Double or Quits, by “A. A. Fair” (Erle Stanley Gardner) (1941)
Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for his Perry Mason series, of course, but this was his best-known pseudonym. His Wikipedia entry is found here. As A. A. Fair, he wrote 29 novels about the private investigation team of Cool and Lam: Bertha Cool, a tough middle-aged professional detective, and Donald Lam, a scrawny gumshoe and disbarred lawyer who is the protagonist of the stories.
2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:
This 1941 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “E”, “Read a book with a detective ‘team’.” Cool and Lam are a corporate team of private investigators. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.
The edition I re-read for this post is at the top of this post; Dell D361, with cover art by Robert McGinnis, a 1960 reissue of the original Dell mapback #160 (later reprinted as #718).
The first edition was Morrow, 1941. Many, many paperback editions exist, including some interesting ones from England. There was a 1942 edition as part of a three-in-volume from Detective Book Club in 1942 (with Christie’s The Body in the Library and an F. Van Wyck Mason title), and a 1946 Triangle Books edition that apparently used the same cover art on the dust jacket as the first edition, which has doubtless led to some difficulties over the years.
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.
After a lengthy illness, Bertha Cool has slimmed down from her former 220 pounds to a mere 160 pounds “of solid muscle”. As part of her recovery process, she’s taken up fishing. Donald Lam accompanies her to the pier one day, and the two meet a prospective client, wealthy Dr. Devarest. His wife’s jewelry has been stolen and he wants it recovered but, before Donald can get to work, Dr. Devarest is found dead in his garage, poisoned by carbon monoxide.
At this point in the book, an important event happens that is pivotal to the remainder of the series (this is volume 5 of 29). Up to this point, Donald has been Bertha’s employee, but he faces up to her here and demands a partnership stake in the agency. Bertha refuses and Donald resigns and announces that he is moving to San Francisco. After his three-day vacation in San Francisco, Bertha arrives and capitulates; henceforth it will be Cool & Lam on the office door, and they will jointly supervise faithful secretary Elsie. Bertha realizes that, although she is highly competent at the ordinary detective business, Donald has the brilliant mind and detective instincts that are necessary to bring in the big money. She hates the idea, and they continue to bicker like cat and dog for the remainder of the series, but Bertha’s first love is money and she does what she has to do to bring it in her direction.
After this brief segue, Donald knuckles down to work. An important point in the book is whether Dr. Devarest died by accident — specifically, was it by “accidental means” or “accidental death”. If it was by accidental means, the insurance company must pay double. However, Donald and the insurance company are aware of the precise difference, and Mrs. Devarest hires Donald to make the insurance company pay $80,000 instead of $40,000. As happens in every book, Donald meets and romances a couple of attractive young women to get information and leads (and continues his long-standing flirtation with the agency’s secretary Elsie Brand). However, one unique thing happens in this book. Donald is about 5’6″ and weighs 130 pounds and never carries a gun; in nearly every book he is beaten up by someone. In this novel, though, is the only recorded instance of Donald winning a fight (against an insurance adjuster). In two previous books he’s taken boxing and jujitsu lessons and this is the only time that they pay off.
Donald works away at the twin questions of death by accidental means and Mrs. Devarest’s missing jewelry. He performs an interesting piece of extended deduction with a counterweight which may or may not have been attached to the garage door which trapped the doctor in the exhaust-filled garage. Lam learns there’s an ex-con working as Mrs. Devarest’s chauffeur, and the late doctor may or may not have been having an affair with his nurse. Meanwhile, the querulous, hypochondriacal and self-absorbed Mrs. Devarest might be carrying on an affair with her own physician, Dr. Gelderfield, who seems to be dancing regular attendance on a patient who has largely imaginary problems. Pretty young Nollie Starr, the nurse, has apparently absconded with the jewelry but is nowhere to be found — except that Donald figures out where she is in a single morning with a clever ruse — she rides her bike to play tennis early in the morning, so he searches all the tennis courts at the crack of dawn until he finds someone who meets her description. Donald then tells Elsie to come down and smash Nollie’s bicycle with her car and tell her to report it to the Auto Club; when the compensation claim is made, Donald gets Nollie’s true address and not the fake one she’d provided. Nollie is soon found strangled (with a pink corset string that’s been wound tightly around her neck by twisting it with a potato masher, which is a pretty bizarre murder method) and Donald has another crime on his hands. And the jewelry is still missing, although it is starting to look possible that someone with access to the late doctor’s safe had a hand in the jewelry’s disappearance.
