The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner - book review: Intricately plotted and continually entertaining

In a thrilling 1950s tale from one of the most successful mystery writers of all time, detective duo Bertha Cool and Donald Lam investigate the theft of two precious jade idols and the baffling murder of their millionaire client, found dead from a poisoned dart in a double-locked room.
The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley GardnerThe Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner

The Count of 9, first published in 1958, is the 18th entry in the long-running Cool & Lam mystery series by prolific American writer Erle Stanley Gardner who died in 1970. Gardner, creator of the world-famous crime-solving attorney Perry Mason, wrote 30 adventures, using the pseudonym of A.A. Fair, featuring the clever, cocky, pint-sized private eye Donald Lam and his greedy, unscrupulous partner Bertha Cool.

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The fast-moving story opens with the manipulative, publicity-hungry Bertha Cool who has recently been retained by a high-profile client – big game hunter and explorer Dean Crockett the Second –preparing to be glorified in the local newspapers as the owner of one of the best detective agencies around.

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Tasked with guarding Crockett’s priceless private collection of world treasures against thieves at a party he is hosting at his penthouse suite, Bertha personally takes on the grand assignment.

But, after the party, Crockett discovers that his precious carved jade idol, worth six thousand dollars, has been stolen. Weeks earlier, his other carved Buddha statue also went missing.

Additionally, the thief has taken a six-foot-long wooden pygmy blowgun, which is of particular sentimental value to Crockett, and a set of poison-tipped darts. All these items were stolen right under the nose of Bertha who neglected to check off names on the guest list when the visitors arrived.

The tough protagonist, Donald Lam, a devious, smart-ass operative with an uncanny ability to ferret out the truth, use his knowledge of the law to his advantage, and charm the ladies, steps in to spare his partner’s blushes.

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Asked to retrieve the missing artefacts, Lam wastes no time getting to the bottom of the artful robbery which saw the culprit somehow elude detection at the busy dinner party and smuggle the items out through an elevator specially fitted with an X-ray machine.

Unfortunately, before Lam can return the property to its rightful owner and collect his payment, Crockett is found dead in a near-inaccessible locked private study in his penthouse suite. The poisoned dart discovered in Crockett’s chest presents the police with a particularly challenging mystery to unravel, and leaves Lam determined to protect the prime suspect!

Habitually sparring with police officers, suspects, and adversaries, the petite, lightweight Lam once again finds himself up against rough cops and vindictive crooks eager to turn him into a human punching bag. Though competent at meting out verbal jabs, he leads with his chin while ‘somebody always works him over.’

In this especially bruising tale, which sees him looking like a mangled, ‘battered-up prize fighter,’ Inspector Giddings believes Lam has taken the full count. But Lam, a glutton for punishment, is never one to throw in the towel, no matter how tough the opposition.

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Intricately plotted and continually entertaining, The Count of 9 is another solid entry in a highly enjoyable series, with the strong-willed Lam at his sardonic best.

(Hard Case Crime, paperback, £7.99)