Friday, November 15, 2019

Forgotten Books: THE BIGGER THEY COME by A.A. Fair (You-Know-Who) (1939)

A review of a later book in this series by Dale Goble (who writes way more entertaining reviews than me) reminded me I'd never met Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. As you may know, I am not averse to the works of Erle Stanley Gardner, and as I'm sure you know, A.A. Fair was he. So I scrounged up a copy of this book, the first in the series (of 30).

The lead characters are great. Both are hardboiled as hell (as Perry Mason was in the beginning), and Bertha Cool has the advantage - at least by today's standards - of being wonderfully non-PC. She's fat, Fat, FAT, and flaunts it like a flag. She's probably even fatter than Nero Wolfe, because he doesn't wiggle and jiggle around inside his clothes "like a cylinder of currant jelly on a plate." 

Donald Lam is a shrimp. He's tough for his size, and even tougher in his attitude, but that doesn't prevent him being pushed around. So he's developed a sneaky mind, capable of plotting delicious revenge - and he doesn't mind hitting below the belt. 

Bertha runs a detective agency in L.A. She employs legmen, and hires Donald to be one of her legs. Their relationship is prickly from start, made more so because he's flat broke and she's extremely tight-fisted. Being less picky than most fictional P.I.s, she welcomes divorce work, and in this case the job is to serve divorce papers on a guy who's hiding from the law on other charges. Donald is to serve the papers, and uses his sneaky mind to do it. 

In the course of the story, we learn that Donald is an attorney, but had his license temporarily revoked for telling a client how to commit murder and get away with it. He didn't intend for the client to use that method - it was more in the manner of bet to prove he had one - but the bar association was not amused. 

The story sails along with plenty of clever action and dialogue for the first 2/3 of the book, and then it doesn't. At that point the story slams to a halt, and becomes a complex and almost technical treatise in which Donald uses his foolproof murder method to rescue a lady client (yeah, he's sort of in love with her) from a murder conviction. 

I'm not going into the details. If you want to commit murder and get away scott free (as I'm sure some of you do), you'll have to read the book yourself and hope the same loophole in the law that existed in California and Arizona in 1939 is still effect today, and in the states where you intend to do the deed. 

I'm sure Gardner's fellow lawyer found this portion of the book very clever, but as fiction it's dry and rather tedious. Fun fact: I read somewhere that when Raymond Chandler read the book, he recognized the loophole from a story Gardner had done in Black Mask, and noted that this A.A. Fair guy was stealing Gardner's ideas. 

In any case, I figure Gardner/Fair could only use this gimmick once in this series, so I'm hoping the next book with be entertaining from cover to cover. 


Jerry House said...

Like a surprising number of readers, I prefer the Cool/Lam books over the Perry Masons. They are fast, funny, and clever and -- unlike the Masons -- retained their pulp sensibilities as the series progressed.

Evan Lewis said...

Good to know. Perry softened up pretty quick.

Rick Robinson said...

Sorry, Jerry, but I think the Masons are much better in character and plot. I tried this very book and barely finished it. Haven't tried another since.