A.A. FAIR. The Bigger They Come (1939).

25 May

BiggerTheyCome.jpgThis over-clever, rapid-fire tale bears the marks of the author’s tutelege both in the law and in pulp-magazine writing. It pivots around Donald Lam, a scrawny would-be lawyer who had fallen on hard times. No sooner does Lam find work as an operative in the Bertha Cool Detective Agency than he’s thrust into a rollicking adventure that culminates in his narrow escape from a homicide rap. The adventure begins innocuously enough, with an assignment from Cool—his huge and hugely eccentric boss—to serve divorce papers on the husband of a new client. But the case immediately heats up. In the process of completing his ostensibly mundane task, Lam impersonates a bellboy, falls in love, buys a stolen gun that turns up later as a murder weapon, and entangles himself with a gang of racketeers who kidnap him and give his dimunitive frame a thorough going-over. Not bad for his first day on the job. On his second and third days, he tops that set of exploits by unraveling a knotty murder problem and by then tying the police of two states in knots as he proves that it’s legally possible to get away with murder. Lam narrates the story, and Erle Stanley Gardner, the author behind the A.A. Fair pseudonym, gives him a clean and witty voice that has echoes of Archie Goodwin in it. Yet the Fair style, true to its pulp origins, is more glib than fresh. Similarly, although Gardner excels at planting ingenious clues, his plotting is complex without being tight. Like the beating that Lam receives, and from which he recovers with astounding ease, this first Lam and Cool novel comes on strong but leaves no lasting impact.


Posted by on May 25, 2013 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel


2 responses to “A.A. FAIR. The Bigger They Come (1939).

  1. John

    May 31, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Still haven’t’ read one of these to completion. I started BATS FLY AT DUSK and put it down not really because I was disinterested, but for some other nebulous reason I cant’ even recall. Also started DOUBLE OR QUITS which David Vineyard says is the best Lam/Cool book but got sidetracked and never finished that one either. I understand the “more glib than fresh” line which I can apply to several other authors who do the hardboiled-tongue-in-cheek impersonation and don’t quite carry it off.

  2. Mike

    June 1, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    Thanks the comment, John. I love the energy that infuses much of mid-century American detective fiction, but in a lot of cases—this novel being a good example—writers just don’t know when to stop. There’s no let-up, no pause for reflection. (And what is a tale of detection without a bit of reflecting?) It’s all one big antic chase. The best novels, I think, occupy that ample middle ground between the humdrum and the helter-skelter.


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