A. A. FAIR [ERLE STANLEY GARDNER] – Kept Women Can’t Quit.

Pocket 4602, paperback; 1st printing, February 1963; reprinted many times. Hardcover edition: William Morrow & Co., 1960.

A. A. FAIR Kept Women Can't Quit

   On the other hand [speaking recently about one of Anne Perry’s books], if you happen to discover a sense of continuity between one Erle Stanley Gardner book and the next, I’d say you were one heck of a bookhound.

   In all honesty, Perry Mason and his crew did change over the years, but only gradually — from the early hard-boiled 30s books, to the 60s and 70s version that was greatly co-dependent on what Raymond Burr’s vast TV viewing audience saw. But if you were to read them in order, the books would be absolutely interchangeable, not that anyone cared, then or now.

   And as far as Gardner’s other series is concerned, the one he worte as A. A. Fair, other than occasional glimpses of the outside world, Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, partners in a detective agency, never ever changed. He the brash younger partner, taking risks that continually exasperated loud, outspoken female half of the firm; and in tandem, consistently tormenting Sergeant Frank Sellars to utter blowing-his-top distraction.

A. A. FAIR Kept Women Can't Quit

   Gardner’s forte was never dialogue — once I learned of his usual practice of dictating his books to a steady supply of secretaries, that was it for me. From that point on, all of his characters talked the same way, and if I let myself slip away from the story, I could easily hear his voice instead of theirs.

   (Something like listening to a vintage radio show and letting the curtain rise too soon, seeing the characters standing around a microphone, rather than listening to their voices as they hack their way through a jungle wilderness or travel cross-continent on on a fast-moving train full of would-be assassins.)

   No, Gardner’s strong point was plotting, and there a point in Kept Women Can’t Quit when Donald Lam suddenly turns the case so far inside out that it makes you wonder what book it was that you were reading before then. At stake is $50,000 in stolen thousand dollar bills, and of course it is a good looking cutie with lots of curves who hires him.

A. A. FAIR Kept Women Can't Quit

   And yet. A couple of points puzzled me, and when I started to search back to double-check some reference points that I thought I might have missed, I discovered that when you start exploring what’s back of the curtain behind the magician and his waving hands, perhaps (once again) you’d rather you hadn’t.

   It can be disappointing when you find out how much of Gardner’s plotting is really sleight-of-hand, that it’s all a facade. That while it’s not a fake, it’s all tied together with the flimsiest wisps of twine and plastered down with humongous amounts of duck tape.

   In other words, Gardner probably made his plots too damned complicated for his own good. But for a reader who’s willing to extend him a license to deceive (me!) he’s still, and without a doubt, a Grand Master, one of the grandest of them all.

— May 2003