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Book Review: Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner (A.A. Fair)

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Though primarily known for his Perry Mason novels, prolific crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner also had another mystery series running many years. Written under the not-so-hidden pseudonym of A.A. Fair, the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool books were a private eye series told from the point of male detective Lam, who’s like a more compact version of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. His partner, Bertha Cool, is a large and bellicose broad (early in the series, she’s described as weighing over 200 pounds; later she slimmed down to 165) who typically brings in the cases then steps back to let Donald do all the leg work — occasionally bitching from the sidelines about his antics. If Lam is the series’ Archie Goodwin, Cool is its Nero Wolfe — if that famous plus-sized detective never did anything.

I read most of the A.A. Fair books when I was a ‘tween and futilely waited for Bertha to actually step and insert herself into a case, but it never happened in any of the books I read. The bulk of this 20-plus volume series has long been out of print, but in 2004, Hard Case Crime reissued one of ‘em, Top of the Heap, perhaps in hopes of sparking a Cool/Lam revival. It didn’t happen, but when I recently happened to spy a copy of the paperback in a dollar store, I happily snapped it up. It’d been decades since I’d read one of these books, so I was curious as to how it would hold up.

Heap, originally published back in 1952, turns out to be an agreeably intricate tale of murder, mining scams, money laundering and the inevitable west coast thugs. It being when the Cool/Lam agency gets hired by a San Fran rich kid to find a pair of babes he reportedly spent the night with. The quest proves so easy that our hero Lam quickly suspects he’s been set up to bolster a phony alibi for the moneyed playboy, and, of course, he’s right. The rest of the book is devoted to Lam uncovering the crime which drove his client into trying to concoct an easily dismantled alibi — and discovering who really committed it. In the process, our hero (as often happens in these books) is threatened with losing his p.i. license and managing to p.o. his partner after their irate client stops his check.

Though it’s reprinted under the Hard Case ribbon, Heap isn’t a particularly hard-boiled book: there’s a brief moment near the end of the novel when our hero is knocked out and then held in the den of a casino-running gangster, but we never really worry that our hero won’t talk his way out of it. As with Gardner’s Mason novels, the emphasis is on opening up and examining the mechanics of a complex mystery, not any fisticuffs or gun play. Lam is a good guide to take us through the process, capable of both cracking wise and unashamedly revealing the chinks in his armor. There’s a moment in Heap when our hero curses his own body for breaking out in sweats that’s a particularly choice character detail. You don’t see a lot of hard-boiled dicks doing that

Gardner knows his audience well enough to make sure he serves up the detective fiction basics, though: double-dealing clients, dangerous dames (one ex-stripper, two single girls on the prowl, plus a casino girl), plus a cop who both aids and threatens our hero. As a writer, Gardner was never much for the long and lascivious description — in the old days readers had to rely on paperback covers for a good sense of just how dangerous the ladies in the case looked. Hard Case’s reissue provides an evocative Bill Nelson cover showing a Veronica Lake type eying a roulette wheel and a furrow-browed guy who could be Donald Lam. No pic of our Bertha, of course, but, then, you knew there wouldn’t be, right?

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.