Double or Quits by A.A. Fair

double-or-quits-aa-fairThe fourth book in the Bertha Cool & Donald Lam series, Double or Quits begins on a California pier with the pair enjoying a day off between cases with a spot of fishing. It’s a relaxed, quiet start to the story, but it belies the pace that will soon follow. Writing as A.A. Fair, this is Erle Stanley Gardner’s “other” series as the author of the Perry Mason books turned his hand to the detective genre for 29 books.

Cool & Lam are private detectives, or at least, Donald Lam is a PI while the imposing Bertha Cool owns and runs the detective agency he works for. In contrast to Bertha, Lam is a rather diminutive figure but is very quick of mind while his boss is impatient, impatient and rather careful with her money. Theirs is a relationship that never provides a dull moment.

Gardner always seemed to delight in his descriptive introductions of Bertha Cool at the start of each book. In Double or Quits he does it this way: “Bertha Cool, as solid and as competent as a coil of barbed wire, sat in a director’s chair, her feet propped on the rail, a long bamboo pole held steadily. Her calm gray eyes, diamond-hard and watchful were fastened on the line just where it entered the water.”

Donald Lam is hired on that fishing break by a doctor – who was also spending the day fishing – to investigate a theft. The doctor’s jewelry had been stolen from the safe in his study and, because of the disappearance of one of his employees at the same time, thinks he knows the identity of the thief. He now wants Lam to find her. But Donald Lam quickly displays the agility of his mind in cutting through the lies and half-truths in the story presented to him by the doctor. There’s more to the story than a simple theft.

The case becomes complicated though, first by an untimely death and then by the personal lives of the members of the doctor’s household. Lam is caught up in a custody battle, an insurance claim as well as the original question of who stole the jewelry.

It all comes down to the usual motives of love and money, but figuring out exactly who did what and why is not an easy task when there is such a healthy array of possible suspects to choose from. Lam has to work out whether the doctor might have stolen the jewels himself or if any one of his wife, her personal assistant, his niece or his wife’s nephew had something to do with it. And what of the niece’s money-grubbing ex-husband…or the chauffeur who has spent time in prison for jewel theft?

The title, Double or Quits, refers to a life insurance pay-out where the question of whether the death was accidental or not will result in double the insurance being paid. It’s the process that Lam uses to determine how the death occurred that plays a pivotal role in the outcome of the story.

Double or Quits is the book in which Donald Lam goes from being an employee of Bertha Cool’s to her business partner. Lam is at his devilishly cunning best in negotiating the deal bringing Bertha to the point of exploding in outrage more times than is good for her. It’s an enjoyable negotiation process and one that appropriately depicts their tumultuous relationship.

With plenty of quick humor, a complex plot and a desperately tense ending, Erle Stanley Gardner delivers another satisfying case to its conclusion with every loose end carefully tied.

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