(Author’s note: I originally wrote this review of Erle Stanley Gardner’s wonderful 1939 novel The Bigger They Come for The Rap Sheet back in 2009. I’m reposting it here today, because that novel has just been re-released via Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics imprint. The Bigger They Come is a classic that every Gardner fan — and many more of today’s crime-fiction readers — should enjoy.)
2009 is shaping up to be a year in which I read lustfully from the dusty back files of detective fiction, while at the same time trying to keep up with the seeming surfeit of promising new works expected to reach bookstores over the coming months. If you could see my desktop (and thank goodness, you cannot — it’s a mess), you wouldn’t fail to notice a small but escalating stack of vintage paperbacks, evidence of my having recently shopped too many used bookstores, as well as my curiosity about authors whose works I don’t know all that well. For instance, after being exposed — through Bruce Grossman’s weekly Bookgasm column, “Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs” — to the work of prolific spy novelist Edward S. Aarons, I’ve finally plunked down hard cash for a couple of his books. I have also picked up two of Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne novels and a collection of early Nick Carter short stories.
But the real treasures here, I think, are my A.A. Fair novels. Fair, you probably know, was a pseudonym employed by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, when he chose during the Great Depression to embark on a new series, featuring private investigators Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. While I’d read a few of Mason’s courtroom adventures in my younger days, I hadn’t ever picked up a Cool and Lam novel until last year, when I bought and thoroughly enjoyed Top of the Heap, which was published originally in 1952 but reissued in 2004 by Hard Case Crime. Following that experience, I started to look around for other Cool and Lam titles, buying one here, another there, eventually winding up with 14. But then, a couple of weeks ago, I strolled into the venerable Seattle Mystery Bookshop, down in my hometown’s historic Pioneer Square district, and what should I find? Paperback copies of almost every Cool and Lam novel known to man, apparently acquired from someone’s estate. After a trip back home to figure out which books in the series I already owned (but had not yet gotten around to reading), I returned to the bookstore … and laid claim to the 15 novels I had not previously found, all at prices ranging from $2.99 to $5.99. I suspect that the Klondike gold prospectors who, in the late 1890s, flooded through Seattle on their way to northwestern Canada felt much as I did when they held glittering nuggets in their hands.
While it’s probably not necessary to read the Fair novels in the order they were published, I was pleased to finally catch up with the first Cool and Lam outing, The Bigger They Come, which was released 70 years ago this month. It’s in those pages, after all, that Gardner originally worked out the back stories and characteristics of his odd-couple protagonists (though he was never much for consistency, and later diddled with a few “facts”). It’s there, too, that he established the relationship between his sleuths — a relationship filled with humor and fast-flowing banter of the sort that I suspect most crime-fiction enthusiasts don’t associate with attorney Mason’s creator.
This tale begins with Lam answering a newspaper ad for an operative at the Cool Detective Agency in Los Angeles. He has no particular qualifications for the job, just an empty stomach, an easy way with prevarications, and no employment prospects elsewhere. It seems he used to be a lawyer, but lost his license after making a foolish bet with a stranger, based on Lam’s statement that “it would be possible to commit a murder so there was nothing anyone could do about it.” Unfortunately, the stranger turned out to be a small-time gangster, who told police after his arrest that he’d been planning to give $500 to Lam in exchange for information on how to kill a rival and get off scot-free. The California Bar Association didn’t look kindly on that alleged breach. Lam didn’t look kindly on the Bar Association as a consequence, and decided to go into another line of work. The private dick game appeared to be a better option, even though Lam (which is an assumed name) lacks a bit in the way of intimidating stature. When the series begins, he’s described as being in his mid-20s, about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and 127 pounds. At one point, Bertha Cool calls him “a brainy little runt.” But, as Lam assures her,
“Everyone has to protect himself in life. When he’s weak somewhere, nature makes him strong elsewhere. I figure things out. I always have. If a man starts pushing me around, I find a way to make him stop, and before I’m through he’s sorry he ever started pushing. I don’t mind hitting below the belt if I have to. I guess I even get a kick out of it. That’s because of the way I’m made. A little runt is apt to be mean.”
Nonetheless, he often comes out on the losing end of fistfights. And there are many of those as this series rolls along. Poor Donald.
