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Mystery Monday Review – Top of the Heap

Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A.A. Fair)

Review 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. 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 Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam’s subtle questioning of persons of interest and holding off cops bent on putting him in the hoosegow.  Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall for him in spite of his short stature and reticence.

We don’t expect asides of any sort from Gardner, who drove plots like big sister Lucy runs little brother Linus. Unusual, then, are the social science tangents, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City 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 fan dancer describes her sense of 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….” Short unexpected digressions like this distinguish the Cool and Lam novels from the Mason ones.

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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