Cool and Lam

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First edition dust jacket of The Bigger They Come (1939), the first mystery in the Cool and Lam series

Cool and Lam is a 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 opened her detective agency after the death of Henry, her husband, in 1936. She is 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), 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 is extremely avaricious and miserly. However, she has persistence, loyalty, and nerve. Her favorite 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 agency, Cool and 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. In her biography of Gardner, Dorothy B. Hughes wrote, "Erle said over and again that if Donald Lam, 'that cocky little bastard,' had a model, it was Corney"—Thomas Cornwell Jackson, his literary agent.[1]:227 Jackson later married actress Gail Patrick, and they formed a partnership with Gardner that created the CBS-TV series Perry Mason.[2]

Donald Lam begins his adventures as the employee of Bertha Cool, a stout widow in her 60s who started a detective agency in 1936. As a detective, Lam 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 beaten 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, 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 does not 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). His 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 several clues are given 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 did not commit to flush out the real killer, using the gimmick to stay free till then. This was the same gimmick that Gardner's pulp character Ed Jenkins used, to stay free in California, while being a wanted man in seven other states. Fortunately for Donald, his theory stood up in court.

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. 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 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 and 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 was not Donald's equal in such situations. After over two years of fighting, 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 have not given him all the needed information, or even if he did not 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 a certain crime, because he knew the man was actually guilty of murder), but to his unique sense of justice, the punishment seems to fit the crime, at least in his own opinion.


The Cool and Lam series consists of the following 29 books (now 30, with the discovery of an unpublished work in 2016).[3] 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.[citation needed]

