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Spotlight on: Hard Case Crime
Books Reviewed (In Order of Release):
Christa Faust, Money Shot
Retired porn star Angel Dare — who now runs an adult modeling agency called Daring Angels — was having a bad body day. So when she was called back to the set by her favorite director Sam Hammer ("kind of a cross between Santa Claus and John Holmes"), the prospect of working with new, hot talent Jesse Black ("twenty-one, Hollywood handsome, and legendary below the belt") for a quick $2,500 and her picture on the video cover was a big ego boost and impossible to resist.
What happened next was a surprise only to Angel Dare herself (and just goes to show that even women sometimes think with their genitals — and it gets them in trouble, too). As she begins Money Shot: "I'm sure you're wondering what a nice girl like me was doing left for dead in the trunk of a piece of shit Honda Civic out in the industrial wasteland of downtown Los Angeles. Or maybe we've met before and you're wondering why it hadn't happened sooner."
Christa Faust is the first female author to be published by the previously all-boys club known as Hard Case Crime, and it's easy to see why this book was chosen as the inaugural feminine entry: Money Shot starts off with attitude and never lets up. Those who may be concerned that it won't match up to the other "manly" books in the catalog need not worry. Faust plays hardball.
Her influences may be readily apparent, at least at the beginning (Boogie Nights and Kill Bill jumped immediately to mind), but Faust has a voice all her own and she combines those influences along with a heavy dose of knowledge regarding the sex industry (including but not limited to whatever an "airtight reverse cowgirl" might be) to create a novel that feels completely original and yet totally familiar. I haven't had this much fun reading about sex since Terry Southern's Blue Movie.
With Angel Dare, Faust has created a character who is unforgettable. However, she is not yet in a book that is quite her equal. Money Shot's fantastic start does not translate to a bang-up finish, and this is a story that wanted — no, needed — a strong ending to match the stellar beginning and middle. The solution and conclusion are simply disappointing in comparison. Still, Faust is a powerful writer and one who will definitely produce greater works in the future. She's fierce, and I have no doubt she's here to stay.
Lawrence Block, A Diet of Treacle
A Diet of Treacle (originally published as Pads Are for Passion under the house name Sheldon Lord) is a little different — it's a more traditional type of noir involving a trio of under-30s in 1960s Greenwich Village. Joe Milani is a vet of Korea who revels in the coolness he gets from a good marijuana high. Leon "Shank" Marsten, Joe's roommate, is just looking for his next deal or his next lay. Both of them surround themselves with Hip.
Anita Carbone, however, is very Square — a good little Italian girl whom Joe meets one night at The Palermo and can't get out of his mind afterward — she has the life he wishes he could return to after his having turned on and dropped out. But Anita wants what Joe has — unpredictability, what she sees as excitement.
A Diet of Treacle is much more a character piece than Block's other Hard Case Crime titles. It is also the first of his "sleaze" titles I've read that actually features a fair amount of sex talk — though a good portion of that concerns so-called "promiscuous virgins" (girls experienced in sex every way but the main route).
Block's style really captures the voice and spirit of the darker side of Beat and Hip, but in a way that makes me unsure if his research came from life or from other books. Luckily, while the main focus is on these three characters and their individual sex and drug experiences, there is a certain level of tension over the proceedings: we know something is going to happen, just not what.
In fact, when all hell finally breaks loose, it is a bit of a relief. Having really enjoyed Grifter's Game, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, and Lucky at Cards, this one comes across as comparatively weak, but A Diet of Treacle is still vintage Lawrence Block, and Block is always eminently readable.
Max Allan Collins, Deadly Beloved (Ms. Tree series)
Any new Max Allan Collins novel is cause for celebration, especially one from Hard Case Crime, because they are revisiting his best characters from his earlier days. First, they reprinted the first two novels Collins ever published (featuring professional thief Nolan) in Two for the Money. The next year saw the telling of his professional hitman Quarry's "final" story in The Last Quarry, which was based in part on the short film "A Matter of Principal" (available in the DVD set Max Allan Collins's Black Box).
His latest, Deadly Beloved, features yet another celebrated return, that of Ms. Michael Tree. What most people don't know is that Collins (along with artist Terry Beatty) is responsible for the longest-running private investigator comic book series. That it featured a female P.I. was even more ground-breaking, as Ms. Tree originated in 1980, before Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton came to fame with their girl gumshoes.
Deadly Beloved is the first all-prose novel to star Ms. Michael Tree, and it features cover art by Beatty in a nice combination of the usual Hard Case Crime motif and Beatty's own comic style (Ms. Tree's features have been softened considerably, for one thing). Ms. Tree has appeared in short stories — most notably "Inconvenience Store," which was adapted into the indie film Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market with Collins himself directing (it is also available in the Black Box DVD set) — but this is her first long-form appearance.
Comics have been a large part of Collins's career: he wrote the daily Dick Tracy strip for fifteen years, and even Road to Perdition started out as a graphic novel. This is simply a warning for those who may be put off by the comic book–style character names in Deadly Beloved. They aren't quite Chester Gould–quality puns, but they're close. (If the Ms. Tree/mystery pun doesn't make you groan, you'll probably be fine.)
Past fans of the character and her adventures will notice immediately that a good portion of the backstory that originally served as the impetus for Ms. Tree's exploits has been changed to suit this brand-new story, the murder of a philandering accountant by his jealous wife. But those coming to Deadly Beloved with little foreknowledge are in for a surprise: Ms. Tree is a hard-boiled woman with a heart as dark as any male private eye they've come into contact with before. Not the shy, retiring type, she has no compunctions against putting a bullet into anyone who gets in her way. Fans of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series (Collins is a highly vocal fan) will find a kindred soul in Ms. Tree.
The only real downside in Deadly Beloved is in the way the story is told. Its visually related origins are very apparent, especially in the use of the "telling her story to her therapist" conceit, which is usually only successful in comics or movies. Collins makes it work for the most part, but the jumping back and forth from the actual story to the "outer" conversation was jarring. Still, Collins has included some of his leanest prose yet in Deadly Beloved — I guess writing for those little boxes has made him an expert at picking his words carefully for the greatest impact — and I look forward to more adventures from both Collins and Tree.
Mickey Spillane, Dead Street
When Mickey Spillane died, he left behind several unfinished manuscripts. Lucky for us, they were left in the care of his good friend (and most vocal proponent) Max Allan Collins to prepare for publication. Most will require so much work to complete, however, that Dead Street is the only one that will be printed under Spillane's solo byline.
