got in and out of the car, she knew my pre-teen self couldn’t come to much harm.  So I enjoyed them as mysteries and left the grown-up stuff for others.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner is not generally considered a writer of puzzle mysteries, by and large.  His blueprint was simple.  Start with a strange situation that would catch the reader’s attention — something mildly sexual and unusual, for which the average person would want a good lawyer on their side.  Add Perry Mason on the side of someone reasonably innocent.  Bring the situation to a rapid boil and add a murder.  Arrest Perry’s client and spend the rest of the book having Perry run amok while trying to exonerate his client.  Pretty much the last half of all the novels takes place in a courtroom.  Finish it off with a dramatic resolution wherein the guilty party confesses on the stand (for the most part) and stir with a dash of humour at the end.  And, by and large, Gardner didn’t feel the need to add any pesky characterization to complicate the mix.  Most of the characters in Perry Mason novels are labelled with a job and saddled with an alibi, and that’s their only distinction from the next suspect.

As an aside, Gardner did have one way of making his characters memorable; he gave the men unusual middle names. Possibly this was to protect himself from lawsuits because James Greevus Smith, banker, could be distinguished from almost any other James Smith, banker.  This didn’t happen so often with female characters, but married women often had an unusual maiden name.

Anyway, in terms of the traditional puzzle mystery, this lack of characterization is not a bad thing, by and large.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it was usually deliberate, in order to prevent the murderer being more noticeable by dint of being better characterized. It may well be, as I’ve often seen suggested, that Gardner was simply a writer who was unable to do much in the way of effective characterization, in which case his focus on puzzle mysteries was a mere fortunate coincidence or deliberate choice.  He was an experienced lawyer — it was unlikely for him to select the Western upon which to focus, let’s face it.

In his earliest novels, Perry Mason is more of a hard-boiled hard-punching lawyer who goes toe to toe against the villains and isn’t afraid to slug the occasional client-menacing gangster (for instance, The Case Of The Sulky Girl, TCOT Velvet Claws, TCOT Howling Dog, etc.).  But around the middle of World War II, he seems to have swerved in the direction of the puzzle mystery. I’ll suggest that the three most difficult puzzles in his oeuvre are TCOT Empty Tin (1941), TCOT Buried Clock (1943) and TCOT Crooked Candle (1944), but everything from about 1939 to 1947 is more strongly puzzle-oriented than the remainder of the novels. These novels actually have clues, physical clues, and are not merely sets of alibis against which to measure a set of circumstances.

And Gardner in this period avoids something that sustained his work in later years, which is to say the number of gorgeous women in sexualized situations is kept to a minimum.  By the 1960s, Gardner’s plots were pretty much what I call “femjep” — a beautiful woman is in physical danger from a criminal, or is the object of a bizarre plot that she doesn’t understand, and Perry steps in and saves the day, while the novel stops to describe the heroine physically and fairly lustfully every once in a while.

If you’re curious as to whether Gardner could write a good puzzle mystery — your mileage may vary.  Certainly he had a knack for coming up with story hooks that drag you into the novel (Why is a pretty young woman being paid to put on weight?  Why would someone steal a man’s glass eye?  Why would someone bury an alarm clock set to sidereal time?).  When he’s at his most puzzling, these hooks are absolutely relevant to the plot and not just discarded as soon as they’ve done the job of getting you to commit to the novel.  (For instance, that stolen glass eye is found clutched in the hand of the corpse.)  And occasionally, Gardner steps out and adds as much characterization as he can manage.  For instance, TCOT Empty Tin has a nosy spinster who is played for laughs — unusual in Gardner’s work — but who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943) has some interesting “salty prospector” characters. And TCOT Vagabond Virgin (1948) has an actual attempt at a rounded characterization in the person of the titular hitchhiking tramp — as well as an interesting puzzle at its core.

If you’re looking for a puzzle mystery, you could do worse than the novels I’ve mentioned here by name. The paperback editions are not so omnipresent as they were when I was a teenager, but a visit to a good used bookstore will usually net you a couple of dozen titles from which to choose — try anything with a copyright date in the 1940s and you won’t be far wrong.

PS: Gardner also wrote a series of novels as by A. A. Fair about the adventures of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, private investigators.  I can’t say that these impressed me as being anywhere near strict-form puzzle mysteries, but they are very enjoyable — more so than the last 15 years’ worth of Perry Mason novels, by and large.  These should be read chronologically.