Earl Stanley Gardner, |
writing as A.A. Fair,
The Knife Slipped
(Hard Case Crime, 2016)
Although Earl Stanley Gardner is best known for the 80-something Perry Mason novels he published, he also had a concurrent series of private-eye novels featuring Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, whose adventures he covered in 29 books. Thirty, if you count The Knife Slipped, which was meant to be the second title in the series but was never published. When it was kicked back by William Morrow, who published the series, Gardner never revised it nor offered it to another publishing house.
Gardner operated what he called a fiction factory, where he dictated several books to several secretaries simultaneously. It was easier to just compose a new one than to try to save an existing title that had been rejected.
Nixed by his publisher because its characters' attitudes toward sex went far beyond what Morrow thought mystery readers could handle, the manuscript went into his trunk and was discovered among his papers long after his death. Now, some 76 years later, The Knife Slipped is seeing its first publication.
Was it worth the wait? Yes. It has a slow start, but once it builds momentum, The Knife Slips turns out to be a fascinating noir read.
Cool and Lam are two ethically challenged private eyes. They specialize in cases no other firm will touch, skating the very edges of the law; Bertha Cool has little interest in solving cases when she can find a way to profit from them instead. Donald Lam, on the other hand, is not your Phillip Marlowe type of detective; a tiny, skinny man, he gets beaten up regularly, instead of doing the beating, and he tries to lie his way out of trouble. In fact, lying is his stock in trade; it's how he conducts business. His biggest goal is to keep working -- he is hired by the day or by the case by Bertha Lam.
Although there is certainly formula in the book, it deviates from the standard hard-boiled private eye formula. It is a character-driven book with dual protagonists, who both provide first-person narration. Hired to handle a simple divorce investigation -- to prove that the husband is cheating -- they easily prove he is but then it gets complicated; the husband in question is murdered and Lam finds himself in the center of a conspiracy to sell answers to the civil service exam by crooked cops to other cops, a conspiracy that grows deadly when Cool tries to cut herself a slice of the pie and "the knife slips."
How they extricate themselves from this situation alive makes for a cool book. Maybe William Morrow was right; maybe the book was too strong in 1939. That is no longer the case. The book suits our times and it's good to have it available.
book review by
Michael Scott Cain
14 January 2017
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