It's more than somewhat appropriate that Hard Case Crime is publishing a Spillane novel, since the publisher whose tone HCC is trying to recapture — Fawcett Gold Medal Books — was created to tap into the hardboiled paperback market that Spillane's work unearthed all on its own.
Twenty years ago, police captain Jack Stang lost his fiancée when she was abducted and the vehicle carrying her subsequently fell off a bridge into the Hudson River. Now retired, Stang learns that the love of his life is still alive — though blind and with complete memory loss of the period before the incident.
Stang is hired by someone who knows of their previous connection to protect her from people who still want what they think she knows. But can Jack stand being so close to her and falling in love all over again, when she doesn't even know who he is?
Dead Street has all the Spillane hallmarks: deep characterization, a fast plot, realistic dialogue (peppered generously with tough-guy slang), and a great deal of sensitivity. Anyone expecting an exclusively hardboiled experience is forgetting what a romantic Spillane was (Mike Hammer more than once let his heart rule his head to the detriment of a case, at least temporarily), and Dead Street is, above all, a love story.
According to Collins's afterword, eight chapters of Dead Street were already complete. Collins wrote the final three based on Spillane's notes and Collins's own discussions with the author. The transition is definitely noticeable, but perhaps only to a Collins fan like myself. Nothing against Spillane, but Collins is simply a more literate writer. He uses more complex sentences and includes more information in them. (This probably comes from his extensive comics work, having to put as much story as possible in those little boxes.) But he retains the tone of the rest of the book (as well as Spillane's signature knockout ending), so it hardly affects the book's impact, and the average reader probably won't notice the difference.
In fact, there's very little at all wrong with Dead Street. The atomic bomb subplot feels a bit dated (even when you consider that the book took ten years to write), but one doesn't really expect a Mickey Spillane novel to be grounded in the present day. Even though he is writing about the last quarter of the twentieth century, it's the 1950s all over again. Whether writing about Mike Hammer or Jack Stang (incidentally, the name of one of Spillane's best friends), he stripped-down prose harks back to the great old days of classic crime fiction — and that's always a trip worth taking.
Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Slide
When two authors with very distinctive styles collaborate, one's or the other's personality usually dominates. Or the resulting novel is such a mishmash that you can easily tell who wrote which section. Luckily, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr have somehow managed once again to avoid that with Slide, which contains one of the smoothest narrative noices ever put on paper.
Slide is the sequel to the authors' first collaboration, Bust (also published by Hard Case Crime). That first book was my pick for one of the best books of 2006, but this one doesn't quite live up to it.
Both Bruen and Starr are masters of darkness in their preferred settings — Bruen in Ireland, Starr in New York — and Slide jumps from the one setting to the other with ease. Max Fisher, former computer-company mogul, has changed careers: he is now The M.A.X., a "gangsta" crack dealer complete with his own "ho," Felicia (who turns out to be not as dumb as her massively augmented breasts would seem to imply).
Max's ex-secretary/ex-mistress Angela Petrakos (read Bust for the details of their history together) has gone back to Ireland (where she doesn't seem quite so "Irish" as she did in New York) and has hooked up with a lunatic named Slide (because he says "I'm gonna let it slide" to those who wrong him — and then doesn't!) who is planning a career as a famous serial killer. Only Slide is under the impression that he has kidnapped Angela.
Slide is extremely dark fun all the way. Bruen and Starr put their characters (who are hardly likeable, even on their best days) through wringer after wringer (a Bruen specialty) just for their and our amusement. And it is quite a ride. I've never seen (except maybe from these two) a novel with no characters the reader is intended to identify with — simply a cast of hateful losers who deserve everything they get. I can't wait to see what Bruen and Starr cook up for their reported third novel together.
But unfortunately, all this proves to be just so much decoration, there possibly to hide the fact that there's not a very interesting story taking place. Whether this is due to "sequelitis," "sophomore slump," or simply "second story in a trilogy syndrome" (see Back to the Future II and The Two Towers for further evidence of this phenomenon) is not for me to say. All I know is that Slide was much more difficult to finish than its predecessor — and, after finishing it, I could remember certain scenes (fans should watch out for cameos from two particular authors) or specific turns of phrase, but not much actual plot. It is as if the authors knew they had a cup of really weak coffee and tried to add enough cream and sugar for us to not notice there wasn't much else in the cup.
That said, Slide is probably still going to be unlike anything else you read this year. It is a very different kind of comic noir, and one that you'll likely want to revisit. Also, once again artist Richard B. Farrell (Bust, Lemons Never Lie, Robbie's Wife) has produced one of the more evocative book covers I've seen lately. This only adds to the effect of what is already a rollicking, fun ride, just one that may not linger in your memory.
Robert Terrall, Kill Now, Pay Later
The name Robert Terrall may not mean much to you. But how about Robert Kyle (the name under which Kill Now, Pay Later was originally published)? Or Jose Gonzalez? If those names don't ring a bell, another one might. Terrall was also one of two men who wrote Mike Shayne novels under the pseudonym Brett Halliday (the other was Davis Dresser, Shayne's creator).
Shayne's name will undoubtedly be familiar to most crime fans, being a character who was not only featured in those novels and a popular radio series (later TV), but who also loaned his name to a magazine (Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine) that published stories by many of crime fiction's biggest names. "Halliday" (presumably Dresser) was also the host (after John Dickson Carr) of Murder by Experts, one of the best crime anthology radio shows of its day.
As Kyle, this prolific writer's claim to fame was a series of novels featuring P.I. Ben Gates. Kill Now, Pay Later is the third in that series of five, and Hard Case Crime has released it under Terrall's own name for the first time.
Hired by an insurance company to guard wedding presents, Gates is subsequently drugged and wakes up to a missing diamond bracelet and two dead bodies. Passing out on the job is not likely to bring new referrals, so Gates takes it upon himself to solve the mystery (against the wishes of Lieutenant Minturn of the state police, who is pretty much satisfied that Gates had something to do with the crime) before he becomes corpse number three.
Unlike most of the other books put out by Hard Case Crime, this one is a pretty straightforward private eye tale. Gates has an eye for the ladies (and, more importantly, they for him), which makes question and answer sessions interesting, but the actual solution — thought it takes place in the midst of a conflagration — is rather anticlimactic. And the tidy, tie-up-all-the-loose-ends conclusion, while satisfying in its own way, is certainly not what Hard Case Crime readers will be expecting.
Still, Ben Gates and his friend/colleague are charming characters I would follow to another book, and Terrall's style is smooth enough to make Kill Now, Pay Later a light, easygoing read that would probably appeal to fans of Erle Stanley Gardner's novels under the name A.A. Fair (Top of the Heap, for example).