As is common in the Cool & Lam novels, Donald ends up on the run from the police, who want to arrest him; Donald has to stay one step ahead of the police and the murderer. There’s a great scene near the end where Donald is hiding out at Elsie’s apartment, and she’s making him a great big steak dinner. Bertha and a police lieutenant show up unexpectedly and Elsie is bullied into serving them Donald’s steak dinner while he hides a few feet away. Donald finally realizes the murderer’s identity a few minutes after the murderer has inveigled him into taking a long drink from a bottle of whisky that’s been heavily adulterated with morphia. Donald phones the police and confesses to everything he can think of, just to get the police and an ambulance to his location in time to save himself. In a charming and clever finish, Donald is in the hospital and has been given a huge dose of caffeine to counteract the morphia; the caffeine produces a talking jag and the final chapter consists of him explaining all the inter-related crimes to a fascinated Bertha and the police lieutenant, talking like a machine gun.
Why is this book worth your time?
It’s hard to say just how much influence Erle Stanley Gardner had upon the course of detective fiction; in one sense, he was a very successful writer of pulp-style stories with complicated, fast-moving plots and very little characterization who wrote pretty much the same thing over and over again. But then again, he sold three hundred million copies of his books. He captured in a massive and authentic way the attention of a huge number of Americans, and more fans around the world in 23 languages.
In the 1950s in North America, when you talked about Perry Mason or Erle Stanley Gardner, people knew exactly who you meant. Perry Mason was at the top of the television rating charts and the books were selling at the rate of 20,000 units a day. I can remember as a child seeing a spinning rack of paperbacks in a drugstore; of the four sides of the rack, two were devoted to Perry Mason novels. Gardner influenced an entire generation of people about what a detective looked like and how he acted, and I have to think that every mystery writer who is currently over about 40 years old owes him some kind of debt.
The thing is, though, that as I mentioned above, all the Perry Mason novels are sort of the same — all 82-some-odd of them. There’s a very clear pattern that repeats pretty consistently, although it did change in one crucial respect as the series progressed. In the earliest novels, Perry will hit people, commit petty crimes (like break into a witness’s home or disable his car), and just generally raise hell in order to protect his client. In the first series novel, TCOT Velvet Claws, Perry’s client thinks it’s possible that Perry committed the murder to protect her. As time progressed, Perry became more and more aware of his responsibilities as an officer of the court, and once or twice delivered a sharp lecture about how there was a big difference between his own sharp but ethical practice — juggling guns around so that no one knew which was which was a favourite pastime — and, you know, illegal stuff. Especially after the influence of the television series and its artificial morality had a strong influence, Perry developed a huge stick up his ass and became more of an armchair detective, leaving PI Paul Drake to do all the work.
And I suspect that’s where Donald Lam came from, and with him Bertha Cool as a foil; Gardner wanted to have more fun with the writing. Gardner wrote a dozen Perry Mason mysteries before 1939, when he published the first Cool & Lam novel, and I suspect he was just bored with Perry’s necessity to stay on the side of the angels. Donald Lam is everything that Perry Mason cannot be. Mason is ethical and uptight and a cypher — in the entire course of the 82-or-so books, we never see his apartment, we never learn anything about him, we never know his history or his politics or, indeed, anything about him personally except his taste in food. His constant desire for steak dinners and cocktails and baked potatoes is like a trophe in the series, and there are many, many scenes set in a restaurant where Perry has a conference over dinner, or is interrupted by a client, or a witness, or a telephone call as his steak is being delivered. Poor Paul Drake is constantly surviving on soggy hamburger sandwiches and coffee. If it weren’t for food, they’d be invisible in their own books.
Donald Lam, on the other hand, chases girls and frequently catches them. He is saucy, witty, vulgar, brash, arrogant, and really sneaky and underhanded. He is the PI who cuts corners, taints witness testimony with bribes, commits petty crimes in the furtherance of his investigation, and is constantly lying to women about the degree of his attraction to them. But they certainly have an attraction to him, possibly because he’s just a scrawny little guy and he worms his way into their affections because he constantly knows things, or can do things, that will help them. Especially when it helps them avoid the police, jail, and/or the attentions of the killer.
