Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Farewell to Detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool

All Grass Isn’t Green is the thirtieth novel in A. A. Fair’s (Erle Stanley Gardner’s) series featuring detectives Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. (Goodreads counts it as the twenty-ninth because the second book that Gardner wrote in the series, The Knife Slipped, was not published until 2016. When Gardner originally finished the book and sent it to his publisher in 1939, the publisher decided that it was to “racy” to be published and so Gardner simply set it aside and went to work on his next project. Standards had apparently changed by 2016, and so the folks at Hard Case Crime finally published the book. For whatever reason, Goodreads counts it as book 1.5 in the series.)

Gardner, of course, was more famous as the author of the hugely successful Perry Mason series, which debuted six years earlier in 1933 with The Case of the Velvet Claws . Later in the Thirties, Gardner decided to write a second series, this time featuring a small private detective agency doing business in Los Angeles. He adopted the pen name, A. A. Fair. By the late 1950s, though, the books were billed as “Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A. A. Fair.”

Originally, the firm was run by a woman named Bertha Cool, a heavy-set widow who had decided to live life as she sees fit, irrespective of what anyone might think. She’s blunt, avaricious, and is often described as being tough as barbed wire. Bertha’s operation is decidedly small-time, doing divorce work and other such relatively insignificant jobs, but in the first book The Bigger They Come, she hires Donald Lam as a part-time detective. Donald is small, never weighing more than 135 pounds, unemployed, and down on his luck. He had been a lawyer but was disbarred for reasons that are crucial to the first book. Hunting for work, he answers Bertha’s ad and solves a very important case. 

He proceeds to do the same thing over the next few books and the profits of the agency increase dramatically. Donald then threatens to quit if Bertha doesn’t make him a partner. She reluctantly agrees and the partnership is born. Bertha’s principal responsibility is to tend to the office, although Donald occasionally calls her out into the field for the purpose of intimidating a woman who is interfering with the solution to a case.

Donald’s responsibility is to be out investigating the cases that the firm takes. Bertha repeatedly refers to him as a “brainy little bastard,” particularly when attempting to convince a potential client to hire the firm. Donald is in fact a brainy little bastard, and although he gets beaten up a fair bit, especially in the earlier books, it’s his guts and quick intelligence that always see him through to the end of a case.

Apart from Bertha and Donald, the firm consists only of Elsie Brand, Donald’s adoring secretary, and another woman who is Bertha’s secretary but who is never named. Most importantly, the firm has no other operatives, which makes an interesting contrast to the Perry Mason novels. Mason relied heavily on the services of the Paul Drake Detective Agency. Drake’s operation was huge. At any time of the day or night, Drake could call in dozens of detectives to meet Perry’s needs. Operating all by himself, Donald Lam did the work it would take scores of operatives to do in the Mason novels.

The only other major character in this series is police sergeant Frank Sellers. Sellers first appeared five or six books into the series and is almost the cardboard cutout of the hard-boiled cop who is not very bright—think Sergeant Holcomb in the Mason series. Sellers is quick with his fists and would just as soon beat the information out of a suspect. He’s constantly jumping to conclusions that the evidence doesn’t support, but that’s not a problem for Sellers; once he’s convinced of the solution to a crime, he’s perfectly happy to bend the evidence to support his theories.

In at least about half of the books, Sellers concludes that Donald Lam, whom he constantly refers to as “Pint-Size” is guilty of the murder or murders that always occur in these books. Donald will inevitably expose the real killer, usually at the last minute and almost always at grave risk to himself. Generously, he will always allow Sellers to take the credit and the glory, hoping that this will put him in good stead with the sergeant. It never does, though, and by the beginning of the next book, Sellers will have hit the “Reset” button and will be back to his blundering, suspicious ways.

All Grass Isn’t Green can easily be read over the course of an evening, which is probably about as long as it took Gardner to write it. That is not in any way intended to demean either the book or the author. But after experimenting with the first few books, Gardner had this formula down so pat that he probably could have written them in his sleep.

The books almost always begin with a potential client coming into the office in need of a detective. The person is almost invariably disappointed to learn that the firm of Cool & Lam consists of a woman and a little runt of a detective. Bertha will have to convince the potential client that they can get the job done.

Once convinced, the client always spins some story about why he or she needs a detective. Bertha will always fall for the story hook, line, and sinker and will be happy to accept the client’s money. Donald is always much more skeptical, knowing that the client is not being honest and that he or she actually has some other motive for hiring them. That makes no difference to Donald; in fairly short order he will determine what is really at stake here and will act accordingly.

In this book, a man who gives his name only as “M. Calhoun” pays cash to have the firm find a man named Colburn Hale. He gives no details about himself and says that he will call the firm for updates. Bertha happily takes the money and Donald goes to work. He quickly discovers who Calhoun really is and determines Calhoun’s real objective. 

The case involves trips to Mexico, and the drug trade enters the picture in the form of some marijuana smugglers. (All grass isn’t green.) Eventually someone will be killed, and Donald will be in the soup again. He’s managed to get out of it twenty-nine times in a row, but this is the last book in the series, so who knows?

Over the thirty-one years of this series, no one ever aged or changed in any significant way. Bertha was somewhere in her middle sixties all the way from 1939 to 1970. Donald was somewhere in his middle thirties. The times didn’t really change much either. Even the books written in the early 1960s read like they could have been taking place in the 1930s. In this book, Frank Sellers does have to reluctantly read a suspect his Miranda rights, and people are using Citizen Band radios in their cars. But that’s about as modern as it gets. At one point, Lam retains an attorney to defend someone in a murder case and gives the lawyer a retainer of two hundred dollars—much more 1939 than 1970!

I’ve really enjoyed going back through this series and following the adventures and misadventures of Donald and Bertha again. As always, I would encourage people to read the series in order, although it’s not as critical here as it is in other cases. The first few books should be read in order so as to watch as the two main characters sort out their relationship, but once they’ve done so you can dip into the series at any point without missing anything of consequence. Four stars for All the Grass Isn’t Green; five stars for a series that I’ve been fond of for years.

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