The Whole Deck of Cards: Reading Paperback Noir with My Mom
APRIL 15, 2019
AFTER MY PARENTS DIVORCED in the mid-1960s, my mother became an increasingly difficult woman to live with. She drank too much, never forgave my father for moving out, and was prone to wild rages in the middle of the night, especially when she came home exhausted after her night shifts at St. Jude’s Hospital. Her own mother (another difficult, heavy-drinking woman with whom she was close) had been sent to a convalescent hospital in San Rafael by a series of strokes, and this left my mom almost entirely alone, except for her “work hard and play hard” nursing colleagues. She visited a psychiatrist in Nob Hill every Tuesday night, and her bedroom bureau and end tables grew littered with amber vials of painkillers, antidepressants, and valium — which were at least partly responsible for her frightening mood swings. But while I retain generally unhappy memories of my mother (who died in her early 40s of cancer), my predominant memory always concerns the obvious pleasure she took in books. She was the first significant person in my life who impressed upon me that books were more than a source of knowledge or information — they were, more importantly, a source of physical pleasure, like good food, or exercise, or the company of friends and family.
While my father read out loud to us every night before bed (my childhood memory of one book he read — Jack London’s The Call of the Wild — disturbs me to this day), my mother was the one who spent her afternoons and evenings selfishly, joyfully, and openly reading to herself. I often returned home from kindergarten or elementary school to find her in her bathrobe (she called it a “housecoat”), stretched out on her bed or on an extendable Barcalounger-type chair in the living room, reading a well-creased mass-market paperback. There was usually a Salem cigarette smoldering in one hand and a glass of icy Seagram’s 7 in the other. While she read, she laughed out loud, sometimes so loud I could hear her as I came up the front stairs; at other times, she grew so absorbed by her book that she left our dinner burning in the oven, and we would have to call one of the really bad home-delivery options, such as Chicken Delite.
My mother was a large, excessive person, and she preferred broad comic novels about sexually raucous and irrepressible characters. Tom Jones was a particular favorite (first she saw the Albert Finney movie, then she read the book). Like many passionate readers, she wanted to share the books she enjoyed and make them more real:
Tom’s this handsome kid who the women all love, and while he tries to do good and be faithful to his girlfriend, he can’t help behaving badly because he likes to have a good time, and the women he meets want him to have a good time, too. At one point, he and this older woman are in such a hurry to go to bed together that they get food all over themselves!
To this day, I recall my mother’s summary of Tom Jones (the book and the movie) to be a more vivid and accurate evocation of its pleasures than anything I learned from graduate-level literature courses (“metafictional discursive desire in the 18th-century novel, blah blah”). And every time I come across Tom Jones in my chaotically organized library, I hear my mother’s voice urging me to reread it. Mainly because she was right — Tom Jones is a great read. And Tom really does make a mess of things.
Every birthday and Christmas, my mother gave me one of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books — with those marvelous full-color plates and marginal illustrations by John R. Neill — and thus passed forward the pleasures of her own childhood when she enjoyed the same novels with her single mother in a studio apartment (with Murphy bed) in downtown San Francisco. (Several decades later, I read the entire Oz series to my own son. By that point, history just seemed to require it.) To this day, I can’t browse through a secondhand bookstore or thrift store without recalling the well-read paperbacks that accumulated on my mother’s bureau and end tables: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (“Much better than the movies”), Rex Stout’s endlessly satisfying and rereadable Nero Wolfe mysteries (“He’s so fat he won’t get out of his chair, and his legman, Archie, is this real character”), or the fat historical novels of Taylor Caldwell (“Sometimes I just want to go somewhere better than this stupid house and that’s when I read Taylor Caldwell”).
At the age of five or six, observing my mother’s intrepidly unashamed enjoyment of books, I tried (and usually failed) to read the ones she enjoyed. But the books that gave my mother the most obvious pleasure — and which didn’t perplex me as much as, say, Ian Fleming’s fascination with fetishized luxury items — were the Cool and Lam novels of Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A. Fair). To this day, in fact, it is impossible for me to recall (or reread) those books without thinking of them as a memorial to my mother.
