Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Cool & Lam Deficiency; The Orson Welles Hard-Boiled Connection

Gardner’s Bertha Cool & Donald Lam

At the used bookshop the other day I picked up a Bertha Cool & Donald Lam book called The Count of Nine. Erle Stanley Gardner wrote the series under the A.A. Fair pen name, and they’re fun, but for the life of me I can never finish one. Gardner’s writing is crisp and the banter between Cool and Lam is fun, but there is something missing from the story. I think the lack of description keeps me at a distance; also, the lack of personal motivation on behalf of the characters makes me not care about their adventures. It seems that Donald Lam, the legman, is always on the verge of saying, "I'm going fishing, solve your own damn murder," and I can't get past that. They don’t even go about the work as work, such as Richard Stark described, which is engaging; so while I enjoy the Cool & Lam books for their pluses, their minuses keep me from reading all the way through. I’ll keep buying the books when I find them, though, because I like old paperbacks and, when there’s nothing else to read, Cool & Lam fill the gap nicely--for about 60 pages or so.

I think Gardner did his best work in Black Mask Magazine, when he was perfecting his craft. The stories he wrote are full of so much scene detail and great characterization that you wonder why Gardner decided to leave out such details in his future work (like in Perry Mason). If he hadn't cut the fat, maybe I'd read more Perry Mason books.


Over the last few Halloweens, I’ve listened to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I’m trying to make it a tradition, I guess, since the program is associated so closely with Halloween. I know the back story of the broadcast; the panic in caused; but I tell you, the show gives me the chills every time I listen. It is so well done, so well acted, and seems so real. You cannot help but be scared by the action as it unfolds. What separates Welles's Halloween broadcast from any other program is that it involves the audience, breaks the fourth wall, if you will. The actors speak to the “ladies and gentlemen of the audience” and because of the “live news” coverage, you really feel like you’re there in Grover’s Mill when the Martians land and deploy their deadly heat ray (can you beat the sound that thing makes?) That’s why I like it so much, and it explains why it caused such a panic in October 1938. If you haven’t listened, you certainly should.

Now you may be wondering why I’m talking about the Martian broadcast on a hard-boiled forum, but there is a connection. Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater, not long after The War of the Worlds program, adapted for radio Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. In his introduction of the show, Welles calls it “Hammett’s very best” and seems to have a sincere appreciation of the story. The adaptation is fair, watering down Hammett’s concept somewhat, but Welles as Paul Madvig is spot-on.

Both The War of the Worlds and The Glass Key are available for download at the Internet Archive, which has a huge collection of other old time radio programs as well. Enjoy!

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