Retro review–Erle Stanley Gardner’s unpublished, “lost” Cool & Lam novel, The Knife Slipped

Review by C.J. Bunce

If there is a better writer of pulp crime fiction in the long history of the genre than Erle Stanley Gardner, I don’t know who it is.  Yes, Mickey Spillane and Donald E. Westlake are in the running, too, but even if you push aside Gardner’s more than 60 novels featuring Perry Mason, you’re going to be challenged to find a better duo of detectives from the 1930s onward than Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.  Gardner wrote 29 novels published in his lifetime featuring the larger than life Bertha of the B. Cool Detective Agency and loyal and well-trod upon employee Lam, the narrator of the tales who lost his license to practice law and uses his smarts to keep money coming in to the agency.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems, and they have one in The Knife Slipped, written by Gardner and intended to be the duo’s second case, the publisher kicked it way back in 1939 because of Bertha’s brash, bombastic, and profane style.  Maybe that attitude just reflected the era of the day, but reading the novel now it’s clear Gardner was ahead of his time. 

As secretary Elsie Brand says, anytime two women show up together at a detective agency, you know you have a divorce case.  This time it’s a timid wife and her battle axe mother.  But she can’t out-battle axe Bertha Cool, who is willing to call a woman she doesn’t like a bitch to her face (with same delivery as if she’s offering her pie), rare for 1930s fiction.  Everyone is afraid of Bertha and at times you can’t read Bertha’s dialogue without hearing it in the voice of Kathy Bates–The Knife Slipped is a good candidate to get a series going or a single big movie to finally showcase this duo on the screen.

You know you’re in for one surprise after another with Bertha Cool.  A detective with her own agency after her husband died in 1936, she’s over 60, weighs about 220, and is far beyond caring what anyone thinks about how she looks, what she eats, or what she says.  She owns every scene, she steals everyone’s thunder, she is always the smartest person in the room.  And nothing is more important than a paying client, or better yet, a chance at elbowing her way into a matter to really get a slice of the proverbial cake (or a real one is good, too).  And that’s where this story’s title takes on a life and meaning different than you might think.  

The Knife Slipped, published for the first time three years ago after 75 years, has all the elements of great crime noir: the femme fatale, the damsel in distress, the sucker for the dame, the smoking gun, rough cops, the questionable judge, the womanizing heel, stakeouts, blackmail, murder, and, of course, the narrating detective who gets into more than one beating to get answers.  And nobody is funnier in her brazen methods than Bertha.  Bertha may be at her best here, because Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair) showcased the potential of her genius before getting pushed in a different direction for the rest of the series where later she deferred to Donald more frequently.  If this is what didn’t work for that 1939 editor who rejected the book, he clearly made readers miss out on a different path the series might have taken–still great, but even more cutting edge than it ended up.  But thankfully we now have 30 novels in the series, and you won’t want to miss Gardner’s layered detective work and twisty crime.

This Hard Case Crime entry features a Robert McGinnis painted cover (based on model Dita Von Teese), and as seems standard for the imprint the cover doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but definitely works well with the title.  The Knife Slipped is available here at Amazon, a superb pulp noir crime story and a great, satisfying read.  And don’t miss my reviews of other Cool & Lam novels Turn on the Heat and The Count of 9.

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