Sunday, June 2, 2013

Donald Lam Reports Back for Duty

First published in 1944, this is another of Erle Stanley Gardner's Donald Lam and Bertha Cool detective novels, which Gardner wrote under the name of A. A. Fair.

At this point, of course, World War II was raging and as a virile young specimen, Donald could hardly fail to do his part. So he left the agency in the hand of his partner, Bertha, and joined the Navy. This was very convenient for the Navy, but very inconvenient for a crime fiction author whose lead character was thus unavailable for duty.

Gardner (or Fair) resolved the problem by sending Lam to the South Seas, where he was attacked not by the Japanese but by a tropical bug that left him too debilitated to continue in the service. He's been mustered out for health reasons and so returns to duty at the detective agency, where he will carry on, albeit in a weakened condition.

By the time Donald returns, the agency has fallen on hard times. He was the brains of the outfit and without him around, the clients have been few and far between. But practically the moment Donald steps through the door, a new case falls into their lap. A young woman wants the firm to investigate the background of her boss's new wife. It seems simple enough, but naturally, it won't be simple at all.

Donald discovers the target at the Rimley Rendezvous, a cocktail lounge where bored women meet men on the prowl. The target is with a man who is not her new husband, and the management, recognizing Donald, boots him out. Donald calls Bertha, describes the man the target was with and tells Bertha to tail him when he leaves the club.

The tail job will lead to an auto accident, which will be followed shortly by an axe murder. Naturally, there's a cigarette girl with great legs who's involved in this up to her eyebrows and perhaps beyond and, as is usual in one of these books, the plot gets increasingly convoluted as one page follows the next.

Reading these books, I've often wondered how Gardner ever managed to keep the plots straight in his own mind, or if he even bothered to try; God knows, it's virtually impossible for the reader to follow them. In the end, of course, Donald will tease out the solution to the whole mess as he always does and just in the nick of time. These stories often don't make a lot of sense, but it's always fun to watch Donald in action and to return, however briefly, to a much simpler day and age in the crime fiction business.

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