This is the latest installment in our new caper - a scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.
Ok, that's a little harsh, but Erle Stanley Gardner's Top of the Heap (2004, originally 1952) has neither the edge nor the flair that distinguished the first two Hard Case Crime books. Our first 'ok' book in the series.
Mr. Gardner's Donald Lam (of the 'Cool & Lam' detective agency) drily engages in detective work spread across two cities - Los Angeles and San Francisco. And 'dry' is the operative term. Despite the author's efforts to introduce twists, turns and the occasional personal stake, Lam never seems particularly engaged (with one exception, to come later). Instead, he connects the dots from one location to the next, unravelling a particularly bitty collection of crimes. There's murder, gambling, bank fraud and blackmail, but without Lam seeming to care, all the villainy in the world can't make up for a lack of tension.
The Cool and Lam series ran for almost thirty books between 1939 and 1970 with Mr. Gardner churning them out under the pen name of A.A. Fair. The overwrought, avaricious Bertha Cool is the senior partner in the relationship, although she's little more than window-dressing in Top of the Heap.1 Cool acts as something of the foil, yelling at Lam to stop fooling around and focus on money-making cases (it is easy to picture her as Axel Foley's boss), but is otherwise a non-starter. She lurks in the background making threatening noises about dissolving the partnership, but Lam is - as he seems to be in all things - curiously disengaged. (He's equally measured about his rather phenomenal financial success that occurs over the course of Top of the Heap. Not a particularly emotive man, our Donald Lam.)
The set up in Top of the Heap is a 'gimme' sort of case. A rich San Francisco playboy makes a pass at a gangster's moll. He misses, but then she goes miss-ing. He's worried that his name'll be dragged through the mud, so he engages Cool and Lam to track down the ladies he did spend the night with (platonically - they drug him and dump him on the sofa - women!). It takes Lam all of a day's work to find the missing ladies and get them to swear an affidavit. The playboy's reputation as a playboy may be wounded, but no one will mistake him for a murderer.
Cool goes house to house calling on all the characters: the playboy, the playboy's father, the police captain, the mobster, the foxy widow and the greedy suit. After about the two-thirds point, the 'tension' (such as it is) ramps up, and Cool makes a second pass, poking the hornets with a long stick. He's sort of against the clock (his job is on the line and he's borrowed money from his secretary), he's sort of in trouble (the cops and the mobsters are both a bit unimpressed by him) and he's sort of getting around to solving things. There's the mandatory clubbed-and-kidnapped scene then a big expositiony reveal, where Cool solves everyone's problems (except those of the Big Bad, of course) and makes himself rich.
The one scene with real merit is, unsurprisingly, the moment enshrined in generations of paperback covers: the casino.2 Lam's connected a mine called "The Green Door" with a gambling den called "The Green Door" and, after finding secret passes to the secret club, decides to give it a whirl.3 Unlike most of the book's atmosphere, which is less San Francisco-y and Los Angeles-y than 'generic city'-y, Mr. Gardner has a blast describing the seedy ambiance of the club. With an attention to operation detail straight out of Arthur Hailey, the author describes the picture frames, the carpet, the outfits and the games themselves. It is brilliant, and, through Lam's eyes, the reader captures the full sense of the carefully crafted but extremely superficial decadence of the scene. Plus, there's a blonde, so the artists have something to work with...
Still, casino aside, Top of the Heap is a fairly lackluster follow-up to the first two books in the Hard Case Crime catalog. Lam (according to his Wikipedia entry) is a bit of an unusual figure - he's a little scrawny for a private eye, and prefers to think rather than fight - but none of this is particularly on display in Top of the Heap. Nor, really, is this anything particularly unique in the genre, even as early as 1952. More critically, Lam's totally flat demeanour doesn't come across as 'cool', his nonchalance merely lowers the book's tension. If he'd cared that his secretary wired her life savings to him, or that his boss had fired him, or that he was going to be gunned down by hoods... well, that may have helped. Instead, Lam lazily discusses his predicament and moves on to the next set-piece scene.
I could happily entertain arguments that Top of the Heap is historically significant, and, generally speaking, I'm always in favour of resurrecting the antics of vintage detectives. However, when taken on its own - this is a middle of the road period mystery, tidily plotted, but with an unengaging protagonist.
Sadly, Bill Nelson's period-style cover also leaves me cold - I'm not too sure who the blonde is, but I'm assuming she's the lady in the casino that features in almost every iteration of the cover.4 Taking a vintage approach makes sense, given the seriously throwback nature of the novel, but it doesn't have the intensity of either of the series' previous covers (or even the earlier covers for this same book).
1: Bertha does play a key role throughout the series - she's even the lead in two of the books in 1942 and 1943, when Lam's off at war. In Top of the Heap, however, she's a screaming, and slightly stupid, harpy.
2: The first edition was published by Morrow in 1952 and features femmbot June Cleaver staring blankly at a pile of chips. Griffith Foxley's 1954 edition is properly trippy, but still pretty nifty. The legendary Robert McGinnis, however, went to town for the Dell editions (1959 and 1962). Ker-smoulder!
3: This doesn't make a huge amount of sense at the time, but several chapters later, he info-dumps his Overarching Strategy. Bit of a pet peeve, that.
4: The one cover to feature a brunette is the 1962 McGinnis, linked above. Presumably that's the widow Bishop, who is, I suppose, the one female in the novel with whom Lam has any sort of substantive emotional connection. (Besides being shouted at by Bertha Cool or ignoring his secretary.)