Review by C.J. Bunce
The downside to discovering an author that’s new to you but who passed away decades ago is that no more novels will be coming your way from that author. But that’s not necessarily the case if that author is Erle Stanley Gardner, and you’re reading something newly published from Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint. Ardai continues to locate lost, never before published novels, and reprints some of the best forgotten works from decades of great pulp crime novels. Hard Case Crime released the never-before published Gardner novel The Knife Slipped last year. Back in 1940 The Knife Slipped was rejected by Gardner’s publisher because of his lead character, a brash and brilliant private investigator named Bertha Cool, who Gardner describes as “profane, massive, belligerent, and bulldog,” and in her first case her tendency to “talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people” was enough to reject the story. Gardner promptly replaced the novel with Turn on the Heat, the second in his Cool and Lam series, a series that would expand to 30 novels. And if Gardner’s name is familiar it may be because he also created the popular mystery genre icon Perry Mason (Gardner would write 86 cases featuring his famous lawyer). At his death in 1970, Gardner was the #1 bestselling author of all time, with hundreds of millions of books in print. Turn on the Heat was published in 1940 under Gardner’s pseudonym, A.A. Fair. A reader of both Gardner and Fair, master crime novelist Raymond Chandler once accused Fair of stealing a plot point from a Gardner novel.
Turn on the Heat plays out from the viewpoint of Cool’s employee, ex-lawyer and full-time private eye Donald Lam. Lam tells his story in that sweeping, pull-us-all-along-for-the-ride manner that Archie Goodwin embraced in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. It helps that Lam is a fan of Cool, but his tolerance for her domineering style brings him to his limits more than once in the story. But the feeling is purely mutual. Lam seems to forget he’s an employee and spends too much from the expense account. Like Stout’s Prisoner’s Base case where Goodwin lied to Wolfe to keep him out of trouble, Lam must lie to Cool to protect her, and as with Wolfe, Cool doesn’t like it one bit. Cool has the business acumen and savvy, but Lam also knows the score and is able to stay ahead of all the players almost all the time, as he attempts to solve the case for the client, protect the agency, protect Cool, protect himself from a murder rap, protect a girl from a murder rap, keep the D.A. off his case, and somehow serve a little revenge to the thug who keeps roughing him up.
Cool has taken on a new client and sets Lam about tracking down the client’s estranged wife, missing for twenty years. Lam is a feet-on-the-street detective, but his leads dry up quickly. When the wife shows up at a local hotel, Lam finds the case leading in an unpredictable direction, and he soon becomes bent on thwarting efforts of the police, the D.A., and even his client to keep him from the truth. Not convoluted or contrived as many other crime novels of the day (and today), Gardner’s mystery is well-paced and doesn’t employ any far-flung solution to wrap-up the whodunnit. Gardner’s prose was far ahead of its day in many ways–three times I turned to the copyright page to verify this book was actually written in 1940 because of sentences and word-usage I would have wagered had not come into the American lexicon until decades later.
Readers bothered by the womanizing, sex, and violence that often accompany classic pulp crime will find Gardner’s second Cool and Lam story as the perfect jumping on point for the genre–the womanizing is minimal and despite all of the racy book covers employed across the decades for this book, this story skips the sex altogether.
Beware–once you read Gardner’s prose you’re going to be hooked. I’d personally rent myself out to key in the text of the other 28 cases for Hard Case Crime if the publisher would only figure out a way to publish them all again–many currently carry a hefty price tag to get an original reading copy on the aftermarket.
Cool and Lam make a great duo. In this case readers will learn more about Lam, but Bertha Cool is the unique character, one that would make an incredible lead in a television series or theatrical adaptation.
It’s exciting stuff to find one of the best reads of the year is a reprint of a book that is 77 years old and hasn’t been in print for 50 years. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest book store for one of the year’s best retro reads, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Turn on the Heat. It’s available now here at Amazon.