Donald Lam is just a hell of a lot more fun than Perry Mason or even Paul Drake, because Donald Lam is always having a lot more fun. There’s more to it than that, though. Lam is also a much more interesting detective, per se, than Perry Mason because he’s hands-on. Paul Drake gets results and brings them back to Mason for consideration, but we don’t often learn exactly how he got those results. With Donald Lam, we see what it’s like to be a detective. We see him read people and get it right. (For instance, in the opening sequence, he assesses Dr. Devarest’s relationship with his wife sufficiently accurately that he grasps the point of why the doctor has set up his study in a certain way, where Bertha misses the point completely.) We see the little tricks he uses to get information. (Like having Elsie smash Nollie’s bicycle deliberately, in order to get her address when she claims compensation from the auto club.) We see his knowledge of the law, above and beyond that of most people’s — he knows the precise difference between “death by accidental means” and “accidental death” and how it will affect the widow’s compensation. More to the point, Donald knows that a widow who feels she’s been cheated out of $40,000 will want to hire a detective agency to prove that that $40,000 is rightfully hers. He’s good with physical evidence — there’s an extended sequence where he demonstrates that he understands how a counterweight on a swinging garage door works better than anyone, perhaps even better than the murderer. He’s imaginative; we know this, because he’s capable of coming up with theories about why people would commit certain criminal acts and then correlate those theories with the actual evidence, which leads him to more investigative paths to prove his theories.
And as a human being, he’s also much more interesting than Perry Mason. Mason has Della Street and Lam has Elsie Brand, but Donald and Elsie have a much more natural and realistic relationship; and it’s fairly clear that they have actually had sex, although Gardner cannot say so due to the mores of the times. (In the final two paragraphs of this particular book, a nurse warns Elsie that Donald might be ” abnormally stimulated” by the caffeine and the implication is that he’ll attack her sexually. “Elsie Brand laughed in her face.”) Throughout the series, Donald is much, much more attractive to women than Mason — or even Paul Drake. Over and over again, Donald encounters beautiful young women who don’t take him seriously, but who later find themselves falling for him without knowing why. He’s charming and witty, but he’s not sexless like Mason. Gardner was never known for characterization, but I’ll suggest that Donald Lam is perhaps his most well-written character. He’s absolutely his most human protagonist.
Ultimately, the Cool & Lam novels are less formulaic, less predictable, and more quirky. I’m not sure why they never gained the public’s attention as much as the Perry Mason series; possibly that had something to do with CBS’s advertising process for the TV series. If you want to read a book that shows why Erle Stanley Gardner was a good plotter, but without aching to remove the stick from Perry Mason’s ass, you should definitely give Cool and Lam a shot. The earliest books are the most interesting and fresh; by the end of the series (and the Perry Mason series also), Gardner was played out of new ideas and was reduced to inventing unusual hooks and then writing tepid books around them.
It’s interesting to note that in 1958, CBS produced a pilot for a proposed Cool & Lam series, directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, starring Billy Pearson as Donald Lam and Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. It never went anywhere, sadly; I’m not sure why. It would have been very unusual to see an overweight, hard-edged woman on TV in the late 50s, and Benay Venuta was more statuesquely beautiful and icy than “160 pounds of barbed wire”. Billy Pearson actually played a jockey in “TCOT Jilted Jockey” on the Perry Mason series, so he was the right size and weight for the role, but he and Venuta just didn’t seem to have any chemistry. And possibly CBS didn’t care to have so much power in the hands of Paisano Productions, since negotiations about the Perry Mason series were apparently already difficult. You can see the first 30 seconds of the credits on Youtube here.
As of this writing, some deluded person in California wants $950 for a first edition, VG in jacket. The more reasonable prices are clustered around the vicinity of $100 to $200; not many copies are offered but my general sense is that not many are wanted either. A. A. Fair doesn’t seem that collectible. It seems odd to me that the Detective Book Club edition commands prices in the $50 range but it may well be that this is because the three-in-one volume contains The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which makes this far more attractive to Christie fans than Gardner completists. Experienced collectors will be aware that Triangle Books editions are pretty much rubbish, but I still see them listed with extraordinary prices. They were very, very cheaply made, and I have to admit that if you can find one that has survived in decent condition, you have a rarity. Their paper stock was especially awful; I’ve occasionally had the experience of having a page crack in half as I was turning it. I’ve never met a Triangle collector; I can’t think of what would motivate someone to collect ugly reprint editions of good books, but it takes all kinds. I’ve seen at least one copy of the first edition wrapped in a facsimile of the Triangle jacket (as noted above, they used the same cover art).
I think that the most collectible editions are paperbacks; pride of place goes to the Dell mapback #160, because there are so many mapback collectors. Dell #718 has a cover by Fred Scotwood, not well known and not much collected; however, there is a dreamlike quality to the illustration that is quite attractive. Dell D361 has the McGinnis cover shown at the top of this post, and he’s widely collected. There are a couple of interesting UK paper editions, one from Corgi and one from Guild Books; I have no idea how collectible these are in the UK but I suspect there are plenty of Corgi collectors.