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The Knife Slipped: The Lost Cool & Lam Mystery


The Knife Slipped: The Lost Cool & Lam Mystery

Even some 70-plus years since its original creation in the late 1930s, THE KNIFE SLIPPED remains iconic. This previously unpublished slice of cool detective noir was supposed to be the second installment in what turned out to be the long-running Cool & Lam series written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen-name “A. A. Fair.” Gardner’s publisher didn’t care for the book --- it was thought to be a bit too groundbreaking for its time --- and in its place published a far different volume, TURN ON THE HEAT. Now, thanks to its recent discovery and being in the hands of the truly indispensable Hard Case Crime imprint, we finally get a look at an unpublished classic by a master of genre fiction. And what a look it is.

The Cool and Lam of the series are Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, both of whom defy the conventions and expectations of the times in which THE KNIFE SLIPPED was written. Cool runs her own detective agency, which consists of a secretary and Lam, who wears out the shoe leather. Cool is as tight-fisted as they come. She can squeeze a nickel until the buffalo squeaks, as they used to say back in the day; considering the prices of goods in that Depression era, to say that she squeezes nickels is not a figure of speech. Lam, in those early days of the series, was anything but a tough guy. Somewhat short of stature and frail in body, Lam spends a good deal of the book getting knocked out or otherwise on the short end of physical encounters. In contemporary times, he would have filed an OSHA complaint; back then, he just got up and kept on plugging.

"The prose invokes a subtle irony of a bygone, arguably better age.... It’s a treat and a treasure that’s not to be missed."

THE KNIFE SLIPPED is a very character-driven work with both of these characters at the wheel. The first person narrative by Lam begins with what appears to be a fairly pedestrian divorce investigation instigated by Mrs. Atterby and, with some reluctance, her adult daughter, Mrs. Cunner. Mrs. Atterby, who has her opinions to which all are entitled, wants the B. Cool Agency to get the goods on her son-in-law, who appears to be unfaithful to her daughter. The interview is a terrific setup, revealing not so much about the meat of the case as introducing us to Cool’s very colorful personality and business practices, and the characters of her new clients.

Lam is tasked with tailing Mr. Cunner. Within two days, not only does he get the goods on him, he also falls in love and uncovers a set of circumstances that threaten to rock the local municipal government. Oh, and Lam also gets himself, and the detective agency, embroiled in a murder investigation. Cool is seemingly unflappable, and while she may not be an entirely likable protagonist, she is not without her charms either. She manages to navigate the case, the firm and Lam through the storm, seemingly without breaking a sweat or missing a beat or a meal. The conclusion is surprising and priceless.

Gardner is best known as the author of the Perry Mason series. People of a certain age can’t hear the words “Perry Mason” without thinking about the opening bars of the theme (written by Fred Steiner) to the long-running television series. However, I believe that the Cool & Lam books were every bit the equal of Gardner’s more favored series, and THE KNIFE SLIPPED certainly supports that proposition. The prose invokes a subtle irony of a bygone, arguably better age. Read now and written then, it unintentionally demonstrates that while much has changed, even more has stayed the same. Corruption and graft never really go away. The darkness that lurked in the shadows, then as now, is hardly soft-soaped here, even as Cool and Lam somehow get the job done without the internet, smartphones or television. It’s a treat and a treasure that’s not to be missed.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 9, 2016

The Knife Slipped: The Lost Cool & Lam Mystery
by Erle Stanley Gardner

  • Publication Date: December 6, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Hard-boiled Mystery, Mystery
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Hard Case Crime
  • ISBN-10: 1783299274
  • ISBN-13: 9781783299270