Friday, January 27, 2023

Spill the Jackpot - A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)

SPILL THE JACKPOT, published in hardcover by William Morrow in 1941 and reprinted in paperback more times than I’m going to count, is the fourth Donald Lam/Bertha Cool novel by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair. Or the fifth if you count THE KNIFE SLIPPED. It doesn’t really matter, because either way this novel is early enough in the series that I got the feeling Gardner was still experimenting a little, deciding exactly how he wanted things to go with these books. As a result, he tries several things that are a little different.

For one thing, as this book opens Bertha has lost a lot of weight due to a stay in a sanitarium in Salt Lake City where she recovered from a bad bout of flu and pneumonia. When Donald arrives to pick her up, she’s not exactly thin, but she’s slimmed down enough to seem almost like a different person. Gardner even gives her a possible romantic interest in a man she meets on the plane going back to Las Vegas, where she and Donald are supposed to meet a potential client before returning to Los Angeles.

Wouldn’t you know it, the guy they meet on the plane turns out to be the client. He’s a wealthy businessman who wants to hire the B. Cool Detective Agency to locate a missing young woman who was engaged to his son. The only thing Donald and Bertha have to go on is that the missing girl got a letter from somebody in Las Vegas.

After that, things get very complicated, very quickly, even for a Gardner novel. Donald gets a lesson on how to steal from slot machines. He gets knocked down by a punch-drunk ex-boxer who then becomes a friend and ally. He meets several attractive young women, some of whom are probably not trustworthy. He tangles with another ex-boxer who’s definitely not a friend. He gets hauled in by the Vegas cops. And eventually, somebody winds up dead, a murder that Donald feels compelled to solve, even though in the middle of the investigation he up and quits Bertha’s agency.

Bertha, meanwhile, hangs out in the hotel and flirts with their client while Donald goes off to the desert for several days and then makes a quick trip to Reno and back. The reader knows not to take his resignation from the agency too seriously, of course, and as always, Donald figures out who committed the murder.

But along the way, Gardner gives us a long section where Donald, the girl he’s fallen for, and the amiable ex-boxer spend several days camping in the desert and Donald gets lessons in pugilism. This has almost nothing to do with the plot and reads more like Gardner was trying his hand at some Hemingwayesque mainstream fiction . . . and I loved it. The writing is very vivid, reminiscent of Gardner’s Whispering Sands stories without the mystery and adventure elements. It’s just Donald, his girl, and his friend getting back to nature for a while. This is such nice stuff I could have read a whole novel of it, I think.

Of course, sooner or later Donald has to go back and solve the crime, which he wraps up neatly, but also with a double reverse that I actually didn’t figure out until several hours after I’d finished the book. And when it hit me what actually happened, it was almost a jaw-dropping moment. Donald is always thinking two or three steps ahead of everybody else in the book, and Gardner was definitely that far ahead of me.

I was prepared to say in this review that the changes Gardner makes in Bertha are a big misfire (and they still don’t really ring true for me), but by the end of the book he’s resolved that angle satisfactorily, too. Overall, SPILL THE JACKPOT is one of my favorite books in the series. I’m reading/rereading the Cool and Lam books in order, and it’s pretty interesting to watch Gardner’s development as a writer . . . and to think about what he might have done if he had gone in different directions.

1 comment:

Regan MacArthur said...

That sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for the tip. (I've only read one Perry Mason to date, but I enjoyed it. Just how the heck did Gardner keep those plots straight? Yeesh!)