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.)