written 1939/40, first published 2016
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Ruth Marr answered my gentle knock on the door of her apartment. “Well for the love of Mike, look at you,” I [said] taking in the silk dressing gown with the rose-coloured mules peeping out from underneath the trousers of pajamas which seemed to be composed of black silk netting… She pulled the robe open so that I could see the full expanse of the black openwork pajamas with the white outlines of her form showing as a pearly-tinted background.
I heard her in the bathroom splashing around, and then, after a while, she came out wearing the same robe without the pajamas. Where it flared out in front, I caught a glimpse of peach-coloured underwear.
commentary: Unlike many of my fellow crime fiction fans (Prashant, Sergio, Noah, Tracy) I am not an aficionado of Erle Stanley Gardner. It was Noah Stewart who introduced me to this one, and that irresistible cover (featuring Dita von Teese) grabbed me. We had some discussion as to whether it was relevant to the book (no: such a scene appears nowhere in the book) and whether it was a great cover and picture (yes: without a doubt), and Noah said there were some good clothes moments in the book, so here it is.
This is a lost work by ESG: he wrote it as the second in the Bertha Cool/Donald Lam series but it was rejected for reasons that are not entirely clear, and has just been published for the first time. (See Noah’s illuminating blogpost for more of this story, and helpful links.)
I enjoyed it hugely: it is a tough, noir-ish PI story: Bertha, large and fearsome, owns the agency and Donald, a ‘runt-like’ former lawyer is her operative. The new clients are two married ladies with different last names, so Bertha knows at once it is a divorce case - they will be, she correctly predicts, a sad wife and her vengeful mother. Donald is sent off after the cheating husband, who has been seen out in a nightclub ‘entertaining this blonde, and wearing evening clothes’ – but his tux is at home in the closet so:
That must mean that he has an apartment where he’s keeping another set of clothes.(Evening clothes feature a lot in this book – Bertha summons someone to fit Donald out in the middle of the night, impressively, and also explains that white tie is much better than black tie if you want to avoid the attentions of the police.)
So Donald starts following the man, and gets involved with the telephone operator at his apartment block – yes, his wife and mother-in-law are right, and in fact the man has TWO extra apartments. Soon there is a dead body, and Ruth, the telephone girl, is under suspicion. Donald tries to keep everyone happy, to keep Ruth out of trouble, and to find out what is really happening.
Bertha is a splendid character – hard as nails, enormous, and prone to referring to herself in the 3rd person: the title comes from her repeated mantra that ‘Bertha wants to cut herself a slice of the cake’ – the knife is going to slip as she does so. Clothes in Books also refers to itself in the 3rd person sometimes, so we are happy with that. Bertha also uses the endearment ‘lover’ to Donald all the time (he is clearly not in this role with her) sounding like nothing so much as Northern cake shop ladies of my youth. There is this exchange with a reluctant interviewee:
‘My husband will be here soon. He’ll put you in your place’
‘No husband ever has so far,’ Bertha remarked affably- and you have no trouble believing her.
She is a tremendous character, and I like the way she never softens at all.
The plot is elaborate and very well-worked out. I’m longing to tell you the purpose of the black silk panels with small holes cut in them (you would decline to believe it), but feel it would be a spoiler. It is a most unlikely scam, and one that I found it very hard to take seriously in any way, but I suppose there was a point to be made about small-town corruption.
At one point Bertha sits down and nearly breaks the furniture:
The creaky davenport groaned in protest. I thought the legs were going to give way.And this reminded me of a little-known literary byway. In 1960, the English novelist Evelyn Waugh (much featured on the blog) wrote the following letter to ESG:
Dear Mr Gardner,
May I, as one of the keenest admirers of your work, correct what I at first took for a slip, but now realise must be a genuine misconception?
You seem to think that a ‘davenport’ is some kind of sofa. It is, and can only be, a small writing desk.
Are you, perhaps, confusing it with a ‘chesterfield’?
I have mentioned this before, in a blog post on Raymond Chandler, another crime writer who likes his furniture:
In fact, both usages are fine. The US version comes from the makers of the original sofa – the term became generic, as Hoover did for carpet cleaners in the UK. Meanwhile in the UK, supposedly the first davenport desk was made for a Captain Davenport. This has all been worrying me since I first came across the references in the 1970s – James Thurber in another book seems to think it odd to use the word sofa rather than davenport - so despite not being clothes, it felt important to sort it out, and am happy to have done so.(Happy days back in 2013 when I even pretended only to be writing about clothes.)
Gardner’s publisher explained the different usage: Gardner himself sent an enthusiastic fan note to Waugh. ‘You have the greatest gift of satire I have ever encountered.’
Coincidence: Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was Evelyn Gardner, though I’m sure she was no relation to the crime writer. (Yes, confusingly the Waughs had the same first name, and were known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. Laura, his second wife, was a better choice from this and other points of view.)
So – all round a good experience with the invigorating Bertha and Donald, and well-done to Hard Case Crime for finally publishing the book. And a hat-tip to Noah and his excellent blog.
The woman in black pajamas is from earlier (you can tell from the hair and makeup) but seemed to have the right vampish look – from the Dutch National Archives. The woman in the robe is from Kristine’s photostream.