Back in the 1960s, Gardner’s digest-sized paperback novels were as omnipresent in our home as they were in the local bookstores, libraries, and revolving wire racks of supermarkets and drugstores. For decades before I was born, and for at least a couple of decades after, Gardner was routinely advertised as “the best-selling mystery novelist of all time.” His Perry Mason novels inspired the weekly Raymond Burr series that ran (and was endlessly rerun) well into the 1990s. As a result, Gardner, who self-admittedly was never “a very good writer,” eventually became, with the same perseverance that had made him a successful lawyer in Ventura County, an extremely popular and well-remunerated one.
He trained hard in the Depression-era pulps, cranking out roughly 100,000 words a month in the mornings before his day job. Under his own name and a regiment of pseudonyms, he soon filled the pages of Top-Notch, Argosy, Detective Fiction Weekly, and Black Mask. Gardner produced fiction the way Ford produced cars — on an assembly line. He developed a “plot wheel” for generating complex stories quickly (Raymond Chandler openly admired Gardner’s plots — but then, Chandler’s own stitched-together plots were like traffic accidents of his old stories and novelettes), and since Gardner couldn’t type fast enough to keep pace with his furious production, he eventually spoke his fictions into an early version of the Dictaphone, leaving them to be transcribed by the devoted secretaries who traveled with him everywhere. (In later years, after a long, unhappy marriage, Gardner wed one of his assistants.) Like most excessively functional writers, Gardner’s literary “theory” was compact, easy to remember, and relentless (much like Gardner himself). “I began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is,” he once wrote. And each plot was driven by a character challenged out of his routine existence by a situation that drove him “to a course of conduct the exact opposite of what he should be doing.”
Gardner didn’t enjoy success so much as relentlessly plan for it. According to his only decent biography (Dorothy B. Hughes’s Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason , which is filled with so much unquestioning praise that it might have been written by one of Gardner’s personal assistants), he spent most of his wealth buying up wild, undeveloped property in Southern California and Baja, where he could sleep outside under the stars with his pet coyote. He was unpretentious and hardworking, writing four or five novels a year (along with numerous stories and novelettes) right up until he died in 1970.
Gardner once sketched out his novel-writing schedule as one-and-a-half days of plotting, followed by three-and-a-half days of writing — and, if he had shaved a full day off the plotting part, he might have written much better books. Perhaps then the most enjoyable parts of his novels (the funny dialogue, quick vivid mind-photos of shady nightclubs and characters, and rapid-fire scene development) wouldn’t be weighed down by those awful closing chapters, in which the dense crime-solving exposition comes racketing into the station like an endless freight train full of lumber. But Gardner enjoyed — and made enjoyable — formula narratives and series characters, and in the 1920s and ’30s, he created a small army of recurring (and well-forgotten) pulp heroes such as Speed Dash, Señor Arnaz de Lobo, Jax Bowman, Sidney Zoom, the Patent Leather Kid, Black Barr, and Major Brane, a “free-lance secret service man.”
When he finally decided to move on to higher realms of commercial fiction, he created three sets of series characters with legs of steel: Perry Mason, who first appeared in The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933); District Attorney Doug Selby, a kind of Hamilton Burger who actually wins all his cases, because the Perry Mason he opposes is a flamboyant con man; and the ones who gave my mother (and me) the most pleasure of all — the morally mismatched detectives who will do anything for a buck (even divorce work), Bertha Cool and Donald Lam.
