TITLE: Turn On the Heat
AUTHOR: Erle Stanley Gardner
292 pages, Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9781785656170 (Print)
PREMISE: (back cover copy) Erle Stanley Gardner was not just the creator of PERRY MASON – at the time of his death, he was the best-selling American author of all time, with hundreds of millions of books in print. Among those books were the 29 cases of the brash, irresistible detective team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Last year, Hard Case Crime brought out the first new Cool and Lam novel in decades, THE KNIFE SLIPPED, lost for 77 years after Gardner’s publisher refused it. Now, we’re bringing you the book Gardner wrote to replace it, often considered the best in the series: TURN ON THE HEAT.
Hired by a mysterious “Mr. Smith” to find a woman who vanished 21 years earlier, Donald Lam finds himself facing a sadistic cop, a desperate showgirl, a duplicitous client, and one very dogged (and beautiful) newspaper reporter – while Bertha Cool’s attempts to cut herself in on this lucrative opportunity land them both hip-deep in murder…
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: As familiar as I am with the name Erle Stanley Gardner thanks to the television version of his famous creation Perry Mason, I have to confess this is the first Gardner novel I’ve ever read, and my first introduction to his long-running investigative team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. I can safely say it won’t be the last Gardner, or the last Cool & Lam, book I read. If you’re looking for a fun, twisty-turny noir book, Turn On the Heat is a great choice.
The story starts as a straight-up missing persons case: Cool and Lam are hired to track down a divorcee missing for 21 years. Lam quickly discovers there’s a lot more going on: bitter divorce cases, changed identities, political machinations, coercion by crooked cops, all leading eventually to at least one murder if not more. This turns the book into a rollercoaster ride of rising and falling fortunes for Lam, his money-hungry employer Bertha Cool, and for the beautiful small-town reporter Marion Dutton who has staked her big-city dreams on Lam’s connections. It’s a fun ride. While one or two of the twists felt predictable, there were plenty I didn’t see coming.
The character interactions are an equally fun part of the novel. Donald Lam is obviously a more top-notch investigator than his employer gives him credit for. Anything that goes right with this case, any leads that break, are strictly Lam’s doing – although he also gets equal blame for the things that go wrong. Lam may be smart and savvy, but he’s also fallible, which makes him a really enjoyable lead character. Bertha Cool, on the other hand, is thoroughly unlikeable but a compelling presence nonetheless. Almost anything that goes wrong in the second half of the book is because Bertha puts the idea of a big payoff ahead of any real consequences. It’s a character flaw that is far from endearing in a series lead, but does create added tension and mounting stakes. Where in the first half of the book I found Bertha overblown and annoying, in the second half I relished finding out what blunder she would commit next to make matters worse for everyone involved. Marion Dutton, by contrast, makes her mistakes out of an innocent earnestness to leave small town life behind, and in the end proves to be just as talented a manipulator as Lam and Cool. They’re an interesting trio to watch circle each other trying to solve the multi-layered case they’ve become entangled in.
The title itself is multi-layered. “Turn on the heat” could be referring to the pressure the blackmailers are putting on “Mr. Smith,” or the mounting pressure on Lam to solve the case before he gets arrested for things he didn’t do, or to the building romantic/sexual tension between Lam and Marion. I’m sure Gardner, or whoever titled the book, did that on purpose.
Gardner published 29 Cool & Lam novels in his lifetime. According to various sites, Turn on the Heat was the second and has been out of print for 50 years. This re-release continues Hard Case Crime’s fine tradition of bringing out of print noir and crime classics back to print. It’s the third Cool & Lam book they’ve published, following 2011’s re-release of Top of the Heap and last year’s release of The Knife Slipped (the lost Cool & Lam case). I enjoyed Turn on the Heat so much I’m moving those previous releases up on the “to be read” pile, and hope that HCC will bring more of Gardner’s Cool & Lam books back into print in the near future.
Note: I did receive an advanced reading copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Website problems prevented me from posting the review before the novel’s publication date, which was this week.