“The Bigger They Come” by A. A. Fair

“The Bigger They Come” by A. A. Fair

Often times, I read some Golden Age novel in a quick zip over the weekend as a break from my more “serious” reading. But whenever my weekday reading is a fair-play GAD whodunit itself, I resort to less strictly clued crime fiction as my respite. Two of the authors whom I turn to most for this break-from-the-break are Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout. My most recent endeavor found me exploring for the first time the second-longest series written by Mr. Gardner – the Cool and Lam books written under the pseudonym A. A. Fair, which he did in order to prove that he could get a novel published without relying on name recognition. It’s easy to see why he was able to prove that so easily.

The novel starts pretty abruptly. Our narrator, the lightweight and physically inept Donald Lam stumbles into the B. L. Cool Detective Agency looking to hopefully fill in a job listing after weeks of near-homelessness. When his turn for an interview comes, he’s shocked to find that B. L. Cool is not a man but a 60 year old, 200-lb. woman named Bertha. He tries to lie his way into the job, but Bertha Cool catches him in the act – and hires him. Donald’s first case with Bertha Cool is for Sandra Birks – a woman who wants a subpoena delivered to her husband Morgan, who is in hiding because of an embezzlement indictment, for their divorce trial. It takes some thinking, and several complications like Donald falling for Sandra’s friend Alma and the arrival of Sandra’s irritable brother Bleatie, but through some smart trickery Donald gets the subpoena delivered. Then he gets kidnapped by Morgan Birks’ former associates. Then there’s a murder. Then Alma gets blamed. Things are not looking so hot for the Cool Detective Agency anymore, unless Donald can pull off his biggest trick yet…

Now, I’m usually able to flip through any one of Gardner’s novels really quickly, in two or three sittings over that many days. It took me about twice as long this time, but that was only because I had some busy days this week. Of the six days over which I read The Bigger They Come, I actually only had time to read over three of those days, and I basically read a third of the novel each day in an hour’s time. It goes to show that even for the busy person, Gardner’s prose is so cool and quick so as to be endlessly readable and quickly understandable. People often attribute this to Gardner’s focus on dialogue over descriptive passages and what John Steinbeck jokingly called “hooptedoodle”. And this is true: Gardner can paint a descriptive picture much more quickly than most other authors, and in such a way that it’s as easy to digest as his snappy passages of dialogue. Gardner wrote fast and it shows in the best possible way, with novels like this that read fast but still feel meaty and complex.

It’s interesting to see Gardner working with brand new characters – but then again, it’s always interesting to see Gardner writing about “not Perry Mason”. He’s got Cool and Lam figured out for this first novel – from what I can tell, many of the character attributes seen throughout the whole series are already concrete in this first entry, including Donald’s juxtaposition of physical frailty and quick wits, and Bertha’s grandmotherly crankiness. This is a marked improvement over the not-so-gradual metamorphosis of Perry Mason from hard-boiled lawyer to… um… Raymond Burr. It’s also interesting to see how he subverts the expectations of the hard-boiled private detective genre, especially with the two main characters being exact opposites of their counterparts in typical hard-boiled novels. One doesn’t expect Gardner to engage in satire, but he does it here and does it well. While we get to know these central two very well, and while they get a lot of good development over this book, the other characters who populate the main story of The Bigger They Come do not get quite the same treatment. While a few of them do really stand out, like Bleatie or the empathetic henchman Fred, some of them are pretty cardboard, especially Donald’s damsel-in-distress Alma Hunter. It’s a bit strange because I feel like Gardner often has characters who are memorable throughout the novel, if not necessarily memorable afterwards. Maybe he just put a bit too much effort into really filling in the central duo, and I can’t blame him for trying that.

The plot is as zany and complex a crime story as any of his other books. There’s a lottery scam, the main subpoena plot of the first half, the organized crime, the murder, Donald’s peregrinations in the final act, and of course that old Gardner favorite, legal jiggery-pokery. It’s exactly what I expect of Gardner plot-wise, and I love it. Even if by the end I can’t quite keep track of everything, it’s still a lot of fun to read. There’s actually an added bonus to The Bigger They Come – an impossibility! Gardner is nowhere near the first name to come to mind when thinking about impossible-crime authors, but he had a few memorable forays into the sub-genre, most notably the standalone novella “The Clue of the Runaway Blonde”, a no-footprints mystery which I have yet to read. The first Cool and Lam mystery contains an impossible appearance, which is an often unappreciated cousin of the classic impossible disappearance. The impossibility concerns how one character makes it into a hotel that has been watched by organized crime henchmen – and don’t worry, for once you can trust the henchman! The solution to this impossibility is based on a couple of common gambits, but it’s clued so well and has some really interesting aspects. I can’t help but admire Gardner’s spark of ingenuity with it. Any lingering confusion I still have over the solution of the actual murder is negated by this awesome mid-novel reveal.

The Bigger They Come is a fascinating look at how Erle Stanley Gardner creates new series characters and the world they inhabit, and despite the pitfalls of the book, like some lack of characterization and a bit of that Gardneresque over-plotting, there are some really interesting parts too which make this book stand out from a lot of his other works. Even if this isn’t necessarily my favorite so far of the Gardner books I’ve read, it’s definitely one of the ones I’ll remember well for a long time and it’s convinced me to dive deeper into the world of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.

Other Reviews:

The Invisible Event

My Reader’s Block

The Rap Sheet

Vintage Pop Fictions

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