Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Bigger They Come, by A.A. Fair

For reasons I won't go into, I've been on this kick where I want to read mysteries with fat female detectives, a la The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. My boss recommended this book, which, as you can see from the cover, is written by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. I couldn't find any cover art of this book on-line, so I just took a picture of it. It was originally published in 1939 by William Morrow. My edition was published in 1943 by Pocket Books. Brand new, it cost 45 cents. On the back of the book is an ad for Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl, which "was for many weeks a record seller!" It cost 75 cents brand new.

But back to the fat female detective: The Bigger They Come has a great one - Bertha Cool, of the Cool Detective Agency. She's self-possessed, no-nonsense, cheap as hell, and astoundingly fat. She's summed up nicely here:

"Mrs. Cool, perfectly at ease, continued to hold down the desk with her elbows. She had that motionless immobility which characterizes the very fat. Thin people are constantly making jerky motions to alleviate the nervous pressure which possesses them. Mrs. Cool didn't have a fidget in her system. When she sat down, she was placed. She had the majesty of a snow-capped mountain, and assurance of a steam roller."

The narrator is Donald Lam, a penniless shrimp of a man who doesn't weigh a pound over 120, and is hired as "The Muscle" for the Cool Agency. Yeah, I know, I know - A Bertha "Cool" and Donald "Lam" Mystery, but whatever, I didn't let it bother me.

Lam is hired by Cool to serve a man named Morgan Birks with divorce papers. The problem is that Morgan's a fugitive, so he's in hiding. His wife, Sandra Birks, refers Lam to her brother Bleatie to help find him. Despite a recent car accident that has left Bleatie's head in a bandage, he leads Lam to Morgan's lover, who in turn leads Lam to a hotel, where she will ostensibly meet with Morgan. Lam waits in the room next door to Morgan's lover for Morgan to appear.

In the meantime, Sandra and Bleatie show up at the hotel too. Sandra can't wait to give Morgan a piece of her mind, and Bleatie is there for suspicious reasons - it seems like he's working for Morgan, and is very afraid of being accused of having led Lam and Sandra to Morgan. When Morgan finally shows up, Lam serves him the papers, Sandra screams at him and his lover, and Bleatie pleads for forgiveness. It's quite a scene. The job is over. Except, of course, it's not. It's really just began.


Lam gets kidnapped by toughs the minute he steps outside of the hotel, and the plot, as they say, thickens. I won't go into all the details, except to say the Lam deduces from a fashion faux-pas that Bleatie and Morgan are the same person! It's an almost Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or What Not to Wear moment, when Lam reasons, "would a guy with a two inch diameter bald spot really part his hair down the middle? Of course not!" With that, the whole head bandage / broken nose disguise falls apart. This was a great moment, and, it seemed to me, one that a writer today would never try and pull off. It's my theory that today's writers think in much more cinematic terms, and some part of their minds are picturing the movie adaptations of their book when they write. This technique - where one character is pretending to be two people - is hard to pull off on screen, so I wonder if writers who've considered it have just let it drop. Not that they didn't have television in 1939, but it wasn't the cultural centerpiece that it is today.


But that great Ah-Ha moment is only the half way point in the unfolding of the plot. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Lam was disbarred for claiming to know a legal loophole in which you can commit murder and get away with it. And true to his word, Lam shows us, quite brilliantly, how it's done.

Between Lam's brains and Bertha's size and poise, this was a great read for me. It's the most ingeniously plotted mystery I've read in a while, though I must admit to getting a little bogged down with the legal intricacies of Lam's murder-without-consequence scheme. But I've already ordered the next two books in the Bertha Cool - Donald Lam series.

It's impossible for me to read a book this old and not wonder about what the publishing environment was like when it was published, and how much the business has changed since. I've been reading this print-out from Columbia University called Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975 - 2002 by Gayle Feldman (thanks Stephen!). Even though 1939 and 1975 don't have very much in common, they are both Before My Time In The Publishing Industry, so I thought I'd share some of the more interesting stats in this report:

-"The number of new books being published each year increased more than 300%, from 39,000 in 1975 to 122,000 in 2000....[however] total unit sales only increased 150%, from 955 million in 1975 to almost 2.5 billion in 2000. The overall title/unit sales ratio, therefore, effectively shows a decrease in sales."

-"Book prices have risen in every format....Mass market paperback prices have quadrupled since 1975."

-"In the past, we'd sell ten mass market paperbacks for every hardcover. Today we sell two mass markets for every hardcover. We sell one trade paperback for every hardcover, except for the exceptions of course!" - Carolyn Reidy

(This is the fault of Boomers, who like to buy Hardcovers)

-"In 1975, novels had long stays on the bestseller list; in 2000, more novels made the list but generally enjoyed far shorter stays, with a few exceptions."

-"Twenty-five years ago, a book's shelf life was far longer. Today, many new books only stay on the shelf for three months, and in some cases, even less."

-"And acquiring big books became the badge of the successful editor. Farrar, Straus's Elisabeth Sifton says that by the 1990's, it was clear that "editors were valued for the deals they could do, not for work well done or talent nurtured."

Unfortunately, the stats I find interesting could also be considered depressing. I'm not one of those Doom and Gloom people, out predicting the apocalypse of the publishing industry. Just chew on this.


Writer, Rejected said...

Fat lady detectives?! I've been living under a rock all these years!

Anonymous said...

Cameron, do you think the job of "nuturing talent" has now shifted to the agent? Since publishers are now so focused solely on performance and dollar, is that why we've seen a rise in agencies declaring they are in the business of "career management?"

Janet Reid said...

Writer,'ve missed Precious Ramotswe "a lady of traditional build" at the #1 Ladies Detective Agency? Get thee to the bookstore!