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.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Wine Merchant Gets Caught Up in an Investigation of Fraudulent Wines and Spirits in This Novel from Dick Francis

This is one of the better novels from Dick Francis. Like a few of the others in the series, this one is only loosely set in the world of horseracing, and the protagonist, Tony Beach, is not a jockey but rather a wine merchant. He owns a small shop and has spent the last six months grieving for his wife who built up the shop with him and then died of an aneurysm while six months pregnant.

Beach is simply going through the motions of living, opening his store, dealing with customers and occasionally supplying the liquor for various parties. On a Sunday afternoon, he's catering the liquor for a party thrown by a successful horse trainer. A lot of important guests have gathered for the event, which is being held in a large tent on the grounds of the trainer's home. 

As the party gets under way, the trainer's principal assistant approaches Beach with a problem. One of the owners who has several horses with the trainer also owns a restaurant. The trainer and his assistant had dinner there recently as guests of the restaurant owner. The assistant is concerned because he believes that someone is fiddling with the liquor served at the restaurant. The man ordered an expensive Scotch whisky after dinner, but was served something decidedly inferior that had apparently been substituted for the whisky that was supposed to be in the bottle.

The assistant fears that someone may be cheating the restaurant owner, and he asks Beach if he would be willing to go to the restaurant and order the whisky to confirm his suspicions. Then he can delicately approach the owner and inform him of the problem. However, as they are discussing the matter, a horse van breaks loose, apparently accidentally, rolls down a long hill, and smashes into the tent where the party is being held, killing a few guests and injuring others. Among the dead is the restaurant owner.

Beach now finds himself assisting a firm of investigators, and the police as well, in a wide-ranging investigation involving mislabeled wine and spirits. It turns out to be a very dangerous assignment, given that there are some powerful adversaries who will stop at nothing to protect the racket they've perfected.

Readers will recognize Tony Beach as a typical Francis protagonist--apparently quiet and unassuming, but underneath the mild exterior, a man who is smart and tough as nails when the going gets rough. The plot moves along well, and the details of the liquor business that one picks up along the way are interesting too. All in all, a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Psychologist Alex Delaware and Detective MIlo Sturgis Take on Another Very Strange Case

As the thirty-third Alex Delaware novel opens, a very dysfunctional L.A. family of four returns from a Sunday night dinner out to find a murder victim left in the family's den. The victim's face has been blown away by a shotgun and his hands have been cut off. He's obviously been killed somewhere else and left here, but why?

Homicide Detective Milo Sturgis is totally flummoxed and so does what he always seems do do with every even remotely complicated case that he sees: he dials up his buddy, psychologist Alex Delaware, in the hope that Alex can sort things out for him. Alex races to the scene and begins offering his thoughts.

The family members all swear that that have no idea who the victim might be or why he would have been left in their den. This is hardly surprising since, given that the victim has no face and no hands that might be fingerprinted, nobody at this point has the slightest idea who he might have been or why he would have been left in that spot.

The father is a total blow-hard; the mother is a pain in the butt; the teen-age son is a complete jerk, and the daughter is just plain weird. Alex will have his hands full trying to figure these guys out, but they all claim that no one could be angry enough with them to have done something like this in their home.

This is a fairly wealthy and insular neighborhood, and the canvas turns up a very strange neighbor who everyone thinks might be a great suspect, mostly just because there are no other obvious suspects in sight. But the guy refuses even to talk to the police or to Alex and so they spend a lot of time spinning their wheels. Other suspects will emerge; another victim will be murdered, and Alex and Milo will try to get it all sorted out. To be honest, though, I have to say that I barely cared whether they did or not.

With apologies to anyone who has read my reviews of the last few books in this series, I will repeat what I've said before: I absolutely loved the first few books in this series. Alex Delaware was a great new protagonist and--most importantly--in the early books there were actually legitimate reasons for him to be involved in these investigations. He was a consulting police psychologist and the police used him in cases where his expertise was genuinely needed.

In many of the recent books though, the notion that Delaware would be seriously working as a psychological consultant has gone out the window to a very large extent. Milo invites Delaware to participate in practically every investigation that comes his way, irrespective of whether there's a legitimate need or not. This book is a good example.

Given the screwy nature of several of the characters in this novel, somewhere down the line Milo might have asked Delaware to provide some insight, but there's no legitimate reason to be dragging him into the case even before the criminologists have left the scene of the crime. A man's been murdered by a shotgun blast--like no one's ever seen this before, and like any reasonably intelligent homicide detective would need to call in a psychologist at this point?

As the novel progresses, Alex will offer the occasional psychological observations, most of which are no more sophisticated than those that might have been offered by anyone who's taken Psych 101. Frankly, the author seems to have gotten to the point where he often doesn't even make much of a pretext that Delaware's skills as a psychologist are essential to the story. Clearly, he just exists at this point to be Milo's Best Bud and to help him solve the crimes that come his way.

