Review: The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner was meant to be the 2nd book in the Cool & Lam Mystery series but was shelved and subsequently lost for 75 years until Hard Case Crime got their hands on it (Available December 6, 2016).

Outside the mystery and detective community, the name Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1966) is receding into the past. Many that I asked—in my most unscientific of polls—had no idea who he was. On the flip side, however, almost 100% surveyed knew, or at least had heard of, the name Perry Mason—one of Gardner’s most famous creations. Absolutely none outside the genre’s bubble had ever heard of the Cool and Lam series that Gardner wrote under the pseudonym A.A. Fair. 

Now, here’s my confession: I’ve read plenty of Perry Mason but not one Cool and Lam book—until the latest Hard Case Crime landed in my hands. I knew the series was, at one point, hip enough for Frank Sinatra to play the part of Donald Lam on radio’s U.S. Steel Hour of Mystery, but that bit of knowledge was the closest I’d gotten to the duo.

I considered reading one of the other twenty-nine books in the series beforehand as a primer, but decided to wing it and let the merits of The Knife Slipped speak for itself. And for some reason, another admission, I had assumed Cool and Lam were an item. Whew! How wrong that turned out to be in short order. Donald Lam works for Bertha Cool’s investigation agency as a detective. Here’s his description of her:

A big shadow blotted out all the light on the frosted glass panel of the outer door. The knob rattled, and Bertha Cool’s avoirdupois came flooding into the room.

Bertha didn’t waddle when she walked. She didn’t stride. She was big, and she jiggled, but she was hard as nails, physically and mentally. She flowed across that office with the rippling, effortless progress of a cylinder of jelly sliding off a tilted plate.

Insulting, right? Well, in a nutshell, she calls him a runt to their clients and routinely questions his overall manliness—so, there’s that for payback. But first, Mrs. Cool. Her all business attitude, in your face approach, and relaxed view of the moral code is quite a thing to behold—something that fits in seamlessly with more modern twenty-first century’s ways compared to when written in 1939. Per The Knife Slipped’s back blurb: it was shelved because Gardner’s publisher “objected to (among other things) Bertha Cool’s tendency to ‘talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people.’ ”

The clients in this mystery are Mrs. Atterby and her daughter Edith Cunner, who suspect Edith’s husband Eben is cheating after witnesses see him at a club with an unknown blonde. Mrs. Cool doesn’t suffer the sniffling woman, telling her that all men cheat, even her own late husband cheated, and she should ignore Eben’s philandering. During the harangue, she sprinkles in a healthy amount of cuss words. All the while, she keeps her mind on the clock. Lam says, “And as for money itself, she hung onto it like a barnacle caressing the side of a battleship.” Oh, so many good old-style pulp lines to chuckle out loud at.  

Donald Lam, at first, is hard to gauge in terms of exactly what kind of detective he happens to be. Perhaps because of the emphasis of Cool’s measurements, I was expecting we had another Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin relationship in the works—not the case. Lam keeps his tongue while Cool is speaking, and his first-person narration doesn’t contain any of the glib Goodwin style. He’s a confident operative as he tails Eben, almost immediately finding him picking up said blonde who may or may not be the man’s sister. I love that Lam takes meticulous notes of not only his prey, but also how much this and that costs because of his budget-mindful boss.

Without a doubt, she’s in charge, and when a cop begins slapping Lam around to speak, he waits until Bertha Cool says it okay to talk. This is certainly not Sam Spade, Archie Goodwin, or any other private dick of the era, but don’t get the wrong impression—he’s also not a pushover.

Eben ends up being killed while Lam is scoping the joint. Good thing Lam’s clever on his feet, because he has a romantic interlude on the side with a switchboard operator who hands him the smoking gun that killed Eben. He ditches it to protect her, then must balance it all with the cops and, even more frighteningly, Bertha Cool. Along the way, the “runt” is loosened up the hardboiled way:

I heard motion behind me. The big man said, “Not with the gun, Al.”

I whirled and flung up my arm to protect my head against the gun barrel. The big man’s fist, crashing through under my upraised arm, caught me on the point of the jaw. I felt my heels dragging along the floor as I jerked backward, crashed into a chair, and lost interest in everything.

In the afterword by Russell Atwood, he explains that this worthy addition to the Cool and Lam canon sits somewhat outside the norm of how these characters typically act. Not that the characterizations are unnoticeable from the rest of the series, but Lam becomes much more the brains of the outfit in the long run and less prone to mistakes. Besides being a tough-as-nails boss, Cool shows sympathy toward her subordinate that apparently isn’t in keeping with the series overall. 

For me, I got such a kick out of these individuals as presented in The Knife Slipped, I’d almost regret to see them any other way. But despite differences, I’d still be interested in reading more.

Basically, since it’s still the Depression, Lam is working hard for a living, counting his pennies to find out whether he has enough spare change for a muddy cup of coffee while casing the joint. And Bertha Cool is a take-no-prisoner’s kind of business owner, who is succeeding beyond expectations in a world that believes she belongs in the kitchen. I like the complexity of this relationship that was progressive for its time nearly seventy years ago, and in some ways still is in 2016.

Welcome back, Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. The pleasure is all ours.


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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.


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