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.