Bertha Cool and Donald Lam

Created by A.A. Fair
Pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner

One of the all-time great mismatched team-ups in detective fiction and — at the time — a real blast of fresh air. Grade A Extra Large widow and penny pincher BERTHA COOL, the sixtyish head of the B. Cool Confidential Investigations, based in Los Angeles, isn’t overly concerned with ethics. “I’ll handle any disbarred lawyer,” she says, and that she will.

Truth be told, I’ve always had a soft spot for Mrs. Cool. Greedy, corrupt, dishonest, about as pleasant as a cold sore and weighing slightly less than a Buick, she ran her own detective agency while most female sleuths of the time were puttering around in the rose garden, making tea for the vicar or waiting to be rescued.

Politically correct? Who the hell cares?

Fortunately, she finds her match in DONALD LAM, a diminutive law school dropout who shows a delightful aptitude for bending, twisting, tweaking and otherwise subverting the law, while Bertha tends to just out and out break it. As she puts it, Donald is “a little runt, but he’s brainy.” Meanwhile, Gardner himself called him “that cocky little bastard.”

Together they are simply one of the best teams of P.I.s ever, appearing in one of the more entertaining series of mysteries around, full of colourful characters, scams galore, brain-spinning twisty plots and dialogue you could shave with.  They just don’t write ’em like that anymore. (Uh uh uh uhh uh uh uh uh).

Unfortunately, Gardner was so prolific — and by then so well known for a certain other creation of his — that the Cool and Lam books never quite got the acclaim or popularity they deserved. Perhaps if a successful TV series had been developed from it, Cool and Lam may have ended up being more than a mere footnote in Gardner’s career.

Although, to be fair, there were a few attempts to bring the franchise to a larger audience.

The first stab was a one-off radio show that showed up as an 1946 episode of The United States Steel Hour of Mystery, adapted from the 1940 novel Turn on the Heat and starring none other than Ol’ Blue Eyes himself as Donald, and… uh, I have no idea who played Bertha.

Next up was a television episode on another anthology show, Climax! This one adapted the first novel, The Bigger They Come (1939), and starred Jane Darwell and Art Carney. Unfortunately, since the show was performed live, this episode is considered lost. But Art Carney as Donald Lam? That would have been cool to see!

And finally, a TV pilot was aired in 1958 by CBS, starring former jockey and $64,000 Question contestant Billy Pearson (who?) and Benay Venuta (who?) as Lam and Cool, although it was directed by noir legend Jacques Tourneur, and the executive producer was Gail Patrick Jackson, who was also the executive producer of the already popular Perry Mason series. It never developed into a series, although it comes around on YouTube now and then, complete with an introduction by Erle Stanley himself. Gardner, apparently, was very enthusiastic about Pearson as the ideal Donald Lam. 

Gardner was, of course, the creator of Perry Mason and about a zillion characters in the crime and detective pulps and one of the most popular American authors of all time, with over 100 million books sold.


  • “Among his many other virtues, Erle Stanley Gardner is surely the finest constructor of hyper-intricate puzzles in evidence…”
    — Anthony Boucher, The New York Times Book Review
  • “One of the best in the series…You can only love a book where everyone gets exactly what they deserve in triplicate.”
    — Karen Ellington, The Mystery Read on Top of the Heap 


  • “Well, can me for a sardine!”
  • “Well, peel me for a grape!”
  • “Fry me for an oyster!”
  • “You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”
    — Bertha explains why she’s so hard-boiled


  • “LA. is just a village with gland trouble.”
    — Donald Lam (Billy Pearson) in the 1958 television pilot


  • The Bigger They Come (1939)Buy this book
  • Turn on the Heat (1940) Buy this book Kindle it!
  • Gold Comes in Bricks (1940)
  • Spill the Jackpot (1941)
  • Double or Quits (1941)
  • Owls Don’t Blink (1942)
  • Bats Fly at Dusk (1942)Buy this book
  • Cats Prowl at Night (1943)
  • Give ’em the Ax (1944)
  • Crows Can’t Count (1946)
  • Fools Die on Friday (1947) Buy this book  | Kindle it!
  • Bedrooms Have Windows (1949)
  • Top of the Heap (1952)Buy this book
  • Some Women Won’t Wait (1953)
  • Beware the Curves (1956)
  • You Can Die Laughing (1957)
  • Some Slips Don’t Show (1957)
  • The Count of 9 (1958)Buy this book Kindle it!
  • Pass the Gravy (1959)
  • Kept Women Can’t Quit (1960)
  • Bachelors Get Lonely (1961)
  • Shills Can’t Cash Chips (1961) Buy this book | Kindle it!
  • Try Anything Once (1962)
  • Fish or Cut Bait (1963)
  • Up for Grabs (1964)
  • Cut Thin to Win (1965)
  • Widows Wear Weeds (1966)
  • Traps Need Fresh Bait (1967)
  • All Grass Isn’t Green (1970)
  • The Knife Slipped (2016)Buy this bookKindle it!
    Intended to be the second book in the series, but the publisher rejected it for (among other things) “Bertha Cool’s tendency to talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people.” It actually suggests a different way the series might have gone, softening Bertha’s abrasiveness (but just a bit) and playing up Donald’s naiveté.


    (June 9-September 1, 1946, ABC)
    A mystery-themed summer replacement for the popular United States Steel Hour, which ran during the summer of 1946. The United States Steel Hour itself was an anthology series which brought hour long dramas to radio from 1945-53 (and television from 1953 to 1963) both sponsored by the United States Steel Corporation (U. S. Steel).

    • “Turn on the Heat” (June 23, 1946, ABC)
      Based on the novel by A.A. Fair
      Adapted by Welbourne Kelly
      Starring Frank Sinatra as DONALD LAM


    (1954-58, CBS)
    An American television anthology series that aired on CBS from 1954 to 1958. The series was hosted by William Lundigan and later co-hosted by Mary Costa.

    • “The Bigger They Come” (January 6, 1955)
      Based on the novel by A.A. Fair
      Starring Jane Darwell as BERTHA COOL
      and Art Carney as DONALD LAM
      Also starring Don Megowan
  • COOL AND LAM | Watch it now on YouTube
    (1958, CBS)
    Unsold pilot
    30 minute episode
    Black and white
    Based on characters created by A.A. Fair
    Executive producer: Gail Patrick Jackson
    Teleplay by Edmund L. Hartmann
    Directed by Jacques Tourneur
    Starring Billy Pearson as DONALD LAM
    and Benay Venuta as BERTHA COOL
    Also starring Maurice Manson, Margaret Field, Judith Bess Jones, Sheila Bromley, Don Megowan, Movita, Allison Hayes, John Mitchum, Tristram Coffin, Alex Sharp


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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