Cornell Woolrich, Fright
The year is 1915 — not the most popular year in which to set a crime novel, to be sure — but the year is really unimportant, except to make the events that occur in Fright even more shocking than they would have been in 1950, when it was first published under the pseudonym George Hopley.
Preston Marshall is a lucky man. He has a job on Wall Street and a lovely fiancee, but a single drunken night leads to an event that, one week later — the week after the sinking of the Lusitania, in fact, though the two occurrences are not otherwise connected — begins his downward spiral into a life where every minute is filled with ... wait for it! ... Fright.
Author Cornell Woolrich is probably best known for writing the novella that Alfred Hitchcock turned into his classic film, Rear Window. (His work has been the basis for numerous radio, TV, and film adaptations, one of the most recent being the Angelina Jolie–Antonio Banderas potboiler Original Sin, loosely based on Waltz into Darkness with all the noir trappings intact.)
All these works share some similarities, despite their different approaches, namely protagonists who respond to the events around them far more dramatically than those events really deserve — at least at first. Marshall's reactions in Fright get him into a deeper quagmire than his original actions ever would have.
Woolrich uses this intense nature of Marshall's to keep the suspense level high. So high, in fact, that a couple of scenes — if the tension were just one notch higher — would work just as well played as comedy. But no one is laughing as the events in Fright get darker and darker still (shocking even this jaded reader; I can only imagine how they affected the 1950 audience), culminating in a tragic ending that twists all that came before (but you have to pay attention to details to pick up on its real significance).
This is a terrifically suspenseful dark crime novel from an author whose name is synonymous with noir among those who know the subgenre. Used copies of the "George Hopley" original (and, until now, only) edition of Fright can run upwards of fifty dollars, and it is great to see this Cornell Woolrich classic revived by Hard Case Crime for a much less upsetting price.
Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence
Three years after private investigator John Blake solved the murder of his one-time ex-girlfriend–turned–stripper, he has retired from the business — it simply took too much out of him. But when his close friend Dorrie Burke is found dead in her bathtub with a copy of Final Exit, and the police automatically rule it a suicide, Blake knows it must be murder. Because they had told each other that, if either felt that low, he or she would call the other and they would work through it together.
But when Dorrie's mother tries to hire him to find her daughter's killer, he refuses because he doesn't do that any more. Well, at least not for pay, as we soon find out when Blake throws himself into the New York underworld with the dedication and dumb courage of a man with nothing left to lose.
Reportedly, it took author Richard Aleas (an anagrammatic pseudonym of recent Edgar Allan Poe Award–winner, Charles Ardai) two months to write the first John Blake mystery, Little Girl Lost, and three years to complete its sequel, Songs of Innocence. (Incidentally, both are named after individual works by the main character's namesake, poet William Blake.)
Aleas's first novel was also one of the first released by then-upstart publisher Hard Case Crime (co-founded by Ardai). It didn't win the awards garnered by some of its fellows (though it was nominated for several), but it has stood the test of time better than most, and is now remembered as one of the best because, in addition to terrifically recapturing the detective novels of the past, it also embraces the present.
And it has something that others were missing — a heart. Despite its flaws, Little Girl Lost was a fantastic read, and its deeply emotional center is what I believe has made it still the favorite of many of the publisher's multitude of dedicated followers. I really enjoyed it, too. It was a solid first novel (with a real grabber of an opening chapter), but it remained very much a debut work, with all the influences and framework still evident. But, even if you thought it was the best book you had ever read (and many did), you would have no basis for thinking that Songs of Innocence would be exponentially better.
But with this book, Aleas has really come into his own. Songs of Innocence has deeper characterizations, a more complex plot, an even more involving storyline, a darker tone, and a much greater feeling of originality, especially in the multi-layered way Aleas sets up the story. Top all this off with a completely unexpected shocker of an ending that will emotionally devastate those readers who allow themselves to get swept up by this wholly remarkable story, and the difference between the two books is huge — it's like comparing the work of a first-year architecture student to that of Frank Lloyd Wright. It's a stunning achievement, and Aleas will be hard pressed to follow it up with an even better work — but I'd love to watch him try.
George Axelrod, Blackmailer
In the middle of an ordinary day, something extraordinary happens to publisher Dick Sherman: a beautiful woman mysteriously offers to sell him the last manuscript of the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Charles Anstruther (a thinly veiled Ernest Hemingway). Mere moments later, an unknown literary agent offers to sell him the very same manuscript. That afternoon, he sees his old flame accompanying the literary agent to lunch.
Many questions are posed in the opening to George Axelrod's Blackmailer: Why do both people have access to the same book? Why are they offering it to Sherman, whose company's best-selling book is a collection of modified crossword puzzles? How is his old girlfriend connected to it? And why do people keep beating him up over it?
George Axelrod was best known for his screenplay work, specifically his work adapting other writers' novels into two indisputable classics: The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany's. The latter led to an Academy Award nomination, which you'll understand if you've both seen the film and read the novel. Axelrod also wrote the play (his first) that he later adapted with Billy Wilder into The Seven-Year Itch (which led to work on Marilyn Monroe's next film, Bus Stop).
Surprisingly, the character who suffers (if you can call it that) from the title "itch" is none other than publisher Dick Sherman (If you're lost, read the first sentence of this review again.), which makes this book a kind of sequel to one of cinema's most famous films (certainly the source of one of its most iconic images). Combine that with the sensational opening and the author's pedigree, and Blackmailer begs to be read by fans of the stage, screen, and both mainstream and genre fiction. It's a can't-miss proposition — so here's another question: Why hasn't this book been reprinted since it was first published?
I don't know the answer to that, but I imagine that it is, at least in part, because Blackmailer doesn't really take off until the second half. The first hundred pages are filled with the aforementioned questions (among others) and exposition that could have easily been set up in less space. Luckily, Axelrod's voice and style make Dick Sherman an engaging fellow who I didn't mind following along.
As the novel wraps up, answering all the questions and then some, and revelation after revelation take place, the proceedings border on the unbelievable, but Axelrod keeps things well in hand and even serves up emotional depth along the way. Though Blackmailer has its ups and downs, the whole experience was generally positive, and I feel it fits securely into the Hard Case Crime canon.
David Goodis, The Wounded and the Slain
James and Cora Bevan have a miserable marriage. They blame themselves for the problems in it (sexual and otherwise), but invariably look for outside solutions to their despair (he the bottle, she another man) forgoing communication entirely. After nine years of this, they've almost completely given up on happiness, but have decided to take a vacation in Jamaica in hopes of one last chance.
