Cool and Lam

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Cool and Lam is the fictional American private detective firm that is the center of a series of detective novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner using the pen name of A. A. Fair.

Bertha Cool[edit]

In the first book about her, The Bigger They Come (1939; British: Lam to the Slaughter), Bertha Cool is said to have opened her own detective agency in 1936 after her husband Henry died. She's described in various terms as overweight, and uncaring about her weight—in the first novel, Donald Lam estimates her weight at 220 pounds. At the beginning of Spill the Jackpot! (1941) we learn that she had flu and pneumonia, and lost a great deal of weight, down to 160 pounds, and in many later novels her weight is given as 165 pounds. She has white hair and "greedy piggish eyes". All the novels agree that she's extremely avaricious and miserly. On the other hand she has persistence, loyalty and nerve. Her favourite expletive is some variant of "Fry me for an oyster!" or "Can me for a sardine!". In the opening chapter of the first novel, she hires a small, nervy, and extremely ingenious former lawyer named Donald Lam. Donald later becomes a full partner in her business, forming the firm of Cool & Lam, which features in more than two dozen books by Gardner.

Donald Lam[edit]

Donald Lam is a fictional American detective created by Erle Stanley Gardner under his pen name A. A. Fair. Dorothy Hughes in her biography of Gardner stated that "Erle said over and again that if Donald Lam, "that cocky little bastard," had a model, it was "Corney," as Thomas Cornwell Jackson—Gardner's Hollywood agent and the third husband of Gail Patrick, credited executive producer of the Perry Mason television series, was known.[1] Donald Lam begins his adventures as the employee of Bertha Cool, a stout widow in her 60s who started a detective agency in 1936.

Donald Lam, as a detective, is in stark contrast to the fictional hard-boiled types of his era. Donald is about 5'6", weighs 130 pounds soaking wet, and gets beat up quite frequently. While he does get into several fistfights, he loses all but one — a single fistfight against an insurance investigator in Double or Quits. It should be noted that this was only after taking boxing lessons from a former pug named Louie Hazen in Spill The Jackpot, and studying jujitsu with a master named Hashita in Gold Comes in Bricks.

Donald doesn't carry a gun because, as he says: A) "A gun, a good type of gun such as I would want to carry, costs money", and B) "People are always taking it away from me and beating me up" (meaning the gun). He primary weapon is his brain, not his brawn. In the first book (The Bigger They Come) Donald tells Bertha that when people mistreat him, he uses his ingenuity to figure out a way to get even. He shows that frequently in his cases.

The early history of Donald Lam is murky, though there are several clues in the first novel, The Bigger They Come. He is known to have been a lawyer who had his license to practice law suspended for a year for casually mentioning to a client (who turned out to be a gangster) that he, Donald, had worked out a way to commit a murder in such a way nobody could do anything about it. This was a defect in the law itself, not a sealed room or a traceless poison or a way of vaporizing a body, etc. This theory was put to the test in the same book, when Donald confessed to a murder he didn't commit in order to flush out the real killer. This was the same gimmick that Gardner's pulp character Ed Jenkins used, to stay free in California while a wanted man in seven other states. Fortunately for Donald his theory stood up in court and he was absolved.

After his law license was suspended, Donald was desperate and started answering ads for jobs "that were just a little bit fishy on their face." This led him to Bertha, who hired him; and made money on him ever since. But Bertha also uncovered Donald's past, including his real name, something that was never revealed. Donald apparently considered that a false start to his life. However, his legal training proved invaluable in later books, when he advised lawyers, or his clients, in trials as in the books Beware the Curves and All Grass Isn't Green.

Donald eventually became such a moneymaker for Bertha that she was forced to relent when he put the pressure on her for a full partnership in Double or Quits. When Donald originally asked to be made a partner Bertha turned him down cold. So Donald quit and moved to San Francisco. Bertha would have kept Donald on at a hired man's wages forever, but when he quit she realized that he was her cash cow. Bertha tracked him down and begged him to return in exchange for a partnership. Donald acted uninterested but finally allowed himself to be persuaded after making a couple of insulting additional conditions for his return. Bertha bit her tongue and accepted, finally confirming his dominance over his formidable boss.

This same book, Double or Quits, is about a case involving double indemnity "in the event of death by accidental means". Donald knew the legal difference between "death by accidental means" and "accidental death", which netted Cool & Lam over $40,000. Solving the case nearly cost Donald his own life, but he did find the proof to get the money, as the murder was held to be a death by accidental means, and the insurance company paid up.

