How do you steal a six foot long blowgun from a party where all the guests are X-rayed on their way out? Believe it or not, that’s only the tertiary mystery in The Count of Nine, a twisty, sneaky thriller from the pen of Perry Mason creator Earle Stanley Gardner. But instead of belonging to that more famous series, The Count of 9 is part of a 29 book series Gardner penned under the alias A.A. Fair detailing the adventures of detectives Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Cool is big and brash, Lam is undersized but tenacious, and together they solve impossible cases that leave the local cops scratching their heads. This particular episode of their adventures has been out of print for a solid half century, and Hard Case has done the reading audience a solid by bringing it back.
In The Count of 9, Cool gets the agency a job guarding a party thrown by international adventurer Dean Crockett. Crockett, a real man’s man with a priceless collection of artifacts and the prerequisite lovely but not overly attached wife, had a jade statue of the Buddha stolen from his last party, and he’s determined not to let that happen again. Hence the X-rays, hence hiring Lam and Cool. And yet, not only does a matching statue go missing, but also a six foot blowgun with poisoned darts. There would seem to be no way they could have been smuggled out of the building, and yet…
And yet that’s not even the real kicker. That comes when Crockett is found dead inside his sealed, locked sanctuary (Of course he has one of those as well), pierced with one of the darts from the blowgun Lam had just returned to Mrs. Crockett. Things look open and shut but yet Lam senses there’s more to the story. And then there’s those missing jade Buddhas, and the mysterious model who poses for Mrs. Crockett’s portraiture, and the constantly on-the-make photographer who shoots high society parties and other, more scandalous things, and, well, you’ve got yourself a mystery.
Lam takes front and center in this case. He’s a thinking man’s two-fisted detective, getting by on his considerable wits and charm. When it comes to fisticuffs, he doesn’t do quite so well, hence the title of the book. But he’s stubborn and he’s clever, and he’s easy to root for.
The writing is breezy and playful, with the violence kept mostly offstage. Gardner is almost less interested in his mysteries than he is how his characters maneuver around them. The recovery of the missing blowgun, for example, is handled with such low-key panache that you’ll want to applaud, the impossible made obvious and indeed, made second fiddle to something that plays a larger part in the later story.
The Count of 9 is a fun, playful exemplar of its genre. It’s a fast read, and an addictive one – be prepared to read it beginning to end once you start.
(Hard Case, 2018)