Every time I crack open one of Hard Case Crime’s long-overdue reprints of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam capers, I’m reminded how much mysteries have evolved since the 40s and 50s. Both what we’ve gained… and what we’ve lost.
Certainly the broad strokes with which Gardner (writing under the pen name of A.A. Fair) painted Los Angeles private eye Bertha Cool, as a money-grubbing, overbearing operator, about as pleasant as a cold sore and usually weighing slightly less than a Buick (she’s only “a hundred and sixty-five pounds of potatoes in a sack" in this one), would raise a few eyebrows among those who disparage body-shaming. Meanwhile, the mating instincts of her long-suffering junior partner, “pint-sized” (more body-shaming!) disbarred attorney Donald Lam would surely raise more than eyebrows in this time of the #metoo movement.
To Gardner’s credit, though, few of his portrayals are as shallow or mean-spirited as they may initially seem. For a guy who learned to write in the pulps, Gardner’s characters may be quickly sketched, but they are eventually revealed to have just enough depth to have their reasons—and he joyfully shuffles them around like a three-card monte dealer.
And that’s what I think we’ve lost along the way. Gardner was a master of the fast-paced but pleasingly-complex mystery; those snap-crackle-pop stories where guns are fired, dames get hit on and sometimes bedded (discreetly, of course, and always with their consent), people get punched in the nose (usually without their consent), and colorful characters’ secrets are revealed without 12 pages of endless psychological spelunking, everything is wrapped up, and the bad guys are carted off to the pokey (not therapy).
Of course, in this series, everybody is always lying, and Cool and Lam don’t trust each other, either. Which complicates matters. Bertha, always looking for a quick buck, decides she and Donald will guard the treasures of a millionaire adventurer during a lavish dinner party in his penthouse apartment.
It’s an epic fail.
Not only is a priceless statuette stolen right before their eyes, but also a 6-foot-long blowgun. Then the wealthy globetrotter himself turns up dead. In a locked room. Before you can say “impossible crime,” Donald finds himself bumping heads (and other body parts) with amorous widows, assorted thugs, friendly (too friendly?) nude models, secret buttons, x-ray machines, obnoxious photographers, less-than-helpful cops, and enough snappy patter to fill a bucket. The biggest weakness? Bertha, one of the truly great female private eyes of all time (There! I’ve said it!) doesn’t get as much page time as I’d like. Which doesn’t stop Donald from playing it all close to the vest.
Like he didn’t trust his partner or something…