Bertha Cool is as big and blustery as Lam is diminutive and suave. Gardner introduces her as “somewhere in the sixties, with gray hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression of her face. She must have weighed over two hundred.” (Later in the series, she’s slimmed down somewhat to about 165 pounds.) Money-conscious in the extreme and almost anxious to ding a client for any excusable expense, Cool’s also a world-class cheapskate, often complaining to Lam about his expenses on a case. She evidently took over the detective agency from her deceased and adulterous hubby, Henry, whose repeated cheating she used as an excuse to lose her girlish figure. Though quick to anger, she is also quick to forgive (as long as there are dollar signs for motivation), and is famous for her exotic exclamations. “Kipper me for a herring!,” she might say. Or “Can me for a sardine!” Or “Peel me for a grape!” You get the idea. Gardner must have had fun crafting ever-more-outlandish interjections.
Shortly after Cool hires Lam in The Bigger They Come, she sends him out to serve divorce papers on Morgan Birks, who is wanted in association with a slot-machine scandal that involved police payoffs. Birks’ wife, Sandra, intends to use her husband’s fugitive status as further cause to end their marriage, but first she has to locate him — and do a better job of it than the cops have done so far. Upping the odds in Lam’s favor is Sandra’s longtime friend Alma Hunter, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty with “a figure worth showing.” (It’s not surprising that Lam should fall in love with Alma over the course of this mystery. But then, being a certified romantic, he often finds himself drawn to fetching females, though his relationships don’t last from one book to the next.) And sure enough, Alma does help him track down Birks — at a hotel, where the fugitive intends to meet his not-so-clandestine lover. The situation deteriorates fast, though, when wife Sandra suddenly shows up at the hotel, too, wanting to give Birks a piece of her mind, and is accompanied by her brother, B. Lee “Bleatie” Toms, who was recently in a traffic accident, and is pretty seriously bandaged. Further complicating this situation, Lam has purchased a “hot” gun from the hotel’s bellboy, which he’s given to Alma for her protection.
After managing, amid this three-ring social circus, to serve the divorce papers on Birks, Lam thinks his work completed. However, it’s only begun, for he’s soon kidnapped by a couple of hard-knuckled types whose boss wants to know all the specifics of the detective’s efforts to beard Birks. Then, not long after returning home with a minimum of mortal wounds, Lam has to rush out again, this time to Alma’s aid — it seems she’s plugged a would-be molester in her bedroom, firing the .32 automatic that Lam bought her. When police arrive on the scene, they find that the dead man is none other than Morgan Birks, and he’s been shot in the back — which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given Alma’s recollection of the night’s events.
Add to this vintage yarn a bunch of missing dough, elusive safety deposit boxes, false identities, and a flimflam more complicated than anything concocted in The Sting, and you’ve got a story that almost demands a flow chart to understand at times. But the rewards of sticking with it are many. Oh, and in the end, Donald Lam even gets to prove that a person really could get away with murder. At least in 1939, in California.
As near as I can tell, most of the 29 Cool and Lam novels fell out of print in the 1970s (though The Bigger They Come saw a new paperback printing in 1984). That’s regrettable, because Erle Stanley Gardner really seemed to have fun with those two sleuths, who at their best were cynically witty, self-effacing, and an excellent team. He really knew how to pack a punch in this series. Even Hollywood took notice. In 1958 — almost 20 years after The Bigger They Come was first published, and another dozen years before this series concluded (with All Grass Isn’t Green) — a 30-minute, black-and-white Cool and Lam TV pilot was shot. Undoubtedly, producers hoped to capitalize on the popularity of Perry Mason, which had debuted on CBS the year before and made Gardner’s name golden. That pilot starred former jockey Billy Pearson as Donald Lam, and playing Bertha Cool was singer-performer Benay Venuta (who later appeared as Jean Smart’s mother-in-law in the show Designing Women). There seems to be some question as to whether that pilot was broadcast, but if it ever shows up on television, I’m determined to catch it.
Meanwhile, I only have 27 more Cool and Lam books to read.*
Fry me for an oyster! I’m thrilled by the prospect.
* Since this critique was first published, a 30th Cool and Lam novel has been discovered and brought to market: The Knife Slipped, penned in 1939 and intended as the series’ second entry, but not published (by Hard Case Crime) until 2016.