The first chapter of The Wounded and the Slain, author David Goodis (who is probably best known for Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player, films based on his novels) shows the Bevans wallowing in their self-pity, but also shows the love they still feel for each other. It's a difficult chapter to read, and I nearly drowned in the monotonous sustained self-loathing (especially from James's point of view) pouring from the page. Luckily, by the middle of the second chapter, things got more interesting.
Not happier, mind you, just more interesting.
The Wounded and the Slain is not a pleasant read. It is easy to understand why it has been out of print since its first publication over fifty years ago: I can see potential publisher after potential publisher say, "Who would want to buy this?" because if you are unfamiliar with the depths of human misery, David Goodis will take you on a guided tour. It takes a publisher with a distinctive vision to look past its dismal sales potential and see its literary and historical merits.
The last book that got me this depressed was Chris Ware's graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, but Ware's medium allows for the use of images to get his point across, where Goodis does it all with words. (Ware's title is misleading, as well, whereas Goodis slaps his intentions right on the title page.)
Goodis's skill at uncommon description is unparalleled. You need only step back from the page for a moment to realize that he is not just telling you about people — he is putting you inside them! The pivotal bar fight in chapter three of The Wounded and the Slain is the best example of this talent: as each blow landed, I knew what each individual was thinking and feeling at that instant, and Goodis deftly switches among the array of characters. At the end, I felt as if I had been in the middle of the fracas, that every punch had not only been thrown by me, but also had landed on me. It was exhausting, but it was also a revelation: no author had ever gotten me so completely involved ever before.
But despite bringing his readers face to face with such a tragic cadre of silent sufferers, Goodis thankfully cannot resist adding a final note of hope. Allowing for the possibility of redemption, showing us that these characters do indeed have other sides to them, keeps The Wounded and the Slain from being just a succession of scenes in a morose milieu, and makes the characters relatable, giving the book real emotional power.
Gil Brewer, The Vengeful Virgin
She had on a red knitted thing, made of one piece. It was shorts and a top, without sleeves. The top was what I think they call a boat-neck, tight up against her throat. The whole thing was very tight on her. Her face seemed almost childlike, but she was no child. —from The Vengeful Virgin
... and she was no virgin, either, if her actions at the end of Chapter 2 are any indication. But the title has a nice alliterative ring to it, though it suggested that I would be too embarrassed to read it on public transportation. The cover, lovingly illustrated by Gregory Manchess (whose work has also graced Fade to Blonde, Home Is the Sailor, and Grave Descend), practically guaranteed it.
Hard Case Crime continue their attempt to revive the careers of previously popular, now-little-known crime writers. Gil Brewer was one of the best selling authors of his day, but he had a little problem with substance dependence that eventually killed him. The abuse made his writing uneven, so he is hit-or-miss in terms of quality, but The Vengeful Virgin is probably his best, with a shocker ending that rivals that of Grifter's Game.
Shirley Angela has the unenviable responsibility of being constant caregiver to her invalid stepfather following her mother's death. Hungry for social contact of any kind — but especially of that kind — she calls television serviceman Jack Ruxton to install a special setup in her stepfather's bedroom.
Together they hatch a scheme to get rid of the old man and share the several hundred thousand dollars he has stashed away in the bank. All Ruxton has to watch out for, besides getting caught, are the two other women who have set their sights on him. Our Jack is apparently a very popular man with the ladies. You may wish you had that problem. Don't.
The Vengeful Virgin is everything readers look for when they seek the pure pulp experience. It feels like it was written in a flash of inspiration, and it has all the earmarks of this perfectly lurid literature: its characters are boldly sexy, violently cruel, lustfully greedy, and utterly remorseless. I couldn't find a single flaw in Brewer's execution, which means that if you're not a Gil Brewer fan by the time you finish this book, then maybe you need to find another hobby, because reading is obviously not for you.
Russell Hill, Robbie's Wife
I kept thinking about how much of my life was accidental. I drank with the Stryker brothers and ended up in Maggie's house.... I could have stopped at the second beer and left Glastonbury, gone on to London and, even now, I would be in Los Angeles in a rented room rather than walking a country lane thinking of Maggie.... But it hadn't happened that way. I would not reflect on those events until it was too late. — from Robbie's Wife
Jack Stone has come from Los Angeles to England to make a new start. To get away from his second failed marriage and possibly write the screenplay that will rejuvenate his career. But he didn't count on falling in love with Maggie Barlow, the wife of a Dorset sheep farmer who offers a laid-back bed-and-breakfast arrangement.
A Hard Case Crime novel by an award-winning poet? Is this another departure on a par with Straight Cut? Well, yes and no. Robbie's Wife is more typical noir than that book (especially in the second half), but author Russell Hill's superb characterizations will appeal to readers of all stripes.
It may be the second Hard Case Crime novel in a row (after Lawrence Block's Lucky at Cards) to feature a newcomer-to-town who takes up with a married woman who is much more than the daily role she plays would lead us to believe, but otherwise Robbie's Wife could not be more different. It is a novel unto its own genre.
I really admired Hill's giving a romantic storyline to characters who are older than the typical genre participants. Jack is sixty, while Maggie is a relative spring chicken at forty. But age really doesn't come into play at all, with Jack still expected to act out the requirements of Hill's surprise-filled plot with the strength and stamina of a much younger man. Love at a certain age is both riskier and more compelling than I had thought possible, but these two make it into quite an attractive proposition (especially during some of the most tastefully erotic sex scenes I've read in some time).
Hill takes his time in offering up the expected noir trappings (essentially an update of familiar James M. Cain territory), but this allows the reader to get swept up in Jack and Maggie's illicit and delicious, heart-lifting and stomach-knotting relationship. Robbie's Wife is a beautiful, painfully tragic portrait of two people who, despite their attempts to the contrary, simply cannot stand to be away from each other. Like Jack states, "She was a magnet and I was nothing more than iron filings on a sheet of paper [darting] toward it, unable to do anything else."
Interspersed among Jack's narrative of real events are pieces of his ongoing screenplay, which uses those real events for inspiration. Hill slips these in at unexpected times, and even uses them to distance us from a particularly harrowing scene as it plays out on the script page. It is a very welcome change of pace in a genre that often depends on the same old setup to get things moving. Things eventually get moving, all right, and they quickly spiral out of control, but never from Hill's point of view. He guides every part of the novel's evocative (and, in the right places, provocative) plotline with a sure hand to its powerfully shocking conclusion. With a fascinating mix of the familiar and the not new but nearly forgotten, Robbie's Wife is sure to be one of the ten best books of 2007.
