“You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”
It’s been a long time, too long, since I read a Hard Case Crime novel, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped arrived at a good time. Gardner, using the name A.A. Fair, originally wrote this novel with the intention that it would be the second in the Cool and Lam series, but the book was rejected, partly, for the behaviour of Bertha Cool. This is a tale of a low-rent, bottom-feeder PI agency (owned by Bertha Cool) whose operative, disbarred lawyer, Donald Lam, investigates a case of adultery, triple identities and corruption.
Bertha Cool’s agency is hired by a bossy mother-weepy daughter duo to investigate the daughter’s husband who was seen in a nightclub with a blonde “who wasn’t wearing a stitch more than the law allowed.” Bertha, who dominates the story, has a very particular attitude towards husbands –possibly because once she had one of her own.
By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do-those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighbourhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.
Bertha is an incredible, confident, tough-talking, penny-pinching character, and Donald, who’s barely making a living, knows that “if you made anything out of her you sure as hell earned it.” Here’s Bertha laying down the rules to her clients:
“Twenty-five dollars a day,” she said.
“Twenty-five dollars a day is a lot of money,” Mrs. Atterby snapped.
“Seems like it is to you,” Bertha Cool said easily, “not to me.”
Mrs Atterby hesitated. Her long, lean fingers gripped the black, patent leather handbag which was supported on her lap. You guarantee results?” she asked.
“Hell no,” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do, get him seduced?”
Donald begins the investigation, and the case of the cheating husband soon morphs into something much bigger and much more dangerous. Bertha Cool, the brains of the outfit, is a great character. While Donald is the operative, Bertha, who often talks about herself in the third person, is a huge (literally) presence, guiding the investigation every step of the way, and saving Donald’s neck more than once. She’s cheap (lets Donald drive her beat-up heap, springing for a new car when the junker breaks down), reads the odometer so that Donald can’t use the car for anything other than business, and keeps him on a pauper’s budget. But Bertha is also unflappable and commands respect from even the lowest, pavement-hugging-hood.
This PI story, with more than a smattering of humour and high on atmosphere rips along at high-speed, narrated by our flawed detective, a man who takes all the risks while his female boss maximizes profit. These two characters work well together, for as we see when the plot plays out, Bertha has a soft spot for romance, and is very well aware of Donald’s character weaknesses and his tendency to fall in love.
It was raining hard outside. It was a cold rain. The drops were big and came down hard, making little bursts of water where they hit the dark pavement. I heard her give a little exclamation behind me as she saw the weather.
Yucca City turned out most of the lights at midnight. The clouds had settled low enough so the lights from the metropolitan district below were all blotted out. The Mountain Crest apartments seemed to be shut off from the rest of the world, an island of wan light isolated in a sea of darkness.
The afterword from Russell Atwood contains some interesting information on the series and how the two main characters changed in the books that followed this second, rejected, story.