Like the other Cool and Lam pulps by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair, Top of the Heap starts with a simple and shady case, easily solved and paid for only to morph into a complex conspiracy.
This time round, The Cool and Lam detective agency is hired by John Carver Billings to confirm an alibi placing him at a motel with two women from out of town at time of an attempted murder of a prominent mob boss. Lam promptly confirms the alibi only to get suspicious about how easily Billings's story fell into place. Taking matters into his own hands, Lam soon discovers the women were paid off and the simple case was a ruse leading him down a complex underworld rabbit warren.
One thing this series has going for it, is that each installment (those I've read anyway) reads perfectly well as a standalone. Top of the Heap is book #13 and requires the reader to have no prior knowledge of the earlier cases. Though, readers of the series will note, by this point, Lam is taking lead and the charismatic Bertha Cool is on the peripheral - a far cry from the other Cool and Lam book published by Hard Case Crime in The Knife Slipped.
Starting simple and evolving into a broader mystery is fine, if done right. Unfortunately each of the 3 Cool and Lam books I've read have lost me midway through as the case spans different directions connected together by paper thin threads. Top of the Heap is perhaps the prime example; there's an attempted hit on a mob boss, the murder of a mob moll, a murder of a mining mogul, stock market manipulation, paid alibis, and potential banker fraud, oh a plot to take over a prominent gambling establishment - all in around 200 pages. It's hard to keep up.
Top of the Heap will appeal to fans of Cool and Lam but readers wanting a traditional pulp will be let down, dime store dialogue aside. 2/5 stars.