  1. The Bigger They Come (1939)
    William Morrow and Company, January 1939[4]:326
    Donald Lam is hired by Bertha. His first assignment is to serve a subpoena on a man that nobody can find; piece of cake. 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 and Lam stories were written under the pen name "A.A. Fair", and Gardner's authorship was not revealed till the 1940s. 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 Gardner's ideas!
  2. Turn on the Heat (1940)
    William Morrow and Company, January 1940[4]:327
    Dr. "Smith" is looking for his wife who left him 20 years before. It was made into a 1958 TV pilot for an unproduced show called Cool and Lam.
  3. Gold Comes in Bricks (1940)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1940[4]:327
    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)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1941[4]:327
    Set in Las Vegas, a runaway bride and a slot machine-fixing ring seem to have no connection. Bertha loses the weight, and falls in love! But---
  5. Double or Quits (1941)
    William Morrow and Company, December 1941[4]:327
    Detectionary: "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."[5] Bertha begins fishing.
  6. Owls Don't Blink (1942)
    William Morrow and Company, June 1942[4]:328
    Donald has two intertwining cases: finding a lost girl and bringing to justice a murderer. Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, gin is mixed with Coca-Cola, America has entered the war, and Bertha thinks she has helped gain Donald's immunity from the draft.
  7. Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1942[4]:328
    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. 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)
    William Morrow and Company, August 1943[4]:328
    Bertha must locate a client's missing wife, who controls all his money. No signs of Lam are seen at all, though he is heard of. She manages somehow, but almost fails. Frank proposes to her.
  9. Give 'em the Ax (1944)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1944[4]:328
    Donald returns, and takes control of the agency. The case is of a wife cheated with car insurance and blackmail.
  10. Crows Can't Count (1946)
    William Morrow and Company, April 1946[4]:329
    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)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1947[4]:329
    Donald Lam tries to put "psychological handcuffs" on a potential poisoner, but things do not work out the way he planned. Raymond Chandler (now presumably aware of the true identity of A.A. Fair) 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."[1]:209
  12. Bedrooms Have Windows (1949)
    William Morrow and Company, January 1949[4]:330
    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 1940s and on made him decide to admit writing the series.
  13. Top of the Heap (1952)
    William Morrow and Company, February 1952[4]:332
    Previously, Bertha has complained that Donald had been getting the agency in over its head lately. Donald then promptly shows the agency was used as a cat's paw to prove a phony alibi, in a case involving gangsters, gambling houses, Point shaving, a former stripper, a money laundering scam, and phantom gold mines. Bertha is mad enough to try and dissolve the partnership, and then... Available in the Hard Case Crime series.
  14. Some Women Won't Wait (1953)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1953[4]:333
    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)
    William Morrow and Company, November 1956[4]:335
    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 suspect to die in Amazonia to marry her. After that, it gets complicated.
  16. You Can Die Laughing (1957)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1957[4]:335
    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)
    William Morrow and Company, October 1957[4]:336
    Could easily have been named Sex Sells Speedboats. Set in San Francisco and environs. Practically everyone ends up on a plane at one point or another, so almost anyone could have caused that guy to be found dead in his motel room. Donald knows it wasn't him. The worry is: do the police know that? Fancy footwork with fake keys and real claim checks could help.
  18. The Count of Nine (1958)
    William Morrow and Company, June 1958[4]:336
    A rich dilettante "Explorer" finds his poisonous blow gun he had brought back from the Amazon used for a murder. Or so it seems … This one is notable for two things: First, Gardner re-uses a favorite trick from his Perry Mason series; juggling duplicate bits of evidence. Instead of guns or bullets, Lam has a more interesting set of twin jade Buddhas with a ruby in the forehead. It will pay the reader to watch closely who has which, and when, and why. Secondly, the key plot point has a resemblance to G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown story, The Arrow of Heaven. This may be unintentional, but arguably, Gardner has come up with a more imaginative use of the concept.
  19. Pass the Gravy (1959)
    William Morrow and Company, February 1959[4]:337
    Should be called The Case of the Missing Alcoholic Uncle, but Gardner mostly reserved that format for his Perry Mason stories. Stacked blondes, hitch hikers and trips by several people to Reno to gamble are incidental to the two main points. 1. What are the legal issues surrounding the exact way the assets of a spendthrift trust are to be distributed? 2. And what are the exact legal circumstances surrounding the death of a man with a double indemnity policy on his life? If he is dead. A lot of gravy in this one; but who is trying to get the law to pass the gravy?
  20. Kept Women Can't Quit (1960)
    William Morrow and Company, September 1960[4]:337
    An armored car is robbed while one of the two guards are inside having donuts and coffee and ogling the waitresses; and when Police Detective Sgt. 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. Lots of money floats about – in fact, a little too much. Whose? (At this time, thousand-dollar bills were still in fairly wide circulation, making it possible to use only a little space to hide fairly large sums here, there and everywhere).
  21. Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1961[4]:338
    Industrial espionage, a Peeping Tom, little is what it seems. More than one woman falls for Lam in the course of this investigation, due to his habit of playing square and treating them like human beings. Sgt. Sellers is a little dense at first, taking Lam for the Peeping Tom. As if. The investigation moves to Arizona at one point, for more extradition fun (see first book in series). Special guest appearance there by an ex-boxer lawyer with a notable resemblance to Erle Stanley Gardner, who arranges a rather surprising arrest. Back in L.A., there is a cascading jackpot of an ending which shows that some bachelors, at least, don't get lonely.
  22. Shills Can't Cash Chips (1961)
    William Morrow and Company, November 1961[4]:338
    Bertha lands a nice, respectable insurance adjustment claim, and hands it to Donald. You'd think she'd learn; Donald uncovers assorted ulterior motives, pretends to be an ex-con, hot-wires his own car to impress a gorgeous witness and gets leaned on by a gangster. Then one of the parties involved ends up dead … some good detection in this one.
