Book Review : Erle Stanley Gardner - Turn On the Heat (1940)
The Cool & Lam mysteries were pretty groundbreaking when they were written. The 1940s weren't exactly a beacon of progressive thoughts and gender equality, but Erle Stanley Gardner's vision of a scrawny, brawnless detective who worked for a businesswoman who bossed people around and occasionally solved crime, was popular enough to spawn 30 novels over the span of three decades. It's impressive. The lost Cool & Lam novel The Knife Slipped revealed the intriguing, unlikely duo to me, but would there be something to it or was it just the novelty factor?
I've read Turn On the Heat, an actual era Cool & Lam novel, in order to find out.
In this entry, Bertha Cool & Donald Lam are hired to investigate the cold trail of Amelia Rose Lintig, who disappeared twenty years prior, in the midst of a messy divorce. The investigation seems self-evident enough, but every lead that Donald Lam follows puts him into dangerous situations or violent confrontations. Amelia Rose Lintig is a buried secret and there are still people working actively to keep it buried, giving poor Donald Lam (and even an unsuspecting Bertha Cool) way more trouble than it's actually worth for them.
The mystery aspect of Turn On the Heat was infinitely more interesting and multilayered than the novel it officially replaced The Knife Slipped. It feels more dangerous. But I don't know what it is with Erle Stanley Gardner's Cool & Lam novels, but there's something artificial and telegraphic about them. I believe it has to do with the protagonists not having any personal stakes in their investigations. It's a recurring problem in detective novels, which is often worked around by making the detective an observer of the ongoing drama or by having the detective life's threatened and Turn On the Heat is somewhat of an uncomfortable in-between.
Once again, it's the relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that saves the novel from falling flat. It's very different from The Knife Slipped. Cool & Lam are chippier, more adversarial towards one another. This made Turn On the Heat more tense and unpredictable, because there was no way or knowing who would try to wedge themselves between Cool & Lam in order to tank the investigation. But their relationship was somewhat removed from the mystery, which made me feel like I was reading two stories at once. A series is supposed to give a certain sense of comfort to its readers, but Turn On the Heat was not cohesive enough to do that.
The Cool & Lam novels are competent detective mysteries, but they're not exactly exciting. Think of them like episodes of CSI Miami: they follow a very rigid format and every one of them will give you more or less the same level of excitement, but you read/watch them for the characters, who give you a reliable form of excitement. You know what you're going to get with them. Horatio Caine will throw corny one liners while putting his shades on and Bertha Cool will antagonize Donald Lam while solving crime. I thought Turn On the Heat was a little flat, but it provides a reliability that some readers are very much into.