Wednesday, March 25, 2020
The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair
of a classic may be different, but I find that an unpublished Cool and Lam mystery qualifies. The background for Erle Stanley Gardner's The Knife Slipped is fascinating.
Written in 1939, and finally published in 2016, The Knife Slipped was meant to be Gardner's second Cool and Lam mystery, published under the name A.A. Fair. However, Gardner's publisher objected to Bertha Cool's foul language, heavy smoking, and her behavior in general. So, Gardner wrote a new mystery, Turn on the Heat, and this one remained unpublished for decades. When I read Russell Atwood's Afterword for the book, it confirmed many of my impressions of the story.
Donald Lam, narrator of the story, works for Bertha Cool, owner of B. Cool, Investigations. He's young, naive, and, as is typical for so many hardboiled detective novels of the 1930s and 40s, he falls for a dame. Bertha Cool is tough, abrupt, abrasive at times, but her name matches her personality. She's cool under pressure, and, in this story, takes the young disbarred lawyer turned investigator under her wing to teach him the ways of the world.
Cool accepts a case many other agencies won't handle. She sends Lam to follow the supposedly cheating spouse in what could turn into a divorce case. But, when Lam follows the man, the apartment isn't exactly the love nest they expect. Instead, while he watches, officers from the fire department and police department show up, asking for the man Lam is trailing. It's Ruth Marr, the switchboard operator, who identifies the man under a different name. It isn't long before Donald Lam is falling for the attractive blonde, believing everything she says, even when she shows up at his car with a gun.
Crooked cops, blonde dames, politicians, graft and payoffs. While the story seems to follow a formula, it's unusual to see the investigating detective agency blackmailing people. But, Bertha Cool, at least in this story, is out for whatever money she can get. She's a brash, over-the-top character. While she's the confident leader, Donald comes across as an innocent man who believes "Essentially people are honest." His boss proves that everyone is out for what they can get. But, she truly cares for Lam, and cuts him a break in the story.
It has been years since I read a Cool and Lam story. I didn't remember Lam as quite such a sucker, and Atwood's note reminds readers that he wasn't in the following twenty-eight books in the series. But, it's fascinating to go back and read the mystery that might have been a transition piece, if only the publisher had given Bertha Cool a break.
The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair. Hard Case Crime, 2016. ISBN 9781783299270 (paperback), 238p.
FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.