Retro review–Erle Stanley Gardner’s Shills Can’t Cash Chips, a twisty, fun, hard-boiled crime story

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you can’t imagine the greatest noir crime story you ever read was about a firm of private investigators researching a claim of insurance fraud, you’d better get ready.  The fifth–and what appears to be final–retro re-issue of a classic work of crime fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner (who was, at his death, the best-selling American writer of all time) is now available from Hard Case Crime.  One of the novels Gardner penned under his pseudonym A.A. Fair, the author mastermind known for dozens of Perry Mason novels (60 in total) and Cool & Lam novels (30 total) penned Shills Can’t Cash Chips sixty years ago, and it’s as exciting, current, funny, and full of intrigue as any modern bestseller.  Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are back at it again.  Although Hard Case Crime notes this is the last of their series of Gardner books (with this review I’ve reviewed all but one, including Turn on the Heat, The Count of 9, and the first ever publication of Gardner’s “lost,” Cool & Lam novel, The Knife Slipped)–which is a sad thing–that just means it’s time to begin tracking down the rest.   


We’ve seen the larger than life Bertha Cool, “pint-sized” partner Donald Lam, and their zealous secretary Elsie Brand handle divorce, missing persons, and theft cases, but they all seem to end up in murder.  This time it’s a convoluted case of insurance fraud that reels in the trio.  Told again through the vantage of Lam, Gardner’s twisty plot never gives up where Lam & Co.–or the reader–are headed.  As the cover promises, the story has its share of “dangerous women.”

Bertha Cool is still cool in her own way, and everyone fears her, except Lam, who probably should listen to her more, just to stay out of trouble.  Lam has hardly gotten into more trouble than he does here.  More women try to lure Lam with their charms, but he only really has eyes for one woman.  Elsie and Bertha both take a back seat in this story, yet their participation is integral to unraveling what goes where and why in the investigation.  How in the world could an insurance claim be this interesting?  Only drafted with Gardner’s sense of skill in characterization and flow of action–which there is a dizzying array of in this story.


Shills Can’t Cash Chips has been out of print for 45 years.  The back cover calls it “a fitting conclusion to hard Case Crime’s revival of this classic (and long unavailable) detective series.”  It’s really a shame with so many other Gardner books out of print.  The Gardner novels are the top of the heap of the imprint’s re-issues, truly the dessert for fans of hard-boiled fiction.  Where the Hard Case Crime imprint is at its best is finding lost gems like this and bringing them to readers’ attention.

This novel features a Laurel Blechman painted cover, a good update to the many vintage covers for the title.  Don’t miss this book.  Shills Can’t Cash Chips is available here at Amazon, an engaging, clever pulp noir crime story and a great, satisfying read.  And don’t miss my reviews of other Cool & Lam novels The Knife Slipped, Turn on the Heat and The Count of 9.  Gardner’s Top of the Heap , which had a release date a few months before borg went live back in 2011, is also available from Hard Case Crime.

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