Review: Turn on the Heat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Turn on the Heat by Erle Stanley Gardner is considered one of the best Cool and Lam novels in the acclaimed series, now made available from Hard Case Crime.

Love old-school suspense yarns? Yes? Then you’ll love Erle Stanley Gardner’s (writing as A. A. Fair) California-set Turn on the Heat. This was originally supposed to be the second book in the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series, but the publisher passed on the first, The Knife Slipped, which Hard Case Crime published last year. Gardner is the creator of Perry Mason, and he brings a talent for quick-fire dialogue and no-nonsense characters to this fun read.

Bertha Cool, head of the Cool Detective Agency—“profane, massive, belligerent, and bulldog”—is the amply built counterpart to her diminutive investigator Donald Lam. But what he lacks in stature, he more than makes up for in talent—when he’s not getting batted about by big toughs, that is. Bertha’s got a new job for Lam, and she wastes no time talking him up to her new client, Mr. Smith.

Bertha Cool said to Smith, “Donald can find her if anyone can. He isn’t as young as he looks. He got to be a lawyer, and they kicked him out when he showed a client how to commit a perfectly legal murder. Donald thought he was explaining a technicality in the law, but the Bar Association didn’t like it. They said it was unethical. They also said it wouldn’t work.” Bertha Cool paused long enough to chuckle, then went on: “Donald came to work for me, and the first case he had, damned if he didn’t show ‘em there was a loophole in the murder law through which a man could drive a horse and buggy. Now they’re trying to amend the law. That’s Donald for you!”

Twenty years ago, in 1918, Mrs. James C. Lintig went missing after some sort of scandal, and Donald is to find her. Seems simple, but Amelia Rosa Lintig might be more than just some housewife. Donald does meet a young woman at the Blade that seems willing to help with his search, but she’s not going to give anything up easy.

She hesitated over the receipt, holding her pen over the date line, then looked up to me. “How was the Grotto?”

“Rotten,” I said. “Where’s the best place for dinner?”

“The hotel dining room if you know what to order.”

“How do you know what to order?”

“You have to be a detective,” she said.

I let that pass, and after she saw that it had passed, she said. “You go in for a little deduction, and reason by elimination. In other words, you need a licensed guide.”

“Do you,” I asked, “have a license?”

She glanced over her shoulder toward the partition. “It isn’t quite as bad as that.”

“Aren’t you a member of the Chamber of Commerce?”

“I’m not. The paper is.”

I said, “I’m a stranger in town. You can’t tell. I might be looking for a  good manufacturing site. It would be a shame for me to get a false impression of the city.”

Behind the partition the man coughed.

“What do the local people do for good cooking?”

“That’s easy. They get married.”

“And live happily ever afterward?”


“Are you,” I asked, “married?”

“No. I eat at the hotel dining room.”

Donald convinces her to meet him for dinner, but she’s not as forthcoming as he’d like, and she hints that she might have a large boyfriend waiting in the wings. Someone actually is waiting in the wings for Donald when he returns to his hotel room, and the poor guy is roughed up and taken to an abandoned cabin in the woods outside of town. He’s hurt—but not too bad—and it seems like they tried to scare him more than anything. Still. Getting a beat down is never any fun. It doesn’t matter though, because Donald is on the case, and he always gets his man (or woman). 

The real fun begins when Bertha actually joins him on the case and discovers that there’s more to this than just a missing person. They definitely weren’t planning on a body count, that’s for sure.

This was just so much fun! And while the story is great—crooked coppers, shady dames, and double-crosses, oh my!—it’s the zippy dialogue and period details that really make it shine. Any book that uses the phrase “swell jane” is sure to put a smile on my face, and you can almost hear the crackle of the filter when Bertha Cool takes a long pull on her cigarette while bossing Donald around.

Gardner’s writing encapsulates what’s best about the ’40s and puts it to the page, calling to mind some of my favorite black-and-white films—films that relied mostly on rapid-fire, clever dialogue and the give and take of the main characters. I admit, I pictured this book playing out in black and white. It’s almost impossible not to! For readers like me, this is pulpy comfort food of the best kind, and even better, you can devour it in an afternoon.


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Kristin Centorcelli reviews books at, loves a good mystery, and is a huge fan of boxed wine. You can also follow her at @mybookishways.

Read all posts by Kristin Centorcelli for Criminal Element.


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