Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for creating the archetype of the good lawyer in the series of novels starring his character Perry Mason, who was featured in a number of films in the 1930s played by Warren William and others, but was most famously portrayed by Raymond Burr in the popular television drama that ran for nine seasons on CBS and that thrives in syndication to this day. (Did you know that Gardner himself played a judge in the final episode?)
What most people don't know is that he also wrote another series of novels, under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, featuring the investigation team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. The Cool and Lam books numbered 29 and were published between 1939 and 1970, around the same time that Gardner was writing the Mason novels. Though Top of the Heap is the thirteenth in the series, it also serves as a fine introduction to the characters, though mostly Lam, as the legman, is featured.
When John Carver Billings ('"The Second," he amended.') enters the offices of Cool and Lam, asking for the "senior partner," Donald Lam sits back and waits for the sparks to fly, since that title refers to Bertha Cool and Billings doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who will accept a woman as a detective. But when Bertha calmly calls Donald into her office, sans explosion, he knows there must be a lot of money involved. Billings is looking for someone to corroborate his whereabouts of the previous Tuesday night and is willing to pay for the privilege, but what seems like a simple job -- with a five-hundred-dollar bonus attached -- turns into something entirely other when Donald actually does some investigation and discovers that Billings has other things on his mind besides his innocence.
This is the new Hard Case Crime edition of the wonderful old A.A. Fair story (really by Erle Stanley Gardner). Brainy Donald Lam and his boss, the large and blustery (but nobody's fool) Bertha Cool, solve another case. Recommended.
I prefer my detective novels noir, but this is a good book nevertheless. Should appeal to Erle Stanley Gardner fans.
Published in 1952, this is the thirteenth of 29 novels starring the PI partnership of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that were written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name of A.A. Fair. After reading about half-dozen of this series (a misnomer since they needn't be read in any order), I think that Fair's Cool and Lam novels are smarter, sexier, wittier and just more entertaining than Gardner's Perry Mason novels.
Top of the Heap is worth reading because it is both characteristic and uncharacteristic of Gardner's approach to mystery writing. As usual, the murder is a relatively small part of an intricate scheme, plot, or scam. As the running joke, Bertha Cool plays the comic miser like Uncle Scrooge and Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways comically contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam's subtle questioning of persons of interest and cunningly holding off the cops that want to put him in the hoosegow. Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall like dominoes for him in spite of his short stature and poverty due to Bertha paying him so little
When the beautiful girlfriend of a notorious gangster vanishes, the last man to be seen with her needs an alibi - and fast. Enter Donald Lam of the Cool & Lam detective agency. But his client's story doesn't add up, and soon Lam's uncovered a mining scam, an illegal casino, a doulbe homicide...and a chance for an enterprising private eye to make a small forutne - if he can just stay alive long enough to cash in!