Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Long-Lost Novel from Erle Stanley Gardner, Writing As A. A. Fair

This is the second novel in the Donald Lam-Bertha Cool series, which was written by "A.A. Fair," a pseudonym for Erle Stanley Gardner, who is much better known, of course, for his series featuring the lawyer, Perry Mason. 

Or, at least it was intended to be the second novel in the series. When Gardner turned the book into his publisher, they refused it, arguing that the book's approach to adultery and sex exceeded the limits of good taste. In the book, Bertha insists that virtually every man cheats on his wife--that it's the nature of the beast--and that an intelligent wife will simply accommodate herself to the fact and not get bent out of shape about it. But it's probably not an idea that a large number of people would have endorsed in that day and age.

Then there's the sex. At one point, Donald escorts a shapely young blonde home in the agency's car. As they sit outside the woman's apartment house, Donald reports that, "She didn't try to stop me in anything I did....She let my hands wander around the outside of her clothes, caressing her curves. I had a feeling she'd given me the key to the city, but I didn't try any doors that I thought she'd prefer to keep locked." Apparently pretty racy stuff, for 1939!

Gardner apparently never attempted to revise the book to make it more suitable for publication; he just moved on to other projects, which included twenty-nine books in the Lam-Cool series. But the Erle Stanley Gardner Trust has finally resurrected the book and the folks at Hard Case Crime have now published it, only seventy-seven years late, apparently concluding that the reading public will now be able to handle it without fainting in shock.

It's clear that Gardner is still feeling his way along here. Donald Lam is still only a junior operative in the firm and the character is still taking shape. Bertha Cool's character is already more firmly fixed--a big, tough, no-nonsense woman who squeezes every nickle until it bleeds and who believes that her firm exists solely to make money as opposed to pursuing justice, And if she has to bend a few rules along the way, that's perfectly fine.

The story opens, as they often do, when a new client appears at the office with a seemingly simple request. A woman comes in with her daughter; they believe that the daughter's husband is cheating, and they want the firm to investigate. Bertha wheedles as much money as she can out of the mother in the way of a fee and then sends Donald out to shadow the husband and get the evidence.

And, as always happens, of course, this seemingly innocuous case will morph into something much more sinister and dangerous. There will be a murder, naturally, and the case involves a lot of municipal corruption, which was a staple of pulp crime novels during this era. Through it all, Donald will struggle to survive and to solve the case, while Bertha plays all the angles in an effort to maximize her profit. It's a lot of fun and will appeal principally to fans who already know of and enjoy the series, which now rounds out at thirty books. It's nice to have this one in the collection.

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