Sat 1 Oct 2016
by Francis M. Nevins
Everyone has heard of the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) is best known for having compiled some anthologies of “Rivals” stories that later became the basis of a popular British TV series. Very few would disagree that the most eminent and durable of Holmes’ rivals is Nero Wolfe: the brilliant detective, the Watson, the unforgettable place where sleuth and narrator live, and so on. But are there any rivals of Nero Wolfe? Every so often one finds a character, usually obese and irascible, whose first name comes from Roman history and his last from an animal: Trajan Beare, say, or Tullius Dogge. But if that sort of name were necessary, Wolfe would have few rivals indeed.
Back in the Thirties and Forties Robert George Dean wrote a series about Tony Hunter, a PI working for an agency at whose head sits one Imperator Schmidt. What makes this series distinctive is that Tony does both the legwork and the brainwork and Schmidt is never seen, at least not in the few Hunter novels I’ve read.
Then there’s a pulp series by D.L. Champion about an acerbic and sardonic investigator named Rex Sackler. This character is not fat and intellectual like Wolfe but pathologically thin and a compulsive pennypincher. He spends money “with all the ease of a bantam hen laying a duck’s egg” and is addicted to maneuvering his legman Joey Graham (whose narrative style is vaguely Archie-esque) into poker games at which he wins back most of the poor schnook’s salary.
But for my money the most notable of the Wolfe-and-Goodwin rivals is the duo created by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair: the team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, whose debut dates from 1939, five years after Wolfe’s debut in Fer-de-Lance.
Bertha is certainly obese and irascible enough for a Wolfe rival, but she’s also foul-mouthed and money-mad and not at all brilliant but dependent on her legman and later partner for brainwork. Donald Lam is certainly no match for Archie Goodwin when it comes to brisk crisp narration but the way he tells his stories is far livelier than the relentless business English of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels.
One rarely finds law as a central element in a Nero Wolfe novel (although 1959’s Plot It Yourself has a lot to do with copyright law and reflects Stout’s years of work with the Authors’ Guild), but it’s a rare Cool & Lam novel which doesn’t revolve around law in one way or another.
Gardner was no expert on the history of the kind of fiction he wrote but he clearly knew Melville Davisson Post’s “The Corpus Delicti” (1896), which introduced criminal lawyer Randolph Mason. The heart of that classic story was the attorney’s ability and willingness to advise a client how to commit a cold-blooded murder, admit the deed in open court and walk away free. Gardner developed the core of Post’s story into The Bigger They Come (1939), first and perhaps finest of the C&L novels. Here’s the crucial conversation between Lam and his new employer.
Lam: “I wasn’t disbarred and I didn’t violate professional ethics.”
Cool: “The grievance committee reported that you did.”
Lam: “The grievance committee were a lot of stuffed shirts. I talked too much, that’s all.”
Cool: “What about, Donald?”
Lam: “I did some work for a client. We got to talking about the law. I told him a man could break any law and get away with it if he went about it right.”
Cool: “That’s nothing. Anyone knows that.” [Can you imagine such cynicism in a Perry Mason novel?]
Lam: “The trouble is I didn’t stop there. I don’t figure knowledge is any good unless you can apply it. I’d studied out a lot of legal tricks. I knew how to apply them.”
Cool: “Go on from there. What happened?”
Lam: “I told this man it would be possible to commit a murder so there was nothing anyone could do about it. He said I was wrong. I got mad and offered to bet him five hundred dollars I was right, and could prove it. He said he was ready to put up the money any time I’d put up my five hundred bucks. I told him to come back the next day. That night he was arrested. He turned out to be a small-time gangster….[He told the police] that I had agreed to tell him how to commit a murder and get off scot-free. That he was to pay me five hundred dollars for the information, and then if it looked good to him, he had planned to bump off a rival gangster.”
Cool: “What happened?”
Lam: “The grievance committee…revoked my license for a year. They thought I was some sort of a shyster. I told them it was an argument and a bet. Under the circumstances, they didn’t believe me. And, naturally, they took the other side of the question — that a man couldn’t commit deliberate murder and go unpunished.”
