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Mystery Monday

Top of the Heap by A.A. Fair

Written by Matt B.  (BuffaloSavage)

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.

Unusual, however, are the social science observations, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City / Sex and the Single Girl in LA circa the early 1950s: “You’re not independent. You’re a cog in the economic and social machine. You can get just so high and no higher. If you want to play you can get acquainted with a lot of playboys. If you want anything you’re stymied.” Through an ex-strip tease artist, we get the anthropological view from a participant-observer. The self-possessed stripper describes her sense of her power over the audience and her teasing of it as the core spectacle of old-time burlesque shows: “I had the most supreme contempt for the individuals in the audience, but the group of the contemptible individuals became an entity, an audience. I loved to hear the roars of applause….”

A publisher called Hard Case Crime got this novel back into print in 2004, its first publication in 30 years. It was an excellent choice.

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