A remarkable discovery: not a new novel about Bertha Cool and Donald Lam but their second adventure, originally written in 1939 but unpublished till now.
Edith Cunner and her mother, Mrs. Atterby, come to “B. Cool, Investigations” because no other agency in town will tell them if Eben Cunner is cheating on his wife of five years. Donald, a part-time op still years from making partner, agrees to follow Eben and quickly discovers that his wife is half right. Eben is indeed meeting an attractive blonde in a unit of the Mountain Crest Apartments he’s rented under an assumed name, but it’s for a much more criminal purpose than mere adultery. In short order, Eben is shot to death with a .38 revolver Mountain Crest switchboard operator Ruth Marr presses on Donald, and his mission switches from getting the goods on Eben to protecting Ruth from a murder charge. Bertha, however, never changes gears along with him; her paramount objective is to cut herself on the action. Unfortunately, her scheme backfires, leaving the agency scrambling to stay one step ahead of crooked cops, gangsters, hired guns, and suspected killers. Maybe Gardner’s publisher rejected the novel because it seemed too racy, with a female detective who swears like a sailor and a romantic lead who describes herself as a nymphomaniac, though it’s not in the same league as No Orchids for Miss Blandish, published the same year. Maybe because it casts Bertha and Donald in unexpected roles—she runs rings around him as a detective, contrary to their usual practice, as Russell Atwood points out in his informative Afterword. Maybe because the mystery is both muddled and unmysterious. Even so, fans will rejoice at another dose of Gardner’s unexcelled mastery of pace and an unexpected new taste of his duo’s cyanide chemistry.
For all its pulpy limitations, this road not taken is worth reading if only for its heroine’s hard-boiled wisdom: “You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”