Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Introducing Donald Lam and Bertha Cool

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his series of eighty-five novels featuring Los Angeles attorney, Perry Mason. But beginning with The Bigger They Come in 1939, he wrote a second series under the pen name A. A. Fair, featuring a mismatched pair of detectives named Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. The series, which was lighter in tone than the Mason series, ultimately ran to twenty-nine books, the last of which, All Grass Isn't Green, was published in 1970.

As the series opens, the Great Depression was still under way in the United States and Donald Lam was twenty-nine years old and out of work. A lawyer with a quick mind, he had been suspended from practice for suggesting that he knew a full-proof way of committing a murder and getting away with it. Down to his last dime, he answers an ad placed by the Cool Detective Agency in Los Angeles. The agency is owned by Mrs. Bertha Cool who inherited the firm from her philandering husband.

While Donald Lam is a slight young man who barely weighs 130 pounds, Bertha is in her midle-sixties and somewhere north of 275 pounds.Describing herself to a client, she says, "I like profanity, loose clothes, and loose talk. I want to be comfortable. Nature intended me to be fat. I put in ten years eating salads, drinking skimmed milk, and toying with dry toast. I wore girdles that pinched my waist, form-building brassieres, and spent half my time standing on bathroom scales. And what the hell did I do it for?"

Bertha is notoriously cheap and demanding. She's constantly ragging at Donald for something or other that displeases her, but nonetheless, she will ultimately take him into the firm as a partner. She largely confines herself to the office, trying to drum up business and attempting to wring the maximum amount of money out of any potential client, while Donald is the brains of the outfit, doing all of the investigations and usually skating along the thin line that separates him from trouble with the law.

We meet the characters here for the first time. Bertha hires Donald and immediately assigns him to what appears to be a fairly straightforward case. A woman is seeking a divorce and wants the firm to serve her husband with the appropriate papers. But as always happens in these books, what seems to be a fairly simple case turns into something much more complex and deadly.

The soon-to-be ex-husband is on the run from the law and finding him will be no easy task, especially when the cops can't find him either. But Donald has an advantage that the police do not and before long there will be action galore; people will be getting hoodwinked, beat up and murdered, and poor Donald Lam will be in the toughest spot of his life.

This is a fairly classic, soft-boiled pulp novel and it's a great introduction to the series. Crime fiction fans who enjoy books of this sort (and who can lay their hands on a copy at this late date) are sure to enjoy it.

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