Lawrence Block, Lucky at Cards
They say every man has a weakness. They say that for every man there's a woman somewhere in the world who can make him jump through fiery hoops just by snapping her fingers. They say a man's lucky if he never meets that woman. — from Lucky at Cards
If your publishing imprint's best-selling novels were by a particular author, you'd keep putting out novels by that author, wouldn't you? Well, that must be what's going on over at Hard Case Crime, because Lucky at Cards is the third "lost" Lawrence Block classic they've come out with. Lucky for us, it's another doozy, but what else could you possibly expect from the master of the crime novel?
Bill Maynard is an ex-magician who found his way into the card-sharp business. He upset the wrong people in his last town, so he's moved temporarily to New York, following an opportunity. But he's about to get very distracted by another, much more unexpected, opportunity — one "with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts," and one that's easily as dangerous as getting aces and eights.
Lucky at Cards was originally released under the title The Sex Shuffle and the byline "Sheldon Lord," and it was published in 1964, the year before The Girl with the Long Green Heart, Block's previous Hard Case Crime outing. It shares a more optimistic tone with that novel that is a far cry from the much darker Grifter's Game (a.k.a. Mona) from just a couple of years before. This is apparently a huge coup for the Hard Case gang as Block has been notoriously shy when it comes to his early pseudonymous novels.
Its brisk pacing is a big attraction, but Lawrence Block's forte has always been his wonderfully complex plots, especially in these early novels. The likable, relatable characters like Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr came later — guys like Bill Maynard in Lucky at Cards are just slightly nonaverage Joes with very healthy imaginations. Hell, they think like novelists, with their convoluted scenarios involving multiple character roles and layers of deception requiring huge amounts of footwork and no discernible sleep. No real person could pull all this off. And while this may be a drawback for some readers, I get a lot of fun out of watching these unrealistic, but still somehow highly plausible, situations play out. As long as Hard Case Crime keeps discovering these gems, I'll keep reading them.
Richard S. Prather, The Peddler
"Don't give me this crap about I don't deserve nothin' because I only been working a year or so.... You might as well try to tell me the guy that's been in the Army longest oughta be Chief of Staff, or the guy's been in politics longest oughta be President, or the guy's been goin' to church longest oughta be Pope. Jesus Christ, I seen guys could make doughnuts all their life and never learn where the holes go." — from The Peddler
How does a man who was one of the country's best-selling authors — who sold over 40 million copies of his books — become an unfamiliar name to an entire generation of readers? I guess one way is to go 20 years without publishing a new book. At least that's what Richard S. Prather did. But now it's time to bring his name back into the limelight with the rerelease of his 1952 novel The Peddler, which also reunites him with artist Robert McGinnis, the cover illustrator of many of Prather's books.
Most of Prather's novels comprised a series starring his ex-Marine character Shell Scott, but The Peddler (originally published under the name Douglas Ring) is the story of Tony Romero. Romero is a twenty-year-old ambitious up-and-comer who finagles his way into the company of the local crime organization and steadily connives his way up its ranks. Of course, this being a Hard Case Crime novel, things eventually get very difficult for Tony, but that comes later.
I had some difficulty myself getting into The Peddler, as the early dialogue sounded unrealistic to my mind's ear, but things got very interesting by the end of Chapter Two, and it was easy going from that point on all the way through to the most shocking conclusion I've come across since Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game — coincidentally, another Hard Case Crime release. (The dialogue is especially forgivable when you realize Prather was churning out multiple novels per year and probably didn't have much time for things like revisions.)
An artless style almost conceals Prather's true talent for delving into the darker portions of human nature and using that to keep the plot moving. When a man filled with ambition (as Tony Romero is) gets in over his head and gets himself put into a situation where he can no longer pursue those ambitions, he gets bored and angry and stops thinking straight — and that can only lead to trouble. And that's where Prather and The Peddler really shine. I have to respect any writer who can make a nearly silent poker game into one of a novel's most gut-wrenching scenes.
The upshot of this is that The Peddler is yet another winner from Hard Case Crime, and Richard S. Prather is yet another author for me to pursue in used book stores to the detriment of my wallet. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to open a book store of my own as a front for all the books I'll be buying.
John Lange, Grave Descend
"Every story was different, and they were all, to his ears, improbable. But not like the Grave Descend. That was not merely improbable; it was weird. Even the name of the ship was weird." — from Grave Descend
Author John Lange is actually the pseudonym of a massively bestselling author whose name you would instantly recognize if I chose to reveal it. Hard Case Crime, seeing the first reprints of Lange's books since their original publications, would like us to respect his privacy, but as we all know, there are no secrets on the Internet, and his identity is only as far away as a single click.
Coincidentally, John Lange was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Grave Descend. The author actually won the Edgar for another novel he wrote around the same time under a different pseudonym. (He has also won one under his own name, but not for a novel.)
Jim McGregor, a diver by occupation, is hired to investigate the sinking of the Grave Descend, a luxury yacht with an unlikely moniker (it's actually a quote from Samuel Johnson, the source of all the epigraphs in the book), off the coast of Jamaica. The main trouble is that McGregor can't seem to get a straight series of events surrounding the sinking — everyone has a different take on what happened, even where the boat went through customs.
To make things more difficult, the sinking is being kept from the press for 24 hours due to the presence of the boat's single passenger, Monica Grant, who is not only striking beautiful (especially in a bikini) but is also the "good friend" of the boat's married owner, Robert Wayne. McGregor discovers a few other details while involved with this mysterious crew, and begins to piece together a puzzle that's got his name written all over it.
John Lange offers up a straightforward, taut thriller with no frills but more than a little John D. MacDonald in its pedigree. The short chapters and reliance on dialogue make the relatively complicated plot flow easily and quickly toward its conclusion. A slight but entertaining piece of escapism, Grave Descend is likely to pass through your mind without touching much along the way. It's by no means a crime classic, but it's completely engrossing during the reading — I finished it in just a couple of hours and I don't imagine it took Lange much longer — there's just not a whole lot of substance. I'm even having trouble coming up with things to say about it, but fans of MacDonald and Richard Stark could do worse than to take a short cruise aboard the Grave Descend. Just watch out for those hammerheads.
