Thursday, September 29, 2016

Turn on the Heat

Turn on the Heat – Erle Stanley Gardner, writing as A.A. Fair

Published in 1940, Turn on the Heat is the second Bertha Cool & Donald Lam PI mystery by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair. An untrustworthy client hires them to find a woman who disappeared around 20 years before. Another investigator who was poking around the case then gets murdered. Cool and Lam must find the missing woman, but throw sand into the eyes of the police to keep them from getting close to their client. The title, therefore, refers to law-school grad Lam creating confusion and distraction.

The plus is that the story gets tangled plenty fast as Cool and Lam scramble to avoid jail and charges as accomplices after the fact. Lam tries to protect Cool by keeping her out of the loop, but as usual she blunders into the thick of things anyway. Another positive is that in the Cool and Lam novels, more than the Perry Mason novels, Gardner examines the rough side of local politics: seedy cops, crooked politicians, co-opted news reporters, mean gangsters, and cowed citizens. As in the Mason novels, the killing takes second to the complex criminal scheme that goes bad and leads up to the killing.

The negative is that being elaborate, plot and incident may be hard to follow and at least some of the time make extreme demands on intelligence and memory. Another qualm I had – this time it wasn’t enough telling myself to make allowances for outdated attitudes* – was related to the tone when Gardner described female characters. The running joke in the series is that the females fall for Lam due to his gentlemanly ways and willingness to listen without handing out advice. But in this one the young woman swoons for Lam, unbelievably. Bertha Cool’s dependence on Lam to see them through to the end wasn’t consistent with her confidence, assertiveness, and toughness. The chuckling references to her pounds didn’t do much for me.

Still, I think the Cool and Lam novels are funnier, grittier, and sexier than the Perry Mason novels. Well-worth reading. I found 10 Cool and Lam mysteries in a used book store this past summer. It was the find of the year so far.

* Which apparently have not gone away considering these nasty comments routinely made about women.

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