Turn On The Heat is the second of the twenty nine Cool and Lam mysteries Erle Stanley Gardner published under the pen name A. A. Fair, and it is widely regarded as the best of the bunch. It’s not hard to see why: The twists are extra twisty, the consequences extra serious and the plot twists especially ingenious.
The plot starts simply, as all of Lam and Cool’s mysteries do. A client who insists on being called “Mr. Smith” hires the agency to find a woman who vanished 21 years prior without drawing attention to the search. Hamstrung by the instructions and lack of information, Lam heads to Oakview, the city Mrs. Liftig – the target – disappeared from. But he’s not the first one to come snooping around after the missing Mrs. Liftig – not even the second. Only a reporter at the local paper seems helpful, though she’s got her own agenda. And when a stranger brutally kicks him out of town, Lam starts to take things personally.
But there’s more to the case than just an old flame and a missing person (or two, or three). Politics, graft, and murder all rear their ugly heads while Lam tries to stay one step ahead of the intrepid reporter and keep everyone – including his boss, his client and himself – out of prison.
Gardner handles the twists and turns with aplomb, keeping the plot moving and the patter snappy. He also shrewdly devotes time to the dynamic between Lam and Cool; their different approaches to the business make for some friction, but both are effective in their own way, and they complement each other well.
The story is told from Lam’s perspective, which makes sense, as he’s the one getting into most of the trouble. He’s also the one getting into – and losing – fistfights. A hundred thirty pounds soaking wet and an ex-lawyer to boot, Lam is nobody’s idea of a two-fisted detective, and yet with his wits and his charm he pulls off maneuvers that a more prototypical private eye would never dare attempt. It takes a careful reader to keep track of all the stunts Lam is trying to pull at any given moment, but that attention is rewarded. Lam’s there for his client first and foremost and he’ll do whatever it takes, no matter how far out on a limb that puts him. And if that means hiding witnesses, instructing them to lie to the police, fabricating crime scenes, or anything else, he’s up for it.
Is the book dated? Of course it is, in attitude and language, and the politics it describes are relatively simplistic by modern standards. But that doesn’t keep Turn On The Heat from being compulsively readable, in fact, the effect is quite the opposite. The book is a -there’s no other word for it – cool slice of a literary world gone by, and its pleasures more than overcome its slight length.
(Hard Case, 2017)