Georges Simenon claimed that he created his most stable and dependable literary character, Jules Maigret, in order to recover from the stress of living with the desperate characters of his thrillers. In the same way, Gardner might have invented the Cool and Lam novels to escape the overly plotty Masons and to set loose his anarchic good humor (which was considerable). They are certainly very different sorts of novels. While Mason’s professional “family” — detective Paul Drake and office-earth-mom Della Street — keeps the legal gymnast down to earth and prevents him from breaking his neck (the fictional Mason is a tough, hard-punching character, unlike the deskbound TV version), Cool and Lam don’t keep each other in line so much as drive each other to escalating levels of conflict — with their clients, the cops, and each other. And while the Mason mysteries take violent events as an opportunity to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent, Cool and Lam can’t seem to get involved in even the simplest of cases — divorce work, runaway spouses, lost property — without making everything worse, immersing themselves in a world of fraud, evasion, and deception where nothing (and nobody) remains true for very long. Except, of course, during the final pages of explanation about who killed whom, when, and where — and the only innocent suspect left standing is the attractive woman who goes off for a long weekend with Lam. (Frankly, the better the Cool and Lam novel, the more likely it is you should skip its last few chapters.)
Cool and Lam are mismatched, lone-wolf characters who can’t live without each other. Cool is overweight, unethical, and greedy; she doesn’t want to help clients so much as help herself to as much as she can get from them. (Her recurring catchphrase, referring to herself in the third-person as a raw impersonal force of nature, is “Bertha want[s] to cut herself a big piece of cake.”) Lam, on the other hand, is a loser and a “runt” — a legal outsider who, in the first novel of the series, The Bigger They Come (1939), has been disbarred for bragging about a loophole he invented for getting away with murder. He can’t keep a job or a woman, or finish the fights he starts. (“You’ve been leading with your face again,” Cool tells him, when he comes back to the office with his usual collection of bruises.)
Even the book titles testify to the general sense of disorder, overheated temperaments, and amoral conflict: Turn on the Heat (1940), Spill the Jackpot (1941), Give ’Em the Ax (1944), Bedrooms Have Windows (1949), or even the recently “rediscovered” novel in the series, The Knife Slipped (2016). (When Cool tries to “cut herself a big piece of cake,” the knife slips, and she cuts herself.) Cool and Lam don’t solve crimes so much as wade through intensifying tides of crime and murder that are almost always initiated by their own investigations. And while shelves of china come crashing down, Lam figures clever ways to outguess the various con-persons coming at them by being the best con man of them all. Cool, being Cool, just looks for ways to cash in. And cash in. And cash in. “This Bertha Cool is a card all right,” exclaims the car-rental agent when he finds that she has siphoned the gas out of a car she borrowed from him. “Card, hell,” Lam replies. “She’s the whole deck.”
Perry Mason performs legal parlor tricks — just as Gardner himself was reputed to have performed them as a criminal lawyer — but he gets away with it because the world he dominates is essentially a balanced, orderly one that wants to punish the guilty, exonerate the innocent, and set the balance right again. It just needs Mason to help do it. Mason bends the law (within limits that the law allows), but he doesn’t break it. Cool and Lam, on the other hand, treat the law with almost brutal disregard: they lie to the cops and their clients and disturb crime scenes by removing (sometimes destroying) significant evidence and planting fake evidence and alibis. They seem to assume that the law — like the many grifters and con games they encounter, from salted gold mines to rigged slot machines, automobile insurance fraudsters, and insider trading — is just a game. And that whatever laws they don’t break were probably broken to begin with.
In the early 1960s, the already-often-reprinted Cool and Lam books were taut little digest-sized paperbacks from Dell or Pocket Books, with covers (often drawn by the great Robert McGinnis) featuring well-rouged, pouty-lipped women who wore spiked heels with their slips and lingerie. And yet they weren’t sexy like the Bond books. There was something innocent about their sensibility, suggesting that a hero could save his girl while leaving the corrupt world to ruin itself. Cool and Lam are not “honorable” characters like Perry Mason; they have a moral compass that only includes those close to them. The books are comic romances in which the hero (Lam) saves his girl, and the dragon (Cool) saves herself — and, if necessary, Lam.