  23. Try Anything Once (1962)
    William Morrow and Company, April 1962[4]:338
    A worried heel of a husband is hand - wringingly anxious to keep his late night visit to a motel with a cocktail hostess quiet. Unfortunately for him, the deputy D.A. in a hot murder trial was found dead in the motel pool the same evening. The resulting investigation will expose the husband...anyway, Donald smells a very large rat lurking within this story, but finally accepts the fat fee offered to keep Bertha happy. The attempt to protect the client has unexpected side effects, including several women removing their garments for one reason or other, a horrifically false accusation against the straight-shooting Donald and the exciting courtroom climax he engineers in the above-mentioned trial. This last shows several people have been involved in activities of a type which is a bit much, even for an A. A. Fair story. Try Anything More Than Once would be more like it.
  24. Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
    William Morrow and Company, April 1963[4]:338
    When Cool and Lam are hired for day-and-night coverage of a harassed woman, a tortuous tale involving a high-class 'escort service' unfolds. Donald is dismissed from the case, but inserts himself back in self-defence after the madam comes to an untimely end. He must convince the police it wasn't him.
  25. Up for Grabs (1964)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1964[4]:339
    Insurance again, this time a company that wants to set up an ongoing project to expose phony whiplash claims. Big ongoing retainer, big fees for each claim - Bertha's eyes glitter at all the legit $$$ up for grabs. Donald is packed off to a dude ranch in Arizona to investigate the plaintiff in the first claim, with stern instructions not to stir this one up. It's not his fault someone's wife ends up dead in the Sierras, or that Sgt. Sellers is so annoyed at his 'amateur' interference that he throws away a key piece of evidence at the scene of the not to say more about the plot; the nature of the scam and the identity of the scammer are one of Gardner's most astounding creations. It can be said, however, that the manager/hostess at the ranch has a bathing dress that fits her like the skin on a sausage and is very interested in helping Donald investigate this and that.
  26. Cut Thin to Win (1965)
    William Morrow and Company, April 1965[4]:339
    Gardner has Lam himself review the case – from the back of the 1966 Pocket Books edition. Bertha has her doubts about taking a certain case, "...but I talked her into it when our client laid twelve one-hundred dollar bills on his desk. 'Fry me for an oyster', Bertha said. 'It's your baby, and you can change the diapers'. Less than a week later, Sgt. Frank Sellers announced he was going to take away my license, Bertha Cool announced that our partnership was dissolved and my secretary was crying on my shoulder. 'Donald, please - *please* be careful'. 'It's too late to be careful now' I told her. 'I'm dealing either with a crooked lawyer, a jealous boyfriend, a scheming daughter, one hell of a wealthy father or a combination of any number of them. When you go up against a combination of that sort, you can't be careful'.
  27. Widows Wear Weeds (1966)
    William Morrow and Company, May 1966[4]:339
    Blackmail was a dirty business, and Donald Lam liked to stay clear of it. But for his partner, Bertha Cool, no business was too dirty to handle at the right price. And the price for this job was certainly right. What was wrong, though, was a payoff for pictures that weren't worth a dime, a free dinner that cost the blackmailer his life, and more than a couple of double-crosses that framed Donald Lam quite neatly for a charge of murder...
  28. Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1967[4]:340
    Someone is advertising for a witness to an auto accident in such a way as to seem to be suborning perjury. Also, an earlier claim was settled with evidence obtained in this way. The client wants Cool and Lam to find out what is back of it all. Gardner kept up with the law, and knew of the implications of the recent Miranda Rights decision of the Supreme Court for gathering evidence. He believed he had found a loophole allowing evidence improperly gathered under the new rules to be admissible, if obtained investigating another incident, such as a private detective searching a flat without permission. When the loophole is introduced into the story by the legal-trained Lam, it brightens up Sgt. Sellers' day no end.
  29. All Grass isn't Green (1970)
    William Morrow and Company, March 1970[4]:340
    Dope smuggling and a witness who is both more, and less, than he seems. It all starts when a client wants to find a missing writer – just to talk to him. A little digging (with good descriptions of tracing techniques) shows his girlfriend has vanished too, and the trail goes south, to the Mexican border. Crossing the trail, going north, is a shipment of cannabis. Unsurprisingly for this business, someone ends up dead and the whole thing lands in court. Sorting out who did what and why taxes even Donald Lam's talents to the limit. Lam shows his considerable ability in courtroom maneuvering, which reminds the reader that he was a lawyer once. Though Gardner is aware of current conditions, such as the 1970s slang 'grass' for cannabis in the title, his reflexes are still in the 1920s pulp fiction world. At one point a drug deal is described as worth "thousands of dollars" – big money in 1920; not so much so in 1970.
  30. The Knife Slipped (1939)
    Hard Case Crime, December 2016[6]
    Originally written to be the second book in the Cool and Lam series but rejected by Gardner's publisher, The Knife Slipped was found among Gardner's papers and published for the first time in 2016. Assigned to prove a philandering husband's infidelity, Donald Lam uncovers a scheme to enable a certain type of municipal corruption. As well as a dead body.



Turn On the Heat was adapted by Welbourne Kelley for the June 23, 1946, broadcast of The United States Steel Hour on ABC radio.[4]:329 Frank Sinatra was the first actor to portray Donald Lam.


Cool and Lam first appeared on television in the January 6, 1955, episode of Climax! based on the debut novel, The Bigger They Come (1939).[7] 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. ^ a b Hughes, Dorothy B. (1978). Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0-688-03282-6.
  2. ^ Gould, Jack (May 23, 1966). "TV: Perry Mason's End Really a Rich Beginning". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Erle Stanley Gardner: A Checklist by E.H. Mundell, Kent State University Press.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad Hughes, Dorothy B.; Moore, Ruth (1978). "Bibliography of Erle Stanley Gardner". Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. pp. 311–341. ISBN 0-688-03282-6.
  5. ^ Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  6. ^ "The Knife Slipped". Hard Case Crime. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  7. ^ ""Climax!" The Bigger They Come (TV Episode 1955)". IMDb. Retrieved 9 November 2014.