Friday, June 12, 2009

Forgotten Books: Try Anything Once -- A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

I’m not sure any of the books in this series are truly forgotten, since there are still a lot of Donald Lam/Bertha Cool fans out there, but they’re certainly not as well known as they once were. Also, all the books are out of print except possibly TOP OF THE HEAP, which was reprinted by Hard Case Crime a few years ago. Anyway, you can’t go wrong with any of the books in this series, so today we’ll look at one of them I read recently.

TRY ANYTHING ONCE is from 1962 and finds Donald being hired to impersonate a man who went to a motel with a beautiful young woman who’s not his wife. It seems that around the same time they were at the motel, a murder was committed there, and naturally the cops are looking for anyone who might be a witness. Also naturally, the client doesn’t want his wife knowing that he was at the motel with another woman, so he persuades Donald to fix the situation. It seems like a relatively simple job, since the cheating husband and the beautiful cocktail hostess he was with don’t have anything to do with the murder that took place at the motel.

Here’s where you’re going, Suuuure, the two cases aren’t connected. And suuuure the client has told Donald the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about what happened. And you’d be right to be suspicious, as Donald is right from the start. Things get a lot more complicated before Donald untangles all the deception and murder. Despite their physical differences, Donald Lam has always reminded me a little of Mike Shayne, because he’s usually two steps ahead of everybody else in the book and three steps ahead of the reader. Bertha has quite a bit to do in this one, including getting Donald out of jail twice, and she also manages to utter her trademark exclamation, “Fry me for an oyster!”

I enjoy the Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner a great deal, but the Lam & Cool books he wrote as A.A. Fair are my favorites among his work. The plots are just as bizarrely complex as the Masons, and the books are genuinely funny. Donald’s first-person narration is one of the great voices in mystery fiction, rivaling Archie Goodwin for wise-assery, if there’s such a word. And if there isn’t, there should be. Try anything once, as Bertha says to Donald, and if you haven’t read any of this series, you should try this book or another A.A. Fair novel immediately.

12 comments:

GeoffS said...

I've only read the HCC book, but liked it a lot and have been meaning to backtrack and seek out some of the other titles. This may finally motivate me to actually do so (too many books, too little time).

David Cranmer said...

The Gardner estate should pay you a small sum for the plugs you have provided here. Its worked. I was in the used bookstore last week and snagged The Case of the Waylaid Wolf. (For some reason, Gardner doesn't jump to mind when I'm browsing.)

Scott Parker said...

I think I have this one [pulls out list of Cool and Lam books I carry in my wallet] Yup, I have this one. Cool and Lam books are the series I *always* search for, both in the "F" section and the "G" section. Ironically, just yesterday, I found another, 1966's Widows Wear Weeds. I've read Top of the Heap and absolutely loved it. Incidentally, I also saw a book that featured ESG's sheriff character, Bill Eldon, I think. It was titled "The Clue of the..." It was a twofer from the 1950s, I think. Ever read any of those?

Graham Powell said...

I've read a few of the books in this series, and they're all pretty good (at least). One thing I noticed is how much of the story has to do with the relations between the sexes, which in the books I've read tend to be pretty toxic.

pattinase (abbott) said...

These books lined the bookcase of my grandparents' house in the fifties.

Jerry House said...

Scott, I think Two Clues was the only book with Bill Eldon. As I remember, it was interesting but not great. Eldon went the way of those other brief hardcover Gardner characters such as Terry Clane and Grandpa Wiggins.

James, I understand that most readers at that time preferred the A. A. Fair books to the Perry Masons.

Frank Loose said...

I love the series, James. The HCC release was the first i read and it sent me searching for and buying others. I've read about ten and have yet to be disappointed. I agree that some of the plots can get plenty complicated and convoluted, but the banter between Lam and Cool is priceless and worth the price of admission. There are a couple titles early in the series where Lam is off soldiering in WWII and Bertha works the cases "solo." Great fun seeing more of Bertha in action and her pov.

Kerrie said...

I'm sure now I haven't read enough Gardner, and none recently!

beb said...

I've only read one or two Perry Mason books, both early in the series. They were OK, not like the Lam and Cool books which are really good.

Another series I've read (a couple books) is Doug Selby, the D. A. This series only ran to maybe 6-9 books. One book was all about the politics involved in the DA's investigations, which was different. The other, set during the war and a lot about the strategy of conducting a lawsuit. While this was kind of interesting but not terribly compelling.

Hard Case really ought to do a few more Lam and Cool books.

James Reasoner said...

I've read a couple of the D.A. books and thought they were okay, but didn't like them as well as the other two series. Some people think quite highly of them, though, so I intend to try at least one more, one of these days.

Corey Wilde said...

Me, too! Me, too! Perry Mason is good, but Donald Lam is da man. I can (and do) read these books over and over. Donald is the number one PI of all time IMO.

Tom K. Mason said...

Great to see others remember this series. My dad got me hooked on these in the early 1980s and I read about a dozen of them over the course of a year. I love the snappy dialogue and the relationship between Cool and Lam is hysterical, especially her willingness to throw him under a bus at the earliest opportunity. I can't get into the Perrys at all, but I love these books.