“Bertha Cool runs the detective agency,” my mom enthusiastically explained to me when I was six years old,
but Donald does the legwork and solves the crimes while Bertha rips off clients by charging them as much as she can. Then she spends everything she makes on good food and drink, and whenever she buys Donald anything, she takes it out of his paycheck since she’s incredibly cheap. She’s really fat, like Nero Wolfe, but even though she pretends to be mean and selfish, she actually has a heart of gold. And by the end of every book, she tries to do something nice for Donald, such as set him up with any nice girl he meets along the way.
It was hard not to think of my mother’s affection for Bertha Cool as a substitute for the affection she didn’t feel for herself. Like Cool, my mother was overweight. She wasn’t successful in her career, and she always felt belittled by “those bastard doctors” at her hospital who never stopped to appreciate the hard work of their nurses, or show any interest in patients beyond a cursory glance at their charts. “Don’t mind me when I cuss,” Cool advises her clients (and Lam),
because I like profanity, loose clothes, and loose talk. I want to be comfortable. Nature intended me to be fat. I put in ten years eating salads, drinking skimmed milk, and toying with dry toast. I wore girdles that pinched my waist, form-building brassieres, and spent half my time standing on bathroom scales. And what the hell did I do it for? Just to get a husband!
It was the sort of exasperation with men that appealed to my mother, who often came home crying from her dates in bars, and who spent the first half of her life living across town from a father who never visited or spoke to her. My mother also tried to fit herself into the horrible figure-forming contraptions that vexed Cool, and which only made her more self-conscious about her appearance than ever. “My God, men don’t own the world!” Cool announces early in the series. And whenever I come across Cool speaking lines such as that, they recall a recurring expression of my mother’s: “Men don’t own the world! They just act like they do!”
When Lam joins the Navy at the end of Owls Don’t Blink (1942) — leaving Cool to fly solo in some of the best books in the series, such as Bats Fly at Dusk (1942) — he functions as a sort of Lam-ex-machina, posting letters, telegrams, and long-distance messages providing the solutions and legal trickery that Cool never manages to provide herself. But even when Lam solves the crimes, it’s Cool who carries the books. She’s unafraid; she’s unremitting; she never stops trying to make the most money she can from a pliable client, even if it means blackmailing them; and she never gives up on her Donald, while taking every opportunity to pay him as little as she can. (“We don’t guarantee anything,” she assures her clients.) She is the female Falstaff of paperback noir.
Even when she loses some weight after an illness, she remains 165 pounds of hard, unrelenting realism. As she tells a briefly admiring client: “I didn’t throw those old clothes away. I’ve got them stored in a cedar closet.” That’s because Cool never trusts herself to be any better than her last time on the scales — or her last paycheck. When a blind beggar comes by the office for help, Cool never succumbs to the illusion that she’s in the business of detective work to do good; rather, she treats all clients “equally”: “If he’s got business and he has money, what more do we want?” She keeps Lam from flying off into the stratosphere of romantic idealism, and Lam keeps her from sinking too deep into the mud of her material desires. In other words, they were made for each other.
I’m now 20 years older than my mother was when she died, and I’m still waiting to understand the world as well as I falsely imagined she understood it when she was alive. While Bertha Cool (or “B. Cool,” as it advises on her office door) doesn’t remind me much of who my mother actually was, she does remind me of who my mother often aspired to be: someone who was independent and unashamed of it. Someone who was tougher than women were supposed to be. Someone who treated the people around her like pawns in a game of profit and loss and never let those same people treat her like a fool who didn’t know the score. Someone who always came through for her friends before the story was done. And someone who would be there a few months later when the next story began all over again.
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short-story writer, and critic who currently lives in London and San Luis Obispo. He is the author of The History of Luminous Motion (1989), Animal Planet (1995), The People Who Watched Her Pass By (2010), and Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog (2017).