In January 1939, William Morrow & Company published The Bigger They Come, Erle Stanley Gardner’s first novel under the pseudonym of A.A. Fair, marking the debut of the private-eye team of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. in April of that year, Gardner sent in the second in the series, The Knife Slipped – and Morrow rejected it. Rather than trying to revise TKS, Gardner filed the manuscript away and wrote Turn on the Heat, which was accepted… and that was how matters stood for the next 75 years. Gardner published 29 Lam/Cool novels from 1939 till his death in 1970, but The Knife Slipped never saw the light of day.
Until 2016, at least, when Hard Case Crime released it to the public for the first time ever, and Gardner fans got a chance to enjoy it and see how it stacked up against the rest of the Fair corpus.
I won’t waste much time on the plot – Bertha assigns Donald to get the goods on a probably-unfaithful husband, there’s a murder, the cops get tough with both members of the team, and as in any of their other cases, there are a lot of complications before the solution is revealed.
Editor Russell Atwood provides an afterword in which he mentions several ways in which TKS differs from the rest of the Lam/Cool saga:
- Bertha is a better detective here than in any of the other books, figuring out a lot of the solution by herself, although it’s still Donald who pins the killing on the guilty party
- Donald, fresh off his first case, is still a rookie private investigator and makes the kind of rookie mistakes that you won’t find him making in Turn on the Heat or later books
- Bertha goes easier on Donald when he messes up than she would later on (although she still chews him out quite a bit) and makes a positively sentimental gesture at the end
Atwood speculates that Donald making mistakes might be the reason Gardner’s editor, Thayer Hobson, declined to publish the book, and that may have had something to do with it. However, there are several paragraphs in Francis L. Fugate’s book on Gardner, Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer, that offer other reasons.. although I have to admit they leave me more confused than anything else.
Hobson wrote a rejection letter to Gardner, quoted in Secrets, in which he said in part, “I think it is cheap – crude without being effective. All Bertha Cool does is talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people… And I don’t think much of the story itself. If that manuscript had come to me in the ordinary way… I would have stopped reading about page 70…”
By contrast, when Gardner sent in Turn on the Heat, Hobson enthused, “Jesus Christ, here Bertha Cool is Bertha Cool and she is flesh and blood and she is grand. So is Donald Lam. Now, damn you, Erle, you know perfectly well that these are the characters who have been in your mind and not those stuffed shirts who came wobbling into the office a few months ago.”
All of which perplexes me, because hey, the Bertha of the other 29 novels talks tough, swears (only words that were publishable in the Forties, of course), smokes cigarettes and, well, tries to get a good fee for the agency’s services. And the story itself is of a piece with the kind of cases she and Donald would investigate over the coming decades. Maybe Hobson was having a bad day?
So if you like the Lam/Cool novels and haven’t read this one, it’s a perfectly good companion to the other 29.
(By the way, the title has nothing to do with stabbing anyone. Several times in the story, Bertha says she likes to “cut herself a piece of cake,” meaning she likes to make money off of a potentially lucrative situation, but this time “the knife slipped” – meaning she got in trouble when she tried to horn in on someone else’s action.)