Erle Stanley Gardner (1889 – 1970) was an American lawyer and author best known for the Perry Mason series of legal detective stories that spawned a series of Hollywood films of the 1930s, and then a titular radio program, which ran from 1943 to 1955, then finally a long-running CBS-TV series starring Raymond Burr in the title role.
But Gardner also wrote some shorter pieces and numerous other novels including a two-part series with amateur detective Gramps Wiggins, a two-parter with freelancer Terry Clane, and a longer series with DA Doug Selby. His longest non-Perry Mason series were the thirty novels featuring the mismatched private detective team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, written under the pen name of A. A. Fair. A TV pilot was aired in 1958 by CBS, starring former jockey Billy Pearson as Lam and Benay Venuta as Cool, although it was never developed into a series.
Cool is a 60ish, overweight widow who opened her detective agency after the death of her husband in 1936. She has white hair and "greedy piggish eyes," with all the novels agreeing she is extremely avaricious and miserly and isn't overly concerned with ethics, or, as she freely admits, "I'll handle any disbarred lawyer." Her employee, Lam, is a recently suspended attorney who is a bit on the short side (about 5'6", weighs 130 pounds soaking wet) and is a "cocky little bastard" (Gardner once said he was modeled after his literary agent).
Widows Wear Weeds dates from 1966 and is the twenty-seventh installment in the Cool and Lam series. It starts out with Lam and his secretary, Elsie Brand, enjoying a coffee break when restaurant owner Nicholas Bafflin approaches Lam and wants to hire him to pay off a man who is blackmailing a famous movie star. Lam meets the blackmailer, Starman Calvert, gets the photo negatives and a receipt for the money (a confession), and leaves. Baffin thanks Lam by giving them a free meal, and he invites Sergeant Frank Sellers to join them.
But during the meal, Lam is called to the phone and on his way back to the table has to back up into the curtain for booth 13 in order to let a waitress with a full tray pass him. Soon afterward, when a waitress discovers a murdered man in booth 13, Sgt. Sellers vamooses because he'd been drinking champagne and was on duty, and two eyewitnesses claim they saw Lam exit the murder booth. When the victim is discovered to be the blackmailer, Lam is left as a suspect without Sellers to back him up. As Cool and Lam dig deeper, they aren't entirely sure what Baffin's game really was other than the blackmail scheme was a set up. But why? And why would a man risk his marriage by pretending to be having an affair and being blackmailed? The list of suspects turns out to be pretty long, including desperate waitresses, corrupt politicians, one frantic cop, and the deceased's missing widow.
The book is a fast-moving, quick read, with a lot of humor and snappy, sharp dialogue, or as Kirkus Reviews noted, "Tried and true and tricky."
A fun little note: Erle Stanley Gardner had an amazing sales record: at the height of his popularity in the mid-1960s he was selling an average of 26,000 copies of his novels a day, making him one of the world's best selling author's, easily outstripping at the time Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland combined.