David Dodge, The Last Match
"The Thirteen Match game ... is one of the simplest and most effective swindles in existence. The mark can't ever wins unless you want him to. You throw thirteen matches ... on the table. Then you and the john take turns extracting one, two, or three matches from the pile at a time.... The aim is not to take that last match." — from The Last Match
Fans of author David Dodge who were thrilled to see his series character Al Colby back in print with Hard Case Crime's rerelease of Plunder of the Sun are bound to be even more excited to learn that The Last Match, a new, never before published novel and Dodge's last, has been unearthed and is finally available to the public, more than 30 years after it was written.
Dodge, also the author of the novel Alfred Hitchcock used as the basis for To Catch a Thief, used pieces of his life throughout his fiction. A world traveler with his family, he alternated novels fictionalizing his trips around the world with travelogues chronicling the true events. His daughter Kendal Dodge Butler writes in the afterword to The Last Match that "I have such a well-documented childhood that at times I'm not sure whether a thing really happened or it's just something I read in a book." She also believes that Curly, this novel's hero, is simply her father "dreaming of long cons."
But whatever is true and whatever may be recycled from earlier novels (but based on real people), The Last Match is a fine example of Dodge's writing. I didn't particularly enjoy the treasure-hunt aspect of Plunder of the Sun, but the writing was impeccable, and as a fan of long-con stories like The Sting and The Girl with the Long Green Heart (another Hard Case Crime reprint), Dodge's final book was right up my alley. There's not a whole lot in the way of plot; the hero, only known as "Curly" because of his hair, is basically writing a memoir of his time traveling the world pulling cons on unsuspecting marks, and sometimes getting involved with local women.
His adventures take him to many exotic locales, each connected to the last merely by a necessary trip to the next country to escape the authorities of the one he pulled his last job in. He acts as chauffeur to the Honorable (and untouchable) Regina Forbes-Jones in France, and takes charge of a stunningly beautiful (and equally naive) honey-skinned women named Boda while writing suspect letters for Arabs in Tangier. He subsequently hitches a ride in the fire-room of a ship to Peru (after looking out for Boda's future welfare, of course — he's hardly a cad) where he helps perpetuate a Spanish Prisoner scheme much like the Nigerian scam that permeates e-mail today (and illustrates how old that particular game is). And that's only the first 150 pages or so. On and on Curly goes and it is simply impossible to predict where he'll go or what he'll do next. Often I got the sense that Dodge wasn't even sure, that he was just letting the story go where it took him. This gives The Last Match an immediacy that is equally as fascinating as the story being told.
Which brings me to another reason I liked The Last Match better than Plunder of the Sun: this book displays the easy flow of a writer who is very comfortable behind the typewriter. You don't attempt to chronicle a period in the life of a character in detail unless you are confident in your ability to improvise at the keys. I had the feeling that the other novel was so tightly plotted in order to get the story told efficiently that there was little room for movement, and that comes through Al Colby in his gruff manner. Conversely, The voice of Curly is unforced and very natural. It poured easily off my tongue when I read it out loud to my infant son (yeah, I know, but those board books get tedious after the 37th reading!), even the most complex sentences were easy reading.
Dodge does go a little wrong with the ending of The Last Match in an attempt to give it a climax with some emotional weight, but the rest of this 315-page work (comparatively large for Hard Case Crime, but I'm not complaining) takes the reader on quite a ride. And Curly the life-long confidence artist is not a character I am likely to forget any time soon. "Nevah feeyah."
Pete Hamill, The Guns of Heaven
I have never been one to follow the ongoing political and religious difficulties among the different factions of Ireland. Everything I know about the IRA, I learned from the books of Daniel Silva and Frederick Forsyth, and the films of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan. But, whether you know more than I do, or have only read those books yourself, Pete Hamill's The Guns of Heaven can now be added to that list of helpful reference works, primarily because it feels as if it were written yesterday, despite its 1983 copyright date.
Sam Briscoe is a writer for a New York newspaper. Half-Irish and half-Jewish, Briscoe used to write a much-read column on Ireland (for which he is still recognized on the street, many years later), and still produces the occasional piece on the subject. On the way to visit his daughter Alice at her boarding school in Switzerland, he promises his editor he will drop by Northern Ireland (to visit his uncle) and come up with another article, thus getting the paper to pay for the trip.
This simple, highly irreverent beginning sets the scene for all that comes later in The Guns of Heaven, as Briscoe's life is turned upside down almost from the moment he steps off the plane in Belfast. There he meets Commander Steel, a mysterious leader of the Irish Republican Army, who asks Briscoe to deliver a letter for him once he gets back to New York.
From that point on, Briscoe gets signs that he is being followed, even once he arrives in Switzerland. After a dangerous car chase, he retrieves his daughter and takes her to her mother's house in Spain, whereupon he returns to New York to deliver the letter. Things from that point take a definite downturn as more people die and murderous intent comes from unexpected sources.
Pete Hamill is probably best known to fiction readers as the author of the bestselling New-York-after-9/11 realistic fantasy Forever. Even crime fiction aficionados are unlikely to be aware of the three Sam Briscoe novels he wrote early in his career, of which The Guns of Heaven is one (Dirty Laundry and The Deadly Piece are the others). His fiction is often steeped in New York atmosphere (not surprising given that Hamill has edited both the Post and the Daily News) and this one is no different.
I have to be honest and say that the whole Northern Ireland plot did not really interest me (probably because of my lack of Irish heritage), but I kept reading because of Hamill's skill at narration and description. He writes like a dream. Fans of Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut (another Hard Case Crime novel) will enjoy the "literary" feel of The Guns of Heaven. My favorite part of the book was an unexpected aside about Swiss pizza that die-hard New Yorker Briscoe narrates while eating lunch with his daughter:
Pizza is the most mysterious of all foods. You find it on sale all over the world now, but for me it never works anywhere except in New York. I don't care who makes it, as long as it's made in New York: some of the best pizza I ever had was made by a Puerto Rican in an Irish dance hall in Coney Island. Not even Italy gets it right, although the cooks at least try. But the Swiss didn't have a clue about making pizza. The crust was too thin, and there was not enough cheese. The cheese wasn't mozzarella, so the long strandy texture was wrong, and the tomato sauce was watery, and the chef had covered the surface with chopped ham, olives, and mushrooms, as if an instinct for the baroque could disguise the flaws in the basic form. The thing didn't taste bad. It just wasn't pizza.
