The Bigger They Come was the first of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam mysteries (published under the pseudonym A. A. Fair). It was published in 1939 and was followed by a further twenty-eight Cool and Lam novels.
Donald Lam is a young man down on his luck. He has applied for a job. He doesn’t know what the job is or who he will be working for. He doesn’t care. All he knows is that he’s five weeks behind with his rent and he hasn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day and he wants this job.
He lands the job and discovers that he is now a private detective, working for Bertha Cool. Bertha is very overweight, very shrewd and very avaricious. Her ethics are flexible. Very flexible indeed. She will take on any job as long as the client has the money to pay for it. That’s not to say that she’s crooked. Getting on the wrong side of the law is bad business. She just doesn’t trouble herself with concerns about the morality of her business. She is also happy to take on any kind of case. Divorce work might be sordid but it pays the bills.
Donald Lam is actually a lawyer who ran afoul of the California Bar Association. With the legal profession now effectively barred to him he’s grateful to have any sort of job. And his first case for Bertha Cool promises to be almost ridiculously simple. All he has to do is to serve divorce papers on a guy named Morgan Birks. Birks has been involved in a scandal involving pay-offs to the police but that’s not Donald’s problem. His problem is to find Birks and serve the papers. And finding Birks promises to be easy. Birks’ mistress will lead Donald straight to him.
What Donald doesn’t know is that he’s about to get caught in the middle of a web of murder, corruption and deception. The corruption and the deception don’t bother him too much but murder certainly bothers him. The police tend to take a dim view of murder. They’re going to take a particularly dim view of this one when they find out where the gun came from. And that’s going to be quite awkward for Donald Lam.
There are actually two plots in this book. The main plot involves Morgan Birks, his wife, his mistress, his wife’s brother, his wife’s lover, his wife’s best friend, a rather unpleasant but very polite gangster and a great deal of dirty money. The second plot, or sub-plot, concerns the plan Donald Lam comes up with to extricate himself from the mess he finds himself in. That sub-plot hinges on an interesting loophole that Donald Lam had discovered in California and Arizona law. It’s a loophole that can allow a man to get away with murder, quite literally. It’s actually a legal loophole that Erle Stanley Gardner had himself discovered, a loophole that was hurriedly closed after this book was published. It’s a remarkably ingenious scheme which allows Gardner to introduce a courtroom scene. It’s a brief courtroom scene but it’s devastatingly effective.
This novel has most of the trademarks that made Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries so popular - colourful characters, a complex tightly-constructed plot that turns on a fine point of law and Gardner’s characteristically sceptical attitude towards the criminal justice system. Bertha Cool and Donald Lam are an apparently ill-matched pair who turn out to be a very effective private detective team. They’re as fascinating and charismatic in their own ways as Perry Mason.
Donald Lam is only a little guy but he’s feisty and if he has to fight he’ll fight smart, and if necessary he’ll fight dirty. Bertha is unscrupulous and absurdly miserly but she’s intelligent and unflappable and indifferent to threats and she’s impossible to dislike.
In 1958 a pilot episode was made for a proposed television series based on the Cool and Lam books. It’s actually not at all bad and it’s rather a pity the series came to nothing. I’ve reviewed the Cool and Lam pilot on my TV blog.
The Bigger They Come is splendidly entertaining private eye fiction. Highly recommended.