April 2017 | Nate Pedersen

The Knife Slipped: An Interview with Charles Ardai

knifeslipped.jpgCharles Ardai, founder and editor of the much-lauded Hard Case Crime, spoke to us over email about their recent publication of a lost Erle Stanley Gardner novel entitled The Knife Slipped:

Erle Stanley Gardner will be a familiar name to many of our readers for creating the Perry Mason series of detective novels. Could you introduce us to his Cool and Lam series as well?

While he's better known for the Perry Mason books, which he began publishing in 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner was a writer of ferocious productivity - supposedly writing up to 10,000 words in one day, at which pace he could write a novel in a week or two - and in 1939 he kicked off a second series, somewhat more hardboiled than Perry Mason, about a pair of private eyes name Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. He published 29 books about the pair, between 1939 and his death in 1970, all of them under the pen name "A.A. Fair." At first, the fact that Fair was really Gardner was a big secret, even within the publishing company that put the books out, but eventually critics caught on to the similarity of writing style and the secret identity was revealed. But even after that Gardner kept using the A.A. Fair name for the Cool & Lam mysteries, perhaps to keep some separation between the more staid and proper Mason novels and the slightly more tawdry, profane, and risqué Cool & Lam titles. Bertha Cool, in particular, the proudly obese, gluttonous owner of the detective agency, was a tough-talking, vulgar character, a far cry from the female characters you generally met in the pages of detective novels in the 30s and 40s. And Donald Lam, her junior partner, was a disbarred former lawyer some distance from Perry Mason in the area of ethics, having once tutored a client on how to commit murder and get away with it. The characters are delicious, and it's easy to see how much fun Gardner had writing about them. They inspired radio and TV adaptations (starring Frank Sinatra and Art Carney, respectively) and have a passionate fan base to this day.

 The Knife Slipped was intended to be the second installment in the Cool and Lam series, originally slated for publication in 1939. Why was it never released?

The correspondence we found with the manuscript among Gardner's papers revealed that Gardner's publisher, Thayer Hobson at William Morrow, disliked the book intensely, complaining in particular that Bertha Cool was an unappealing character who spent all her time cursing, smoking cigarettes and trying to gyp people. Apparently, he felt the first book in the series, THE BIGGER THEY COME, had presented her in at least a somewhat more sympathetic light. He told Gardner he'd publish THE KNIFE SLIPPED if Gardner insisted - Gardner was one of their best-selling authors, after all - but said he thought the book would do his reputation no favors. So Gardner did what only a writer as productive as he was could afford to, namely stick the manuscript in a drawer and just write an entirely different book about the characters. That book was TURN ON THE HEAT, perhaps the best book in the series, and Hobson accepted it gladly. And THE KNIFE SLIPPED remained in that drawer for the next 70 years.

How did you find out about The Knife Slipped?  How did you secure the rights for publication?

A writer named Jeffrey Marks, who had been working on a biography of Gardner, came across references to THE KNIFE SLIPPED among Gardner's papers and brought its existence to our attention. We requested a copy of the manuscript from the university where Gardner's papers are kept, with the assistance of the author's grandson, and after a bit of discussion a copy showed up. I read it fearing the worst - that it had been rejected for good reason - and was delighted to find that the book was first-rate, one of my favorites in the entire series. Since we already had a relationship with the Gardner estate, having reissued one of the other Cool and Lam novels a decade earlier, it was simple to put a contract together to do this one.

What can readers look forward to in The Knife Slipped?

THE KNIFE SLIPPED is very much a classic Cool and Lam yarn, with all the intricate plotting and delicious dialogue and wonderful character beats fans of the series would expect. But it's also out of the ordinary since it was written right after the first book and depicts a point early in the characters' relationship, when Lam was still more an ex-lawyer than a proper private eye and Bertha Cool had to carry more of the load of the detective work. In this respect it really does fill in a missing chapter in the series and is all the more enjoyable for that reason.

Are there other "lost" Gardner novels waiting out there?

Sadly, as far as we are aware, there are not.

What's next for Hard Case Crime?

We seem to have made something of a speciality of uncovering lost manuscripts from famous authors, and we have a real rarity coming this summer: FOREVER AND A DEATH by Donald E. Westlake, a novel Westlake wrote but never published around 1999, after being hired by the James Bond movie producers to plot out a film in the Bond series. When the producers opted not to use the storyline Westlake came up with, he turned it into a novel, but for whatever reason didn't publish it while he was alive.

And for fans of Cool and Lam, we're going to be reissuing three more of the Cool and Lam books, ones that haven't been in bookstores for decades and that I especially like - one from the 1940s, one from the 50s, and one from the 60s. We'll start with TURN ON THE HEAT, the book Gardner wrote to replace THE KNIFE SLIPPED. It only seemed appropriate.

[Image courtesy of Hard Case Crime. For more, see our 2015 interview with Charles Ardai about the publication of Gore Vidal's Thieves Fall Out].