(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
My favorite Erle Stanley Gardner series is the one featuring Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. I’ve written three posts here at Black Gate about the series: they’re linked at the end of this article. Under the name A.A. Fair, Gardner wrote 30 novels about them from 1939 to 1970 (one of them was published long after his death).
In the series, Bertha took over her late husband’s detective business after he died. Donald, an ex-lawyer, is hired in the first book, and soon becomes so good at making money for the business, he pushes his way into a partnership. Bertha hates to spend a dollar. She loves accumulating money. Not so much for spending; just to have. Donald is smart and shifty. He’s also pint-sized and is no threat as a fighter.
Raymond Burr’s successful Perry Mason television series ran from 1957 to 1966, covering 271 episodes. Burr was so popular in the role, he continued appearing as Mason up to the year he died. The books, of course, are among the best-selling in the world, having sold over an estimated 300 million copies.
In 1958, with Perry Mason on the airwaves, Gardner authorized a pilot for a Cool and Lam series. He even taped an introduction, which was filmed on the Mason set. Unfortunately, the pilot didn’t get picked up and Cool and Lam on the screen was abandoned forever more.
The casting choices seemed…curious. Billie Pearson had a total of four screen credits in his career; which equaled the number of his marriages. The same year he filmed this pilot, he appeared in an episode of Perry Mason. Only 5’-2”, he was a jockey (one of his four credits was as a jockey). Having watched the pilot over a half-dozen times now, I can see him as Lam, though a couple more inches wouldn’t have hurt. But he certainly had zero star power.
Benay Vanuta was an attractive singer, dancer, and actress as a teenager. She had much success on stage, preferring that to movies. She was 47 and rather severe looking in the pilot. Bertha is a very large woman who uses her size in the books. Vanuta, for me, is undersized for the part. Her demeanor isn’t quite rough enough, but it’s not too far off.
And therein, I think, lies the rub. There was no drawing power for either of the leads. That’s not inherently fatal, but it certainly isn’t a plus. Raymond Burr had quite a few solid performances when Perry Mason started. Anybody who had seen him in Pitfall would check out his new show. Pearson and Vanuta weren’t bringing in viewers on their screen resumes.
Their secretary, Elsie, is played by Judith Bess Jones. She had very little to do in the episode, while she is a rather prominent figure in many of the books. So, a fan of the books didn’t get anything from her performance.
The script was by Edmund Hartmann, who had written scripts for movies featuring Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Abbot and Costello, and Bob Hope. It was based on the second published novel, Turn on the Heat. He keeps the story pretty much intact.
Picking Iron – The second novel written, The Knife Slipped, was rejected by the publisher, which deemed its content too objectionable. It finally saw print in 2016, from Hard Case Crime.
I can only recall one fight Donald winning in the books; and that’s after he’s taken some serious martial arts training. Otherwise, his attempts to defend himself are ineffectual. He’s brainy, clever, sneaky, attractive to women, and a bit loose with the law.
Bertha is so tight with money she make Ebeneezer Scrooge look like a spendthrift. She’s constantly berating Donald for spending money on restaurant food, hotel rooms (instead of sleeping in the car), and other ‘extravagances.’ She is profane, and doesn’t mind roughing up another woman if the occasion calls for it. She puts up with Donald because he makes her a lot of money. They’re a mismatched pair, but it works.
The pilot starts out with a passerby stopping Lam in the hallway outside his office. It turns out he was a client, who Lam was successful for. Except, the results were a disaster for the man, and he smacks Donald on the chin, knocking him down. Donald being undersized, and regularly getting smacked around, is established in the first scene. And the over-riding tone of humor is set as well. The books aren’t comedies, but they have plenty of humor.
Then we get Gardner’s short introduction. He didn’t get his wish for many more cases, unfortunately.
Donald walks into Bertha’s office, where she is meeting with a new client. He wants to know if a woman who left the city of Oakview twenty years ago, ever remarried. After he leaves, Bertha tells Donald it should be a quick, easy case. “Take along a few sandwiches, sleep in the car, and it’s pure profit.” SO cheap.
Of course, there’s more going on below the surface. Donald calls Bertha from Oakview, and she gripes that he’s wasting money on long distance. “Get a cheap room, work a la carte, work fast and cut out long distance calls.”
Donald takes a beating from a much bigger guy and is run out of Oakview. Back in the office, Bertha wonders if his bandages are deductible.
A woman he met in Oakview turns up dead and the client is a suspect. Bertha tells him the fee just went up: murder is worse than blackmail. They really kick that dead horse (money) quite a bit in the pilot.
Donald uses his brains to avoid another beating from the same big guy and escapes. He solves the case, though he doesn’t exactly capture the killer. The show ends with Donald taking a pretty woman he met in Oakview out to dinner to celebrate. Bertha chases after him, telling him to take her out for a cheap dinner.
There’s a lot more to the story. The Cool and Lam books make up my second-favorite series (behind only Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe). The plots are quite convoluted, with a lot of twists and turns. For a thirty-minute show, this one has a lot going on. You might have to watch it more than once to get everything straight.
The first time I watched this, I didn’t care much for Pearson as Lam. But after several viewings, I think he fits the role fairly well. I’m still not crazy about Vanuta as Bertha. She’s not totally wrong for the part, but I think they could have done better. I like the book they adapted, so the story is fine with me.
But the pilot wasn’t picked up, and there’s never been another attempt to adapt Cool and Lam. I HIGHLY recommend the books. And go ahead and read my previous posts about them.
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (6)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled May on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Some Hardboiled streaming options
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (Boothe)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
A (Black Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (31)
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.