Another pleasant surprise was that there were a couple of books mentioned within the text of The Guns of Heaven that may make me curious enough to pick them up. I always pay attention to whatever books a character is reading, as it tends to give extra insight into them, even when they are reading particularly uncharacteristic choices. Briscoe is discovered reading Stendhal's treatise On Love by a few other characters, all of whom react differently to this information. It was such an odd choice (even given what we learn about Briscoe in later chapters) that I came to instantly respect the character for making it. Also, in another instance, Briscoe calls Michael Farrell's The Orange State "one of the best books on Northern Ireland," and Hamill ties Farrell in with one of the other characters, making the novel feel just that much more realistic.
Max Allan Collins, The Last Quarry (Quarry series)
Thirty years ago, author Max Allan Collins created the first hired-assassin series character in Quarry, the protagonist of his novel, The Broker (later republished simply as Quarry). Quarry appeared in four more novels, ending with 1986's Primary Target, and then didn't show his face (except for a few short stories, eventually collected along with the novel in Quarry's Greatest Hits) for almost two decades, until a young filmmaker named Jeffrey Goodman politely badgered the author to let him make a short film of one of the short stories, "A Matter of Principal."
Collins eventually gave in, having been impressed by Goodman's tenacity, with the provision that Collins himself would write the screenplay. (His own bad experiences in Hollywood during the making of The Expert had made Collins wary of others directing his material and Collins has at this writing helmed three features himself. All of them are available, including the short film of "A Matter of Principal," in the DVD box set Max Allan Collins' Black Box Collection.)
The short film was a hit on the festival circuit and won a number of awards. This led to Goodman's idea for making "A Matter of Principal" into a feature, which would of course require another screenplay from Collins. Coincidentally, Charles Ardai had also asked Collins for a new Quarry novel to publish for his Hard Case Crime line, and it only made sense to combine the requests. The Last Quarry is therefore a brand new Quarry novel and also an unofficial novelization of the feature film, as yet to be made. (Collins has vast experience with novelizations, including novelizing the screenplay — not written by him — of his own graphic novel, Road to Perdition.)
The resulting novel is some of the best and tightest fiction Max Allan Collins has ever written (and it's dedicated to the director "who brought my killer to life"). Anyone who has read "A Matter of Principal" is going to feel a strong sense of déjà vu for the first three chapters, but that's just the lead-in to the real story as a millionaire hires Quarry to kill a meek librarian, whom Quarry then proceeds to fall for, making the all-too-familiar mistake of mixing emotions with business.
As in its predecessor, previously unforeseen connections appear between characters, making for some interesting surprises in this concise suspenser. Collins doles out the words in The Last Quarry only as needed, in keeping with Quarry's laconic personality — he doesn't waste time, words, or bullets — and fills barely 200 pages with the same amount of story that a less careful author would stretch to twice that length. And this killer shows a distinct sense of humor, peppering his narrative with occasional asides that raise a chuckle or sometimes even a full-bellied laugh.
It is obvious that Collins likes Quarry (and he seems to contain a good amount of Collins himself, based on what I've seen from interviews on his DVDs) and is having a lot of fun with this final outing (at least chronologically speaking, according to the Afterword). Simply put, it is a perfect example of Collins' combined talent and skill. Two for the Money was my introduction to his work and if there's any justice in the world, The Last Quarry will garners scores of new fans to this and Collins' other series characters (like private investigator Nathan Heller).
Richard Stark, Lemons Never Lie (pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake)
Sometime thief and full-time actor / theatre owner Alan Grofield has just entered Las Vegas to hear a robbery pitch from a man he only knows through another colleague, but he's already not feeling good about it. This is because, to "pay his dues" to the city, he always plays one slot going in and one going out, and he never wins. He just got three lemons, and "You know what they say about lemons": Lemons Never Lie.
Author Richard Stark is best known for his series of novels featuring Parker, a professional thief. Lemons Never Lie, however, features Parker's less-well-known colleague, Alan Grofield, the star of three other novels in his own right: The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird.
Stark is also the darker alter-ego of acclaimed author Donald E. Westlake (it's no coincidence that Stephen King chose "Richard" Bachman as his own pseudonym and George "Stark" for Bachman's fictional counterpart in The Dark Half), and their respective books differ in tone. Where Westlake's work is usually in a lighter vein (like my personal favorites God Save the Mark and Trust Me On This), Stark delves deeper into the seamy underside of society. And where Westlake injects his prose with a lot of personality, Stark's is ... well ... starker.
Oddly enough, this last (so far) Grofield novel actually feels more like a Westlake in its tone and style, but with Stark's worldview (the connection to Parker almost requires the use of the Stark credit to avoid confusion), and Westlake's first Hard Case Crime appearance, 361, feels more like Stark than the usual Westlake production. First published in 1962, the same year Stark first appeared, it just may have been the novel that brought the author's dual nature to his own attention. (Stark and Westlake eventually crossed paths in Jimmy the Kid, where Westlake's series thief, Dortmunder, attempts to replicate a heist pulled off by Parker in a Stark novel called Child Heist.)
In Andrew Myers, Stark has created Lemons Never Lie's highly memorable villain. Myers is the guy whose pitch Grofield has come to Vegas to hear. He has an idea for a job that he needs some good people on, but Grofield, like most thieves, has his own moral code. Myers' plan to steal a brewery's payroll (one of the few still paid in cash) automatically includes killing, which makes Grofield uncomfortable (not the killing itself, but its lack of necessity), so he walks out. This results in everyone else eventually walking out, which really irks Myers, who immediately takes revenge. Grofield is not a man who can be taken down easily ... but Myers just won't quit, and he doesn't appear to have any limits to what he'll do.
Stark is different than most authors I've read in that he seems to put his characters in the most difficult position possible, given the options available, and then challenge himself (and them) to see if they can get out of it. Several times in Lemons Never Lie, I was in awe of the choices he made with Grofield, always making his current situation unnecessarily trying. But, as conflict is the reason for all stories, it only makes the novel more entertaining. As do the little humorous touches the author peppers in between the crimes committed. Like how Grofield, when he wants a book to read, steals one from the local library (a biography of David Garrick, no less — what a trouper!).
As a sometime actor myself, I had to admire Grofield. After all, he's a purist: he believes "live performances before live audiences" to be the only true medium for an actor, and scoffs at film and television work: "Movies and television were for mannequins, not actors. An actor who stepped before a camera was in the process of rotting his own talent." I especially appreciated the insight into the community theatre business. Grofield is, after all, only a thief to support his true love of treading the boards. The day-to-day preparations for a summer opening made for a nice contrast to all the mayhem.
I only wish the ending weren't such a lemon. After 220 pages of investment, the reader deserves more than Grofield literally riding off into the sunset.
