Book Review : Erle Stanley Gardner - The Knife Slipped (2016)
The name Erle Stanley Gardner might not ring a bell to you. He's the creator of Perry Mason, a curmudgeonly lawyer character who's been on television for half of the twentieth century. Believe it or not, he's one of the best-selling American authors of all-time. Although he is largely forgotten today, his previously unreleased novel The Knife Slipped surfaced in 2016, willing back into existence his forgotten duo of investigators Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Is Gardner a forgotten treasure or a relic of the past? That's what I tried to find out.
So, Donald Lam is a scrawny operative working for Bertha Cool private investigation firm. Bertha's a physically and emotionally large person who thoroughly enjoys calling the shots and bossing people around, but isn't a bad investigator herself. Donald is called at the office for the visit of Ms. Atterby and Mrs, Cunner, mother and daughter, who want to investigate Mrs. Cunner's potentially cheating ass. While it turns out Cunner's indeed being duplicitous, he's involved in a lot more than wild, adultery sex.
The Knife Slipped was supposed to be the second novel in the Cool & Lam series, but it was turned down by Erle Stanley Gardner's publisher. And it's not that difficult to understand why. While a woman bossing a male detective around might've been funny to predominantly male audiences in 1939, making that woman clearly the best detective of the two might've not went over well. And the relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam is the backbone of The Knife Slipped. Otherwise, neither the mystery or the antagonists have enough pizzazz to hold your attention.
So yeah, The Knife Slipped is technically a progressive novel, but it's progressive in the warped and backwards way a novel can be progressive when written by a man in 1939. Bertha Cool is as emancipated as it gets, but Donald Lam isn't exactly a beacon of gender equality. There are countless descriptions of how fat Bertha Cool is and how female characters have gained weight, etc. There's a thematic tension to The Knife Slipped that makes it an interesting read. It's an interesting novel to read with a historical perspective although the narrative is convoluted and not very exciting.
The novels of Erle Stanley Gardner belong to another era. It was a time where men read throwaway mysteries in public transportation and specialized authors pumped three to five of them each year, under aliases. Gardner himself published the Cool & Lam mysteries under the pen name of A.A Fair. I don't think there will be a renaissance of his work anytime soon and that it might slip into oblivion for good, but I thought it was forward-thinking enough to give my homegirl Bertha another shot. Stay tuned, I've got some more Cool & Lam for you very soon.