Cool: “Could he, Donald?”
Cool: And you know how?”
Cool: “And locked inside that head of yours is a plan by which I could kill someone and the law couldn’t do a damn thing about it?”
Cool: “You mean if I was smart enough so I didn’t get caught.”
Lam: “I don’t mean anything of the sort. You’d have to put yourself in my hands and do just as I told you.”
Cool: “You don’t mean that old gag about fixing it so they couldn’t find the body?” [Clearly a reference to Post’s “The Corpus Delicti” although not a completely accurate description of Randolph Mason’s plan.]
Lam: “That is the bunk. I’m talking about a loophole in the law itself, something a man could take advantage of to commit a murder.”
Cool: “Tell me, Donald.” [Gardner leaves us to imagine the smarmy seductive tone in which she must have said this.]
Lam [laughing]: “Remember, I’ve been through that once.”
After such a buildup I’d be a toad if I didn’t explain Lam’s scheme without, I hope, ruining The Bigger They Come for those who have never read it. I commit a murder in California. Then I drive across the state line into Arizona where I proceed to frame myself on a charge of obtaining property under false pretenses, although leaving open a legal escape hatch for myself.
I then drive back to California, run through the quarantine station at the border, get chased and caught by California cops who lock me up in the border town of El Centro. In due course I am legally extradited to Arizona to face the false pretenses charge. Once I clear myself and that charge is officially dropped, I confess to the California murder. But when California moves to extradite me, I file a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that on these facts I can’t be compelled to return.
Except that he doesn’t actually commit a murder, this is exactly what Donald Lam does in The Bigger They Come: “The only authority which one state has to take prisoners from another state comes from the organic law which provides that fugitives from justice may be extradited from one sovereign state to another. I am not a fugitive from justice….[A] man is not a fugitive from a state unless he flees from that state. He doesn’t flee from that state unless he does so voluntarily and in order to avoid arrest. I did not flee from California. I was dragged from California. I was taken out under legal process to answer for a crime of which I was innocent. I claimed that I was innocent. I came to Arizona and established my innocence. Any time I get good and ready to go back to California, California can arrest me for murder. Until I get good and ready to go back, I can stay here and no power on earth can make me budge.”
Is this good law? Gardner’s good friend John H. Wigmore, dean of Northwestern Law School, first scoffed at the argument. Then, after Gardner had literally written a brief for him on the issue, he admitted that the loophole had greater possibilities than he had first supposed. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it today. The principal case on which Gardner relied was all but overruled by the California Supreme Court in 1966, a few years before his death.
Perry Mason was portrayed by many different actors in the movies, on radio and of course on TV. As far as I can determine, Cool and Lam have appeared in the media only three times. The second novel in the series, Turn on the Heat (1940), was the basis for an episode of ABC Radio’s U. S. Steel Hour, June 23, 1946. Who played big Bertha remains unknown but Donald was portrayed by, of all unlikely people, Frank Sinatra.
During the golden age of live TV, The Bigger They Come was adapted for the 60-minute CBS anthology series Climax! with Art Carney as Donald and Jane Darwell as Bertha. The date was January 6, 1955, my twelfth birthday. I don’t remember if I was drinking coffee at that age but if I had been, I’m sure it would have come pouring out my nose like the waters of Niagara at sight of Ed Norton from The Honeymooners playing a PI.
Finally, in 1958 Gardner’s own company, Paisano Productions, produced a 30-minute pilot for a projected C&L TV series, directed by Jacques Tourneur, with ex-jockey Billy Pearson as Lam and Benay Venuta as Cool. Gardner himself introduced the characters from the Perry Mason office set but the pilot failed to attract any sponsors, although it can be seen today on YouTube.
Personally, I regret that the role of Donald was never offered to the young Steve McQueen. He wasn’t pint-sized like Billy Pearson but short enough, and judging from his role as Western bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted — Dead or Alive he would have been great at projecting Donald’s cockiness and insolence. Any dissenting opinions?