At the conclusion of Owls Don't Blink, set in early 1942, Donald left the agency to enlist in the Navy and fight the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Two books were written about Bertha alone, during the time Donald was serving his country: Bats Fly at Dusk and Cats Prowl at Night.

In Bats Fly at Dusk, Bertha takes a case brought to her by a blind man. Donald was able to correspond via telegraph, and gave her solid advice, much of which Bertha rejected. However, she finally quit the case at the end, only to find that Donald, on a military pass, flew down and solved it for her. The second, Cats Prowl at Night put Bertha in a case that kept getting worse for her. She eventually came up with a single clue that led her to the solution, but showed she wasn't Donald's equal in such situations. Donald was discharged from the Navy on medical grounds after he contracted Malaria in the South Pacific, at the start of Give 'em the Axe. He returned to Los Angeles and went back to work, although he continued to suffer from frequent malarial attacks for some time.

Like Perry Mason, Donald firmly stood behind his clients, even if they haven't given him all the needed information, or even if he didn't like them personally. He worked according to his own sense of honor and loyalty, giving fair treatment to those who treated him well, and not caring about those who treated him poorly. His unorthodox methods and secretiveness frequently frustrated Bertha, but in the end they paid off in earnings for the agency. Donald often became romantically involved with beautiful women connected with his cases - but only after the case was closed - and by the next novel they had dropped out of his life.

Donald Lam is dedicated to his ideals of justice. It may not always be the legal or moral definition of justice (in Beware the Curves Lam accepts without comment the wrongful conviction of a man for rape, because he knew the man was actually guilty of murder), but to his unique sense of justice, the punishment seems fit the crime, at least in his own opinion.


The series consists of the following 29 books:[2]

The cryptically-phrased book titles are said to have inspired the title of Steve Martin's movie spoof of film noir, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

