Meet Hard-Boiled Rule-Breaker, Bertha Cool

Mystery Month 2017In the world of hard-boiled detective fiction, Bertha Cool was a revelation. Up until Bertha burst onto the literary scene, women in the mean-streets school of detective novels were given one of two roles to play in a story: Either they were some variation of the secretary with a heart of gold, or some version of a duplicitous femme fatale. Big-boned, boldly avaricious, and bossy to a fault, Bertha didn’t just not fit neatly into either of these pre-established female character molds, but busted them to pieces.

the bigger they come stanley gardnerIntroduced to readers by A. A. Fair (one of the pseudonyms used by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner) in The Bigger They Come, published in 1939, Bertha Louise Cool runs B. Cool Investigations—a Los Angeles detective agency left to her by her late, philandering husband—with an iron first and a will to match. Needing someone to do most of her legwork (if not most of the actual detective work to boot), Bertha hires disbarred attorney Donald Lam, “a brainy little runt” with a weakness for beautiful dames, as one of her operatives. While the two of them may have fought like cats and dogs over the course of 30 different books (more about that later), and at one point even parted ways professionally, the two actually made a terrific team when it came to closing cases—and, more importantly to Bertha, cashing the client’s check. One reason the two may have worked so well together is that each ultimately understood their partner’s strengths and weaknesses.

Gardner began writing the Cool / Lam series primarily for financial reasons. Even though he was publishing several Perry Mason novels a year by the late 1930s, he still was turning out books faster than his publisher could handle. Creating another series under a pseudonym not only allowed Gardner to increase his income, but gave him the chance to write something funnier than Perry Mason. His Cool / Lam books do have a certain zesty sense of wit that has endeared them to readers, with Bertha in particular generating a generous measure of the laughs, with her fondness for colorful culinary expletives like “fry me for an oyster” or “can me for a sardine.” At one point, Gardner’s publisher tried to get him to tone down Bertha’s salty (for the times) language, only to be politely yet pointedly informed by the author that she spoke exactly the same way he did and he had no intention of changing his vocabulary, so Bertha would not be doing so either.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner

While Bertha was content to let Donald do most of the legwork on their cases, she took a more hands-on approach in Bats Fly at Dusk and Cats Prowl at Night. In the book that precedes these, Double or Quits, Donald had finally found a way to get Bertha to make him a partner in the detective agency. However, now that America has gotten involved in World War II, Donald has enlisted in the U.S. Navy, leaving Bertha in complete control of things. In Bats Fly at Dusk, Bertha initially handles the detection by herself, but she does receive plenty of advice and even a surprise visit from Donald, who ultimately solves the case for her. But in Cats Prowl at Night, Bertha manages to stumble her way to a solution without any in-person assistance from Donald. By the time Donald returns home to Los Angeles in Give ‘Em the Ax, Bertha is delighted to have him back (although she’d never tell him).

The professionally contentious yet caring-when-it-counts relationship between Bertha and Donald evolved over the course of 29 novels and ended in 1970, with All Grass Isn’t Green. But just when readers thought they had seen the last of the pugnacious pair of sleuths, another case for the pair turned up. Gardner wrote The Knife Slipped Back in 1939 as the second book in the Cool / Lam series, but his publisher rejected it at the time, and Gardner threw the completed manuscript into a drawer, where it was later found after his death. Hard Case Crime published The Knife Slipped in December of 2016, and readers were treated to one more go-around with Bertha and Donald.

the knife slipped erle gardner“Abruptly the swinging door banged open. It seemed for a moment as though it were going to leave on its hinges and keep right on going. Then it shivered in protest, and started back. Bertha Cool, who had taken the door right in her stride with a stiff arm that would have done credit to an all-American football player, came flowing into the room.”

As this excerpt from The Knife Slipped aptly demonstrates, Bertha Cool let nothing stop her when it came to entering a room. She used the same steamroller approach when it came to getting what she wanted out of life in general. Brassy, bold, and bound to pinch every penny that crossed her path until it squealed, Bertha Cool couldn’t be more different than the cadre of sweet ingenues and beautiful-yet-deadly dames readers encounter in other hard-boiled mysteries of the time. Yet it is this very thing that makes Bertha one of the most engaging—if occasionally annoying—characters in detective fiction.

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About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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