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Tag Archive: Charles Ardai


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.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.  James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre.  But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with.  That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.

The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision.  Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale.  Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page.  The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death.  Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk.  Or was he?  Police repeatedly return to question her.  Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.

     

Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress.  Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again.  She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity.  As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate.  The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel.  She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions.  Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader.  She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg.  She takes actions that risk her job.  So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too?  What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son?  Can we trust her?  Can we trust Cain?

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