Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair (Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series) (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for creating the archetype of the good lawyer in the series of novels starring his character Perry Mason, who was featured in a number of films in the 1930s played by Warren William and others, but was most famously portrayed by Raymond Burr in the popular television drama that ran for nine seasons on CBS and that thrives in syndication to this day. (Did you know that Gardner himself played a judge in the final episode?)

What most people don't know is that he also wrote another series of novels, under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, featuring the investigation team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. The Cool and Lam books numbered 29 and were published between 1939 and 1970, around the same time that Gardner was writing the Mason novels. Though Top of the Heap is the thirteenth in the series, it also serves as a fine introduction to the characters, though mostly Lam, as the legman, is featured.

When John Carver Billings ('"The Second," he amended.') enters the offices of Cool and Lam, asking for the "senior partner," Donald Lam sits back and waits for the sparks to fly, since that title refers to Bertha Cool and Billings doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who will accept a woman as a detective. But when Bertha calmly calls Donald into her office, sans explosion, he knows there must be a lot of money involved. Billings is looking for someone to corroborate his whereabouts of the previous Tuesday night and is willing to pay for the privilege, but what seems like a simple job — with a five-hundred-dollar bonus attached — turns into something entirely other when Donald actually does some investigation and discovers that Billings has other things on his mind besides his innocence.

Of course, the more Lam investigates, the more he uncovers, eventually angering both Billings and Bertha. Speaking of, extreme detective characters like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe — and now the foul-mouthed, greedy, ungrateful, jumping-to-conclusions charmer Bertha Cool — are best taken in small doses. Some entries of the series are reported to focus more on her but Top of the Heap offers just enough for us to still find her amusing without crossing over into annoyance. It's the sidekick/legman character: Doctor Watson and Archie Goodwin — and Donald Lam — that we're supposed to identify with, anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised at how Gardner made the story intriguingly complicated but managed to keep it understandable. I never really got into his Perry Mason novels (I wanted them to be as tightly-written as the TV shows), but I'll definitely be on the lookout for more of the Cool and Lam series. (Maybe Hard Case Crime can issue more entries? Hint, hint.) The cover picture (or tagline, for that matter) doesn't have much at all to do with the story, but it's certainly beautiful work and in any case, Top of the Heap is another terrific offering from this new imprint. It's almost too much to ask that they keep up this level of quality, but I only expect more greatness to come.

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