Fools Die on Friday–Erle Stanley Gardner Cool & Lam crime classic gets a new edition 75 years later

Review by C.J. Bunce

For fans of hard-boiled crime, nothing is better than getting your hands on a Cool & Lam novel you haven’t read yet.  That’s Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, the ultimate private detective agency odd couple, who, with the support of secretary Elsie Brand, took on 30 big cases in 30 novels from 1939 to 1970.  Hard Case Crime pulled the eleventh book from the archives and has just released it in a new edition.  Fools Die on Friday might be the Gardner mystery with the most twists of all, with the most suspects and red herrings.  It’s also impossible to predict where it’s all going, but because it’s a Cool & Lam story you just know you’re going to get a satisfying resolution in only the final few pages.  And just when you think it’s all over, there’s always more that put-upon ex-lawyer Donald Lam reveals at the last minute. Fools Die on Friday, first published under Gardner’s pen name A.A. Fair, sports the tagline “…and Thursday’s almost over.”  All Cool & Lam novels have some sharp humor, and that title comes from the historic practice of California prisons scheduling their electric chair business for Fridays, and any criminal that gets the chair is a fool, at least in the parlance of crime writers back in 1947.  The crime?  Someone has poisoned two wealthy socialites with arsenic, and everyone is a suspect.

Bertha Cool is at both her best and worst here, depending on what part of her you love.  Here she is absolutely worthless to Lam, who literally does the entire sleuthing by himself, and she even does her best unknowingly to get in his way as she partners with recurring series cop Sergeant Frank Sellers to protect the Cool & Lam’s detective agency when it represents an iffy client.  Bertha Cool’s job in the story is to negotiate payment–the legwork is for Lam, and what Bertha says, goes.  Lam is uncomfortable with this new client’s motives, even the truthfulness of who she claims to be, so he has her tailed by Elsie.  Is she Beatrice Ballwin, or someone else?  

Gardner stacks up the damsels in distress this time, and regular readers know any one of them may actually be a femme fatale.  Lam, who readers always want to see end up with Elsie Brand (right?), usually ends up with a new suspect at least as a temporary romantic interest.  Cool is always there to criticize him for “chasing skirts.”  Here first there’s the client, a young woman who is afraid the wife of a relative is plotting to poison him.  Cool takes on the case: to prevent the poisoning from happening.  Lam points out that’s a hard thing to do, especially not knowing who may do the poisoning.  

Lam meets up with Ethel Worley, who manages the victim’s real estate business.  Then there’s dental office assistant Ruth Otis, who knows more than she’s saying.  And Mary Ingram, Gerald Ballwin’s long-time assistant.  And what about the victim’s butler and chauffeur?  What do they all have in common?

Jim Fordney emerges as one of those resources Lam comes to rely on.  If Cool is a version of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Lam is a twin to his Archie Goodwin, then Fordney is Lam’s Saul Panzer.  Fordney gets a major role this time around.  

Then there’s Carl Keetley.  If you’re casting actors for Gardner’s world, you could see any number of characters in the role of Keetley, but somehow Clifton Webb in Laura fits.  At least it’s that kind of character–with a plot thread straight out of Call Northside 777.  And Bill Smitrovich would make the perfect Sgt. Sellers.  In Fools Die on Friday readers will learn a bit about betting the ponies, as well as how real estate developers determine the pricing of lots for development.

Shifts in technology are always fascinating in pulp crime novels.  The best show the challenges to detective work in the era of their sleuths, whether via modes of communication or crime scene analysis.  Here in the 1940s that means working with the day’s basic telephone service and no DNA science.  Yet even in the 1940s a rudimentary form of computer enters the picture–but not to solve the case, at least directly.

Fools Die on Friday is a great selection for a new edition of Gardner’s work.  It includes a new painted cover by artist Ricky Mujica.  Order it now here at Amazon.  And don’t miss my reviews of other Cool & Lam novels Shills Can’t Cash ChipsThe 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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