Shills Can’t Cash Chips by Erle Stanley Gardner

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If you’re looking for an exciting detective story, heaped in nostalgia and classic quips, Shills Can’t Cash Chips certainly won’t disappoint. Erle Stanley Gardner – known for his master storytelling skills and talent for unfolding mystery – entices with a well-paced, unexpected and bite-sized novel, complete with quality characters and unique zest.

As someone not well-versed in crime and mystery novels, I really didn’t know what to expect with this book. Admittedly, I usually steer away from books with lots of  ‘action’ scenes – the tagline of “Fast Car…Dangerous Women…” had me skeptical as to how far I would enjoy it. Luckily, Shills Can’t Cash Chips is another perfect example of why not to judge a book by it’s cover, as time and time again throughout the narrative I was left pleasantly surprised.

We dive right into the action of detective agency Cool & Lam, where another intriguing case awaits the feisty duo. Lam takes the lead in this story, and we follow him around the streets of Los Angeles as he chases seductive leads and high-profile targets, against the backdrop of 1940-50’s America. What begins as a simple tale involving a traffic accident, quickly but cleverly turns into something much juicer, giving light to a number of cover-ups and deadly crimes.

In the past, I’ve sometimes found detective novels to be obvious and unconvincing, taking away that key enjoyability factor. Shills Can’t Cash Chips is by far one of the most well-paced and unexpected novels I’ve read, though, particularly given my previous qualms with the genre. Gardner has a knack for revealing things at the perfect moment, and just when I thought I could suss out where the story was leading, there was another shocking twist.

Yet none of this layering was overdone, either. Although there was undeniably a lot to keep track of over the course of the novel, I never felt lost or confused. Gardner used speech and clever interactions between the characters to make sure the reader remained on the journey towards solving the case. As the revelations grew, I worried that the timelines and personalities may become muddled, yet if anything the novel really came into itself the ‘busier’ and more complex it became.

Make no mistake though – there was never any ‘hand-holding’ from Gardener, either. Instead, the story was teased out though the eccentric characters, seen through the witty, comical eye of Donald Lam.

Lam himself was a character I quickly fell in love with, alongside all the women in Shills Can’t Cash Chips, it seems. His calm nature and methodological brain makes for the perfect, likeable protagonist, even when he is getting himself into trouble.

We root for him and his success from the outset. He is inquisitive yet kind, easing himself into any situation he happens to find himself in. He doesn’t come surrounded with an air of (often insufferable) bravado, that we may have seen some writers slip into for a character like this. Instead, he is almost sweet and unassuming. He takes punches and knows his place, and is even modest with his intelligence. He’s a great, refreshing lead for a novel like this, who I’m sure added to the unique tone and success of the series.

Lam’s partner, Bertha Cool, was another excellent character, and I only wish that I saw more of her in the novel. Their opposing personalities play perfectly off one another – she’s hot-headed and quick to criticise and speak her mind, yet this clearly comes from a place of deep respect and love. She initiates one of the few violent acts in the book, showing her strength, which Gardner makes very clear throughout.

She’s also responsible for some fantastic, timely phrases in the book – notably “Fry me for an oyster!” – showcasing her zany personality, much louder than Lam. Though I wished we got to see some of the narrative through the eyes of Cool, or at least have her be a little more involved, her absence only made me research her character further after I finished, and become more interested in the previously published series. A sign of an impactful character and enticing novel.

Finally, I couldn’t review Shills Can’t Cash Chips without lending praise to the sheer nostalgic feel of the novel. Although obviously not intended at the time of publication, when read now, readers will certainly find themselves transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and all its quirks. The details about clothes and make-up Gardner includes help to evoke the glam and show-business feel of the time, even down to the impeccable way he details a woman driving and getting out of a car.

While these presentations can come with their fair share of problems, in Shills Can’t Cash Chips it felt intentional and necessary, given the setting. Gardener’s female characters are certainly some of the more colourful personalities in the novel, and their alluring, seductive nature only added to the wonderfully timely tone.

A delightful read with innumerable twists and turns, a satisfying ending, and great one-liners – what’s not to love about Shills Can’t Cash Chips?

Shrills Can’t Cash Chips is published by Titan Books and is available here.

Erle Stanley Gardner

One of the best-selling authors of all time, Erle Stanley Gardner’s greatest creations include crusading attorney Perry Mason (star of more than eighty novels, a TV series and TV movies) and the hardboiled detective team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, who appeared in more than two dozen adventures. An attorney himself, Gardner also founded the Court of Last Resort, a group that investigated criminal cases they believed had ended in wrong convictions

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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