Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

“I walked out and piloted the agency heap out to my rooming house, feeling like the tail end of a misspent life.”

Almost a year ago, I reviewed The Knife Slipped, the first second Cool and Lam novel written by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A Fair). Turn on the Heat is the second third in the series (see JJ’s comment below), and what a treat it is to see this novel back in print.

Turn on the heat

A Mr. ‘Smith’ employs Bertha Cool Confidential Investigations to find a missing woman. Decades earlier a Dr and Mrs Lintig lived in the small town of Oakview.  According to Mr Smith, who doesn’t explain his interest in the case, a scandal took place, and Mrs Lintig disappeared back in 1918. Obviously there’s a lot more to the case than Mr. Smith is willing to explain, and when Bertha Cool’s operative, Donald Lam arrives in Oakview, he finds out that he’s not the only person who’s looking for Mrs. Lintig.

Digging through old newspapers, Lam discovers that Dr. Lintig sued for divorce in 1918 citing mental cruelty. Then accusations followed from Mrs. Lintig that her husband was having an affair. Dr. Lintig signed over all his property to his wife, and then they both … disappeared. The judge and the lawyers involved in the case are all now dead, but questions remain: where did Dr. Lintig and Mrs Lintig disappear to? Who is Mr Smith and why is he so interested in tracking down a woman who disappeared decades earlier? And who else is looking for Mrs. Lintig?

Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder tangle the Lintig case in knots, and Donald Lam, on his usual shoestring budget from his boss, Bertha Cool, must solve the case without finding himself in the electric chair.

While the case under scrutiny in this fast-paced crime novel makes for entertaining reading, the real fun here lies in the toxic, sinewy relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha Cool “profane, massive, belligerent and bulldog,” is a woman who’s used to getting what she wants, but in Donald she’s met her match. He likes his independence, and she likes to keep control of the reins. There’s no glamour here in the PI business, and Donald Lam, who gets beaten up more than once, can’t be described as a tough guy. Bertha Cool, who talks about herself in the third person, mostly emasculates Lam, describing him as a “half-pint runt,”  handing him the bare minimum to run his case while she, a gigantic, majestic battleship, may well be eating all the profits.

Of course, there’s a beautiful reporter, and a visit to a strip joint:

I found a table back in a corner and ordered a drink. An entertainer was putting on an expurgated version of a chemically pure strip tease. She had more clothes on when she’d finished than most of the performers had when they started, but it was the manner in which she took them off that appealed to the audience: a surreptitious be-sure-the-doors-and-windows-are-closed-boys attitude that made the customers feel partners in something very, very naughty.

Review copy

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gardner Erle Stanley

14 responses to “Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

  1. From about 1955 to 1958, my sister and I went to the library in our small Midwest town every week to get detective novels for my dad. We read everything we got for him. Erle Stanley Grander was a favorite, but this sounds like something that the library might not have stocked. Great to hear about him again. Thanks for the review.

    • I hope that Hard Case Crime follows up with more of his books as the used book prices for this series are outrageous. Yes, you’re probably right, the library may have passed on this one.

  2. JJ

    Hey, this is brilliant — I had no idea any more were going to be republished along with The Knife Slipped (and, if you’ll forgive my Gardner fanboying, that’s technically the second book and this is the third; A Lam to the Slaughter (aka, The Bigger They Come) is the first). I’m in the early stages of reading his Doug Selby books in order at present, but when done with that I may have to go back to Donald and Bertha — they’re such great company, and the prospect of a new audiecne being given the chance to discover them is wonderful. Thanks for bringing this reprint to my attention!

  3. This is exactly the kind of books you love.
    Isn’t it surprising to have a woman as the boss of the PI agency given the time the book was first published?

  4. There’s something about that cover that makes me think they may have been targetting the male market, but it’s so subtle I can’t quite think what it is… 😉 Sounds like a load of fun, I’ll look out for a copy – thanks!

  5. Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder – that’s a classic combination. The relationship between Bertha and Donald sounds particularly interesting. Like Emma, I’m intrigued by the fact that it’s Bertha who runs the show at the PI agency.

    • Yes it’s a really different approach. Poor Donald is beaten up and thoroughly emasculated by the time the book ends, and yet… he still manages to hold his own with Bertha.

  6. It does sound a lot of fun, as did the previous one.

    In the UK at least several of the series appear to be available on Kindle, including The Bigger they Come: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bigger-They-Come-Cool-Lam-ebook/dp/B00IORP28G/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=N2J3TZ9QNAYQ0YTKGZG9

  7. On the gender issue, I just looked at a sample of the first and it opens with Lam turning up for an interview for the job.

    ‘A straw-haired secretary behind a typewriting desk banged away at a typewriter. She looked up at me. Her face was as cold as a clean bedsheet.
    “What do you want?”
    “I want to see Mr Cool.”‘

    So Gardner clearly doesn’t dodge the gender element.

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