“’Call a cab,’ she said.
“’I have one waiting downstairs.’
“’Are you sporting taxi cabs for your private transportation?’ she asked. ‘Or did you think you were on an expense account?’
“I flared up and said, ‘I thought I was on an expense account.’
“She was silent for several seconds. I sat there wondering whether she was going to blow up and fire me or take it.
“’All right,’ she said in that maternal voice of hers. ‘We’ll go downstairs and take it, Donald, dear. I’ll make a note of whatever’s on the meter and take it out of your salary. Let’s go.’”
Give credit to the British Library on one side of the Atlantic and Otto Penzler (with his imprint American Mystery Classics) on the other for their leadership in expanding ever wider the list of republished GAD mysteries. And credit Kate Jackson at Cross Examining Crime for leading the charge to celebrate the best of these new/old titles every year. I have been fortunate to participate in the Reprint of the Year (ROY) Awards since their inception. I love sharing some of the joy I have received this past twelve months and giving the spotlight to the best of the best.
Last week, I told you all about the British Library’s reprint of Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel. Now it’s Mr. Penzler’s turn. My second nomination couldn’t be more different than my first; it also happens to be one of my very favorite reads of the year. My love for Perry Mason made me into an Erle Stanley Gardner fan. It took me several decades to discover that Gardner had created not one, but two other attorney heroes besides Mason. The most heroic of the three, at least in nature, is the stalwart district attorney Doug Selby. But for years and years, I have known about the other series, the one Gardner wrote under the pen name A.A. Fair about a pair of private eyes named Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, and I had no idea that of a couple of things: first, that Donald Lam is – or was – himself an attorney, and secondly, that this series may just well be the best of the bunch!
With the republication by American Mystery Classics of The Bigger They Come, Lam and Cool’s debut novel, my eyes have been opened. Of course, I’m only at the start here, but Cool and Lam seem to represent Gardner/Fair at his pulpiest and certainly funniest. They also form the two main parts of the oddest team in the Gardner oeuvre, a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat crossed with Nick and Nora Charles – if Nora were Nick’s mother. When they first meet, at Lam’s interview for a job as Mrs. Cool’s one and only operative, he sees a woman of over two hundred pounds, “somewhere in the sixties, with gray hair, twinkling gray eyes, and a benign, grandmotherly expression on her face.” Mrs. Cool looks over Donald and says, “You’re just a little shrimp. I don’t suppose you weigh over a hundred and twenty, do you? The fact that he weighs 127 tells against him at the start, but by the end of The Bigger They Come, Bertha Cool and the reader both have a dawning appreciation for Mr. Lam.
The same can’t be said for the third member of the team, the agency’s secretary, Elsie Brand. I have a feeling that, by the end of the twenty-nine Cool/Lam adventures, Donald will discover that Elsie is no Della Street:
“The secretary was banging away on the typewriter when I opened the door of the office which said ‘B L COOL – Confidential Investigations.’
“’Hello,’ I said.
“Is – er – what is she, Mrs. or Miss?’
“’Is she in?’
“’What,’ I asked, ‘do I call you besides “say?”’
“I said, ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Brand. I’m Donald Lam. Mrs. Cool hired me to fill the position mentioned in the ad.’
“ She went on typing.
“’Since I’m going to work here,’ I went on, ‘I expect we’ll be seeing quite a bit of each other. You don’t like me, and I don’t think I’m going to like you. You can let it go at that if you want to.’
“She stopped typing to turn over a page on her shorthand book. She looked up at me and said, ‘Oh, all right,’ and dropped her fingers back to the keyboard.”
Lam’s first task for his new boss is a simple one, the serving of divorce papers on a client’s missing husband, and it turns out to be as straightforward as when a certain Miss Wonderley asked a certain Mr. Spade to help locate her missing sister. Nothing and nobody are what they seem, as Donald finds out in a series of physically painful encounters. And yet our pipsqueak of a hero manages to hold his own very well, both with the myriad of goons out to pummel him and the various tricky dames who can’t seem to resist his charms. And as I said, Lam was also a lawyer, until his big mouth got him in trouble with the Bar. Disgraced or not, he is still a damn clever lawyer, and the legerdemain he pulls off in the final third of this book perhaps constitute my favorite legal shenanigans so far out of anything I have read in all three of the series.
I only hope all the A.A. Fair novels are as pulpy and brutal and hilarious as this is. Donald’s voice is as entertaining as that of my favorite Watson of all time, Archie Goodwin – which is fitting, as there are a few resemblances between the two men’s bosses. Bertha Cool is a knockout character: hiding her greedy, hardcore nature in a motherly cloak when it suits her. Her penchant for pinching pennies is a riot, and yet there is something about her that goes beyond a series of eccentric traits. As fun as their first case is, the real joy of The Bigger They Come is watching the link get forged between Lam and Cool of mutual need and grudging respect. It had better be a strong chain because it has to last another twenty-eight novels. I intend to be right there for every one of them.
So there’s you choice – from me at least – of what to vote for as the 2022 Reprint of the Year. It all depends on your tastes. If you love a classic whodunnit, a twisty impossible crime story with a hilarious pair of sleuths at its core, you must vote for Death of Jezebel. If you like your crimes a little dirtier and like them solved by a pair of slick private eyes with slightly dubous morals, then The Bigger They Come is the one for you.
Oh, yes, next week, Kate will be putting out the ballot with these two books on them. There may be other choices as well. All I can say is . . . choose wisely!!
You can read more about The Bigger They Come right here and right there.
3 thoughts on “THE 2022 ROY AWARDS: All in Love is (A.A.) Fair”
I thought this series might be too pulpy for me but the dialogue you quote sounds very entertaining, so this might be a book I might like after all.
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It’s a quick read and a kick! You have to try one!!
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