The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner

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The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: The Count of 9 by Erle Stanley Gardner on first viewing would seem like a classic pulpy detective story to titillate and adhere to the male stereotypes of the 1950s. However, this novel is transgressive in its views on gender, as well as telling a gripping narrative.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2018
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785656347

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The Count of 9 is a hardboiled detective story written in the 1950s. It revolves around the detective duo of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool as they attempt to solve the theft of priceless Bornean artefacts. However, their case quickly turns into something darker - an impossible murder.

The author, Erne Stanley Gardner, at the time of his death was the bestselling American writer of all time. He had hundreds of millions of books in print including 29 cases of Lam and Cool. One novel from the series is The Count of 9. It's been rescued from the pit of 'out of print books' by the publishers, Hard Case Crime. This publishing house recreates the original form and content of the crime novels of the 40s and 50s right down to the cover painting. The front cover was drawn by Robert McGinnis. He's the illustrator of a plethora of famous book covers and movie posters, including Thunderball and Barbarella. Hard Case Crime are invoking the feel of this time period, from cover to last page.

The decades of the 40s and 50s seem a world away, especially when one looks at the progressive politics and social views of the time. In detective stories of that era, the men were hard drinking and hard hitting, whereas the women were damsels in distress and femme fatales. A woman who harnessed her own sexuality was almost always dangerous, to both herself and the hero. It is illustrative, especially in the late 50s, of a distrust of women. Women were demanding more liberties, more work and a greater grasp of their own sexuality. After working in factories for the war effort and then being shunted back into the home by the men and government, women were ready for more. As the tide was bringing in the second wave of feminism, society was becoming nervous of women's sense of self-worth and sexuality. Women were objects. You leered at them, slept with them, put them in their place. They rarely had any agency, especially in this kind of male escapism.

This very rigid set of gender ideals was something to which Gardner did not conform. The Count of 9 is not just a brilliant detective story with twists and turns that keep you guessing. It is also an interesting critique of the gender norms of the time. Gardner, before he became an author, was a civil rights lawyer. This previous role as a defender of rights is indicative of his characterisation. The two main characters, Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, are not your traditional male/female dynamic. Bertha owns the detective agency, and immediately their dynamic is highlighted. Lam walks in on Bertha's photo shoot and receives a dressing down from her. It is Bertha Cool who has the agency, both literally and metaphorically. Bertha is always breathing down the neck of Donald Lam, her partner. Even when he is in trouble or has been attacked, she takes a hard line with him. This is transgressive of the views of the time. Women were expected to go to university to get an MRS degree, that is, a husband. Women were expected to uphold the feminine capitalist ideal and Gardner upends this to illustrate that women did not have to be this specific ideal. They could be what they wanted.

In fact, it is Donald Lam who is the more feminine” of the two. Lam, although he does seem like the stereotypical detective, is anything but. He does not drink, carry a gun and rarely seems interested in the women who throw themselves at him. Gardner shows there to be three kinds of men in The Count of 9: brains, brawn and the womaniser. It is the brains that rises above and solves the case. The brawn, although always seemingly in a higher position of authority than Lam, is quickly put in his place.

There is always a current of violence lying within the men in the novel. It was uncouth for men to show emotions and therefore they would be bottled up until they lashed out. These men, usually veterans, had grown up with war and had fought in one if not two different wars. Violence was all they knew. It is the antagonistic men that Lam butts up against who always use violence first. The novel is light on such acts, however when they do happen it is even more shocking. Like life in that instance, when men finally resort to violence, it is quick and quite often forthcoming.

The masculine ideals the 50s held up created a cycle of violence. Men would see these stereotypical men on television, whom they would aim to emulate. However, by trying to achieve this unattainable manliness, they would create frustration which would lead to violence which would again lead to trying to reach an unachievable goal. The sheer rigidity of manliness of the 50s created problems that society is only just starting to do something about. Gardner is a champion of the little guy though and proves that brains can work just as well as brawn.

Do not be fooled by the pulpy look of The Count of 9, this is not just an airport detective novel that is to be discarded as your plane lands, never to be thought about again. Gardner invokes the equality he strived for and the morality he worked with, to create brilliant characters that are ahead of their time. It also helps that it is an excellent story.

We can also recommend The Knife Slipped, also by Erle Stanley Gardner or Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal. For a lighter read, set at the same time we can recommend More Deaths Than One by Jean Rowden.

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