  1. The Bigger They Come (1939) - Donald Lam is hired by Bertha. His first assignment is to serve a subpoena on a man that nobody can find. This first entry in the series turned on a real loophole in the extradition laws of the State of Arizona which made it possible, under certain conditions, to commit a murder without being punished ( the only catch was, you had to spend the rest of your life in Arizona). After its publication, a public outcry caused the Arizona Legislature to convene in special session to plug the loophole. Gardner had used this device earlier in his 'Ed Jenkins' stories, locating the loophole in California law (this time, fictitiously) so that Jenkins (though a known crook) could operate in California without being extradited for crimes in other states. The Cool & Lam stories were written under the pen name "A.A. Fair", and Gardner's authorship was not revealed till the 1940's. Fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler in a letter to a friend in late 1939 noted the resemblance of the loophole in this book to the one in the Jenkins stories. Chandler complained that this Fair fellow was stealing Gardners ideas!
  2. Turn on the Heat (1940) - Dr. "Smith" is looking for his wife who left him 20 years ago.
  3. Gold Comes in Bricks (1940) - A blackmailing gambler, a corrupt lawyer and an expert in salting gold mines, all are grist to Donald's mill.
  4. Spill the Jackpot (1941) - Set in Las Vegas, the case of runaway bride. Bertha loses the weight, and falls in love! But...
  5. Double or Quits (1941)- First - the missing jewelry. Second - the client found dead in his garage and Cool and Lam are trying to get from an insurance company double indemnity for the lovely widow[3] Bertha begins fishing.
  6. Owls Don't Blink (1942) - Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Donald has two intertwining cases: finding a lost girl and bringing to justice a murderer. America enters the war and Bertha thinks she is clever getting Donald an immunity from the draft.
  7. Bats Fly at Dusk (1942) - Donald has calmly volunteered for the Navy to fight the Japs, and Bertha fumes. She works on a case involving a blind man and a pet bat, with help from Donald via telegram. Donald's frenemy - Police Detective Frank Sellers - is introduced for the first time. Bertha gets in over her head and quits; Donald flies down on a military pass, solves it and flies back. Bertha only finds out later. You could just *fry* her for an oyster.
  8. Cats Prowl at Night (1943) - Bertha must locate the missing wife of a client who controls all his money, no signs of Lam at all. She manages somehow, but almost fails. Frank proposes to her.
  9. Give 'em the Ax (1944) - Donald returns, and takes control of the agency. The case of wife cheated with car insurance and the blackmail.
  10. Crows Can't Count (1946) - A case involving both stolen and smuggled emeralds, the latter half of which is set in the nation of Colombia.
  11. Fools Die on Friday (1947) - Donald Lam tries to put 'psychological handcuffs' on a potential poisoner, but things don't work out the way he planned. Raymond Chandler wrote to Gardner in 1948 "'Fools Die on Friday' is about the best of the series since the first two. Perhaps since the very first."[4]
  12. Bedrooms Have Windows (1949) - Case involving "a pocket edition Venus", in which Donald himself is suspected by the police of a serious crime. Sleazy nightspots, dubious photographs, a stay at an auto court goes wrong - could there be blackmail? More spice than usual (Gardner originally wrote this series under a pen name because he wondered if some of the plot points he intended to use with Cool and Lam would be bad for his image. However, laxer standards in the 1940's and on made him decide to admit writing the series).
  13. Top of the Heap (1952) - Cool & Lam are used as a cat's paw to prove a phony alibi, in a case involving gangsters, gambling houses, Point shaving, a former stripper, an income tax scam, and phantom gold mines. Available in the Hard Case Crime series.
  14. Some Women Won't Wait (1953) And some will. The question is: did Donald's beautiful young client poison her rich and decrepit husband, or didn't she? Set in Hawaii. Bertha tries to dance the hula.
  15. Beware the Curves (1956) - Suspect in the murder is trying to figure out if it is safe for him to return to his beloved six years later. The victim was her husband who had sent the supect to die in Amazonia to marry her. After that, it gets complicated.
  16. You Can Die Laughing (1957) - Donald clashes with a client, with whom he has a written contract to locate a certain woman. He thinks the client is lying to him, but takes the case. His way of handling it is rather funny. Funny? You could die laughing.
  17. Some Slips Don't Show (1957) - The case of a fake alibi and death of a gangster's girlfriend.
  18. The Count of Nine(1958) - A rich dilettante "Explorer" is murdered with a poisonous blow gun he himself had brought back from the Amazon. Or so it seems...
  19. Pass the Gravy (1959) - The case of missing alcoholic uncle.
  20. Kept Women Can't Quit (1960) - An armored car is robbed while the two guards are inside having donuts and coffee and ogling the waitresses; and when Police Detective Frank Sellers catches one of the robbers, he is accused of pocketing the loot for himself. Naturally, he puts the pressure on Donald to solve the case for him, gratis, and get him off the hook.
  21. Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)
  22. Shills Can't Cash Chips (1961)
  23. Try Anything Once (1962)
  24. Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
  25. Up for Grabs (1964)
  26. Cut Thin to Win (1965)
  27. Widows Wear Weeds (1966)
  28. Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967)
  29. All Grass isn't Green (1970) - Dope smuggling and a witness who is both more, and less, than he seems.


Frank Sinatra was the first actor to portray Donald Lam in an adaptation of "Turn On the Heat," presented on the U.S. Steel Hour of Mystery on June 23, 1946.


"Cool & Lam" first appeared on television in the January 6, 1955 episode of Climax! based on the debut The Bigger They Come 1939.[5] It starred Art Carney as Donald Lam and Jane Darwell as Bertha Cool and is considered "lost."

A 30-minute pilot program called "Cool and Lam" was made in 1958 but never became a series. Billy Pearson was cast as Donald Lam and Benay Venuta as Bertha Cool. The pilot was loosely based on Turn On The Heat. One feature of interest is that, a few minutes after the start of the program, Erle Stanley Gardner is shown on the set of Perry Mason's office. He speaks directly to the viewer, introducing the characters, and talking about his pleasure in the casting and his hopes that the pilot will become a series. It is uncertain whether this pilot was ever broadcast and, if so, whether this segment featuring Gardner would have been included, since it pushed the running time of the program to the 30-minute mark and did not allow for commercials.


  1. ^ Hughes, The Case of the Real Perry Mason, Erle Stanley Gardner, New York, Morrow, 1978 p.227
  2. ^ Erle Stanley Gardner: A Checklist by E.H. Mundell, Kent State University Press.
  3. ^ Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  4. ^ Hughes, Case of the Real Perry Mason: Erle Stanley Gardner, Morrow, New York, 1978, p 209.
  5. ^ ""Climax!" The Bigger They Come (TV Episode 1955)". IMDb. Retrieved 9 November 2014.