Friday, May 1, 2009

Top of the Heap -- Erle Stanley Gardner
Hard Case Crime, #3

Joining the Hard Case Crime book club was the best $6-a-month investment I made last year. (It was also the only one I made, but I'm confident that if there'd been others, it would still be on top.) Sometimes the books are reprints with awesome new covers, sometimes they're original publications, some of them are stronger pieces of writing than others, but they've all been entertaining. They make me happy. If you enjoy the crime genre and aren't offended by the un-PC (especially in regards to how the ladies are treated), they're well worth a read.

Since I jumped in somewhere in the late-40's, I have, of course, been worrying about what I missed. So I decided to go back to the beginning and read their releases in order. Of course, two months in and I'm already off -- my copy of #2 hasn't arrived yet, so I had to skip ahead.

Top of the Heap was originally published in 1952 under the name A. A. Fair. Erle Stanley Gardner is most well-known for the Perry Mason series, but Top of the Heap features a different hero: Donald Lam, of the Cool & Lam Detective Agency. (I have mixed feelings about the disembodied heads on the cover of the book. On one hand, I kind of love them. On the other, they freak me out. I keep waiting for them to zoom in and out at me.)

The book starts off with a voice as classic as classic can be:

I was in the outer office, standing by the files, doing some research on a blackmailer, when he came in, all six feet of him.

He wore a plaid coat, carefully tailored, pleated slacks, and two-tone sport shoes. He was built like a secondhand soda straw, and I heard him say he wanted to see the senior partner. He said it with the air of a man who always demands the best, and then settles for what he can get.

Awesome, right? I love that last line. Turns out, Mr. Secondhand Soda Straw is looking to track down a couple of young ladies he spent the night with earlier in the week -- but he doesn't know their names. Don Lam is on the case -- but from minute one, he knows that there's something fishy about Soda Straw's story. He follows the case wherever it leads, from a failed assassination attempt of a gangster and a missing gangster's moll to a questionable mining operation and an illegal casino. And, of course, murder. Multiple murders, in fact.

The joy in this one, for me, was in the dialogue between Lam and the young ladies -- all of the young ladies. He and his secretary flirt and spar throughout the book, which I loved, and there was a conversation between Lam and a woman he questioned about the case that I dare you to read without picturing Bogart and Bacall. I had their voices ringing in my ears after that chapter. Bertha is another story, but she's one you need to experience for yourself.

I really liked that although Don Lam narrates like a hard-boiled tough guy, he isn't really all that hard-boiled. He bluffs his way through some dicey situations, and he isn't afraid of getting beat up, but he isn't always super cool. He gets scared. And he's not much of a fighter.

The mystery itself, I wasn't particularly interested in. It was so convoluted -- though unlike The Big Sleep, by the end you know who killed who, so that's something -- that I stopped trying to keep track of it and just enjoyed the ride. There were a few parts near the end where Don Lam goes on for pages explaining who did what to who and why and how he figured it out and so on -- I admit to glazing over a bit.

Overall, his voice was a kick and the action and dialogue made even the eye-crossing bits worth it. Apparently, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote almost thirty books about Cool & Lam -- Hard Case has only republished this one, but I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for the others.



1. Grifter's Game, Lawrence Block


(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)


Scott D. Parker said...

Like you, my classic crime fiction education starts with HCC. From there, I branch out. I read a bunch of crime fiction last year in an attempt to educate myself in the field. I consider Top of the Heap to be the best reprinted book I read last year. The voice is not unique but, as you mentioned, when you realize Lam is not a Bogart type, it makes all the difference. To be honest, Lam is not too dissimilar to John Blake, the protagonist/detective in Richard Aleas's two novels for HCC (actually Charles Ardai behind a pen name). Ever since I read Top of the Heap, it has been my mission to seek out and find all the Cool and Lam books. They are that good. You know, I might just have to sign up for that book club myself.

Unknown said...

i have linked Top of the Heap blog post to LitBirthdays because Friday July 17 is Erle Stanley Gardner's birthday. is a weekly calendar of authors' birthdays.