I say Erle Stanley Gardner, and you say…Ed Jenkins? Lester Leith? Paul Pry? Stop that!! All correct, but we were looking for Perry Mason. Probably the most famous defense lawyer in fiction, Mason made Gardner the best-selling author in the world at the time of his death. Raymond Burr is forever linked in minds as the picture of Mason.
But my favorite books from Gardner are those featuring his duo of Cool and Lam. And Hard Case Crime has released their fourth and final volume featuring the mismatched pair. Top of the Heap, Turn on the Heat, and The Count of 9, were all previously reissued. And as I wrote about here, Hard Case published the previously unreleased second novel, The Knife Slipped. William and Morrow Company had objected to the content and declined to publish it upon completion. Gardner moved right along and wrote Turn on the Heat, which became number two, released in January of 1940. There would be twenty-seven more books, with the final, All Grass Isn’t Green, hitting shelves in 1970. And The Knife Slipped joined the list in 2016.
Kudos to Hard Case for getting some of this series back in print. The paperbacks from Dell and Bantam can be found used, but not always on the cheap. And getting them in good condition can be a bit difficult. I myself don’t even have all 29 yet, and I’m a C&L fanboy. It’s good that Hard Case has made it easy to buy a couple of these books. And of course, it was FANTASTIC to find a lost Cool and Lam title.
If you’ve not read Cool and Lam, the widowed Bertha Cool runs a detective agency, and she hires the disbarred, down on-his-luck Donald Lam: at slave wages. His cunning and sneakiness produce results and he pushes his way into a partnership in book five.
Bertha LOVES money. She basks in the fees that Donald brings in, but she incessantly complains about the razor-thin line he walks with the law. And about his expenses, which are not at all unreasonable. She’s just so cheap she makes Scrooge look generous.
This constant friction makes for an entertaining duo. As Donald writes,
‘At that, our partnership would probably have split up long ago if it hadn’t been so profitable. Money in the bank represented the most persuasive argument in Bertha’s life, and when wit came to a showdown where the dissolution of the partnership was threatened, Bertha could always manage to control her irascible temper.’
So on goes the battle, case after case. Donald’s secretary, Elsie Brand, is innocent as the driven snow, and worships Donald. Another series regular is Sergeant Frank Sellers. He is constantly trying to nail Donald for his shenanigans, and he has a thing for Bertha, which flusters her. Bertha talks tough to Frank while he pursues his work, but he handles her better than anybody but Donald. He’s not a bad cop, but he isn’t very creative. I’d put him a couple steps up from Inspector Lestrade. Maybe even Inspector Japp. I can see Sellers using the rubber hose on someone, though.
On the fourth page of Shills Can’t Cash Chips, Donald writes,
‘Bertha turned and started waddling down the corridor, a hundred and sixty-five pounds of bulldog tenacity, hair-trigger temper, greediness and shrewd observation; an explosive combination of characteristics that were rendered somewhat less obnoxious by an underlying loyalty when the chips were down.’
And in the initial meeting with the client, Bertha says, “Everybody gets fooled by Donald. He’s young and little but the bastard has brains.”
Bertha sums up the partnership well in that same meeting: “I handle the financial end of the business. He supervises the outdoor work.”
She does do some field work, including, literally, sitting on reluctant females when Donald asks her to. But mostly, she stays in the office and squawks into the phone about expenses, and tries to find ways to push up their client’s fees, while Donald runs around in the field and does all the heavy lifting. Since the stories are told in the first person, he’s our Archie Goodwin.
Lamont Hawley is the head of the Claims Department at Consolidated Insurance. He wants help with a whiplash case, resulting from a client rear-ending a woman at a traffic light. This is the twenty-second book in the series. The twenty-fifth, Up for Grabs (published two years later), also deals with an insurance company worried about a whiplash case. They’re different stories, but I find that a bit curious.
Bertha says, “It’s the kind of of business that there’s money in, Donald, not this wild-eyed sharpshooting you’ve been doing.”
Of course, there’s much more going on under the surface – much of which the client doesn’t even know about. But Donald ends up wanted for murder, and he enjoys reminding Bertha that this case was her idea. And her plan to get ‘normal, less troublesome’ cases for the firm. He doesn’t openly rub salt in the wound, but the little digs are fun.
Donald is about 5’-6”, about 130 pounds, and regularly gets beaten up in the stories. I commented in this post on the failed Cool and Lam pilot, that perhaps viewers weren’t ready for a physically underwhelming hardboiled PI. Regardless, it works in the books. And as Frank says, “You’re a Pint-Size, and it’s awfully damned easy to underestimate you.”
Women are attracted to him, however. It doesn’t seem to be any maternal instinct, either. He gets plenty of action. In this one, two are only interested in him to further their own ends, while a third seems somewhat interested, but crime gets in the way of any progress.
Lam gets knocked unconscious in a woman’s apartment, and ends up joining in a criminal conspiracy with the guy who hit him. Gardner’s plots are overly convoluted in this series. I often have to re-read Donald’s explanations. And unlike the Nero Wolfe stories, where everyone gathers at the end for the big reveal, there are often a couple such expositions. I’ve read over half of this series, and I’ve not come close to solving one. Ever. I do get everything by the end of the book, but I do have to pay attention and sort through things.
I want you to buy this book and read it, so I’m not going to spoil the story. But there are a couple different players working their own angles regarding the accident. And a few more car accidents are tossed into the mix. Along with a rival detective agency. And a local sheriff about to lose his job. Did I mention, ‘convoluted?’
This is another fast-paced, enjoyable read, giving the readers exactly what they want from a Cool and Lam novel. In the nineteen-forties, William and Morrow had Gardner publishing two Perry Masons, one Cool and Lam, and one Douglas Selby book, every year. And I don’t think the quality suffered. He was truly an excellent writer.
I recommend this book, and this series. Strongly. I suggest starting with The Bigger They Come, which introduces the characters and lays the groundwork. Then, grab Hard Case’s Turn on the Heat, which is the second book. The only real division in the series is ‘Before Donald becomes a partner,’ and ‘After Donald becomes a partner.’ But I haven’t read them in order, and it’s not a major problem. Books seven, eight, and nine, are set around World War II and doing those in sequence isn’t a bad idea.
I can rattle off a dozen or two mystery/PI series’ I very much enjoy. I’ve written about several here at Black Gate, including August Derleth’s Solar Pons, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, John Leslie’s Gideon Lowry, Frederick Nebel’s Donahue, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police; even Isaac Asmiov’s Robot series. But after Nero Wolfe, Cool & Lam are my absolute favorites. I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read. And the way Gardner puts together words and sentences, I absolutely tear through these. Much quicker than Mason books go.
I wish these books were better known today. I’m glad Hard Case Crime has made some of them available. Check out Cool and Lam.
Fry me for an oyster!
Prior Cool & Lam posts:
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (21)
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: Hardboiled June on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Cool and Lam
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: All Through the Night (Bogart)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled July on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hardboiled August on TCM
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Talking About Philip Marlowe
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Johnny Angel (George Raft)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux
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. That’s also the name of his podcast.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.
He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.