If Delaware were another homicide detective, rather than a psychologist, it would make sense for him to be heavily involved in this case and the story would make for a reasonably decent novel. But he isn't, and it doesn't. And as someone who's been reading this series from the beginning and who remembers how great it once was, I find myself increasingly frustrated and disappointed with what it's become.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Another Excellent Entry in the Sean Duffy Series by Adrian McKinty

The sixth novel in Adrian McKinty's excellent series featuring Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy of the Belfast, Northern Ireland police force is set in 1988. It begins with an ominous prologue in which three masked gunman march Duffy deep into the woods, hand him a shovel, and order him to begin digging his own grave--not exactly the moment that a fan of the series would be anxious to see.

With that setup in place, the story backs up to find Duffy on a brief visit to his parents with his girlfriend and their baby daughter. The visit is interrupted when Duffy is summoned back to the scene of a particularly odd homicide. Someone had shot and killed a drug dealer in front of his house, using a bolt fired from a crossbow. This is still the time of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, and the dead man's neighbors are not at all anxious to assist the police with the investigation. The murdered man's wife claims that she was asleep in the house and knows nothing at all about what happened.

It's possible that the man was killed by a group of vigilantes (actually a faction of the IRA) who have been targeting drug dealers. There are any number of other possibilities, of course, and Duffy and his team will do their best against very long odds to identify the killer and bring him or her to justice. Politics inside the department will also interfere with the investigation. Duffy, who has always followed his own instincts, has made some powerful enemies with in the department and, unfortunately, a reorganization is underway which will bring some of Duffy's worst enemies into positions of authority over him.

I've been a fan of this series since the first book, The Cold Cold Ground, and like the other five, this one is a great read. Sean Duffy is one of the freshest and most intriguing crime fiction characters to come along in quite a while, and it's always a lot of fun to follow in his footsteps. The plot is very well constructed and, as always, McKinty excels at describing the setting in Northern Ireland. McKinty was born and raised in Carrickfergus, where Duffy is stationed and clearly he knows the area, the people, and the politics exceptionally well.

As with all the other books in this series, the title comes from a song by Tom Waits, in this case one called "Cold Water," which, like a lot of Tom Waits songs, has an interesting story of its own behind it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Reporter Jack McMorrow Gets More Than He Bargained for When He Accepts a Simple Magazine Assignment

Jack McMorrow is a former New York Times reporter who opted to leave life in the fast lane for a totally different kind of experience in rural Maine. In the book that introduced him, Deadline, Jack had taken a job as editor of the Androscoggin Review, a small rural paper that's about as far from the Times as a newspaperman could get. He expected to find a relatively stress-free, laid-back existence with his girlfriend, Roxanne, but life in Androscoggin turned out to be anything but stress-free. Almost as soon as he arrived there, Jack became entangled in a nasty murder investigation that cost him his girlfriend and soured him on the county and its tiny newspaper.

As the second book in the series opens, we find that Jack has now moved to Prosperity, a poverty-stricken rural town in the middle-of-nowhere. He's living in a rented bat-infested house and spending his days wandering through the woods, watching birds, drinking a lot of beer and accomplishing nothing of any consequence. Roxanne is making a new life for herself out in Colorado, and the only people in Jack's life are Claire and Mary Varney, the couple that lives nearby.

Out of the blue, Jack gets a call from an old friend who's now editing a magazine. He'd like Jack to write a feature article about girls in rural Maine who are having babies way too early--kid having kids. The editor would like Jack to explore the consequences of that for the girls themselves, for their babies, and for the community at large.

Needing the money and having nothing better to do, Jack accepts the assignment. Someone steers him in the direction of a young woman named Missy Hewett, who was something of a star at the local high school. Missy was determined to build a better life for herself than that of her family, such as it was, and better than what most of her classmates could look forward too. Accordingly, she studied hard, avoided the temptations and pitfalls that would ultimately doom most of the other kids in her town, and set her sights on getting into college.

Then she got pregnant.

Rather than surrendering her dreams, Missy gave the baby up for adoption, believing that this was best both for the baby and for herself. She's now attending college in Portland, Maine, and seems to be making a success of herself. Jack decides to make her the focal point of his story. He interviews Missy, and begins interviewing other adults and young people in and around Prosperity. But somewhere along the line, he manages to stir up a reaction he didn't anticipate. All of a sudden, people are shooting out his windows, vandalizing his truck, and it's apparent that Jack has stumbled onto something that may be a lot larger than a simple magazine article.

This is another very good entry in the series, and again, Boyle particularly excels at describing the setting. One feels as if he or she is actually in rural Maine, walking though the woods with Jack McMorrow. The characters are expertly drawn and the plot is a good one. I'm looking forward to moving on to the third book in the series.