Madison Smartt Bell, Straight Cut
Is Hard Case Crime trying to expand its audience? Madison Smartt Bell isn't exactly famous for his crime noir fiction, but is probably best known for his novel, All Souls' Rising (the first of a trilogy of novels on the Haitian Revolution), which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a National Book Award finalist. Not exactly the rundown of the average Hard Case Crime author.
A thriller with literary aspirations (the cover quote from Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, clued me in to that), Straight Cut gives us the best of both worlds — although for genre fans, the first two-thirds will essentially feel like exposition.
With an opening that will re-break the heart of anyone who's ever had to put a pet to sleep, Straight Cut tells the story of Tracy Bateman, freelance film editor, before, during, and after he is sent to Rome for a cutting job. Offered the job by his best friend / romantic rival and the film's director, Kevin Carter, Tracy is suspicious from the beginning, but the money is too good to refuse (another reason for his suspicion).
His Italian is poor, but he manages to make a go of it in Rome. He teaches an assistant, Mimmo, the ropes of film editing while dealing with the recent death of his dog, and his stormy relationship with his wife, Lauren (who married him for an American green card and occasionally runs off with Kevin), while spending a lot of time in trattorias drinking grappa. His reliance on the philosophies of Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard doesn't help things.
Neither does meeting up again with Lauren, which wasn't exactly on his agenda, but she shows up unexpectedly, carrying a mysterious briefcase, a false identity, and instructions from Kevin. Tracy is conflicted because he doesn't trust that Lauren will ever be the person he needs her to be (though their physical relationship has never been a problem), but he can see what she is getting herself involved in and doesn't want her to get hurt. That Kevin is so obviously careless about putting Lauren in danger only aggravates Tracy's love / hate relationship with him.
This leads to what most Hard Case Crime readers will have been waiting for the whole time: a continent-hopping drug-and-money exchange, with all the border-crossing problems, fistfights, and gun-crazy Bulgarians that implies. It only covers the final third of the book, but Bell's prose is so sparse as to make it feel like a novel unto itself. Tracy's thought processes are fascinating to watch and whether he will get himself out of this situation is always in doubt, making the suspense quotient even higher than expected.
On the whole, however, Straight Cut is a novel of character, not of plot. Go into it expecting a tense page-turner on the level of Bust or Grifter's Game, and you'll likely be disappointed — but exercise a little patience, and you'll be greatly rewarded.
Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Bust
"Bobby came back from the supermarket and cooked himself dinner.... Even Def Leppard couldn't get him out of his funk. When the Def couldn't crank you, it was way past time to shoot someone." — from Bust
Often, two authors working together get in each other's way, cancelling out the individual contributions of each in favor of a homogeneous whole. But modern noir authors Ken Bruen and Jason Starr fit together like a married couple with complementary flaws — all the pieces making a perfect jigsaw relationship, while still retaining those aspects that draw each author's particular cadre of followers.
In the new Hard Case Crime offering, Bust, Bruen (who won the 2004 Shamus Award for The Guards and has another solo novel, Calibre, coming out this July) and Starr (2004 Barry Award winner for Tough Luck, with Lights Out coming in September) combine their dark talents to remarkable effect, resulting in a novel that is more than the sum of its participants. Bruen brings his skill at dark humor, downward-spiral characterization, and his familiarity with Irish culture, while Starr offers a simple yet familiar plot with plenty of opportunities for disaster, and characters with a tendency toward casual, unflinching violence. Put together, they make up an absolutely pitch-black novel that ranks with the best of their peers.
That said, Bust was hard to get into at first — I couldn't detect a consistent voice, as if the authors were writing alternating chapters (but perhaps they are merely writing alternating characters). Work your way past the first few chapters, though, and things smooth out and really get flowing.
Max Fisher, CEO of NetWorld is having an affair with his Greek-Irish executive assistant, Angela Petrakos. Max wants his wife dead so he can marry Angela, and Angela's cousin knows a guy named Popeye who can do the job right. Trouble is, there is no cousin, and "Popeye" is actually Angela's boyfriend, Dillon, an Irish "Proveen" with an unpredictable streak. Meanwhile, Bobby Rosa, a wheelchair-bound ex-robber, is looking to get back into the game with his old pal, Victor, who has gone straight. When these stories come together, all hell breaks loose, and there's no guarantee who is going to come out with what, or even make it to the end with life intact. The limited third-person POV makes the events slightly distant yet still immediate enough to have stunning impact when several shocking events take place that even I, who have read all of the Hard Case Crime novels, could not have predicted. If you sit down with Bust, be ready to stay down for the duration.
As a bonus (and a little unintended cross-marketing, perhaps), each chapter begins with a literary quote, like the Inspector Morse mysteries of Colin Dexter. Only these quotes are from other (mostly) modern crime thrillers, including one each from Bruen (The Hackman Blues) and Starr (Tough Luck) individually , as well as a few other Hard Case Crime authors like Allan Guthrie, Richard Aleas, and Domenic Stansberry. Some of my other personal favorites, like Joseph Finder and Joe R. Lansdale, are also represented. What is most remarkable, however, is how apt the quotes are to the chapter contents, considering how limited their sources were. This bit of unnecessary but much appreciated extra effort raises Bust even further above the fray by focusing on clever lines from other entertaining books that are just waiting for me to discover.
Seymour Shubin, Witness to Myself
"You donít have to know if you killed her, he told himself. You've lived all these years, fifteen years, without knowing. And you've got a good life that you're going to destroy, you're only thirty, a lawyer, you have someone you love, and a new career, one where you can do so much good. You've never had it better. For God's sake turn around!" — from Witness to Myself
For the last fifteen years, an impulsive act has kept Alan Benning in fear of being discovered. Only he is not quite sure exactly of what he is guilty. Did he kill the young girl in the woods off the shore of the fictional Cape Cod town of South Minton, or didn't he? Not knowing is driving him crazy. Little does he know that trying to find out the truth will make him even more miserable.
I believe that this is the first time that Hard Case Crime has published a new work by an author from whom they could have just as easily published a reprint. Seymour Shubin (a rather milquetoasty name for a crime-fiction writer) has been in the psychological-suspense business since his debut novel, Anyone's My Name, first appeared on the bestseller lists in 1953.
He was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his novel, The Captain, in 1982, and his 1985 novel, Voices, focused on the phone-sex industry. (There is an interview with the author, from that year, online.) Shubin's work has also been selected for inclusion in critical surveys of the mystery genre (although he objects to the classification of his work in that way).
Shubin makes an interesting choice in Witness to Myself by telling Alan's story through his cousin, Colin. Finding out Colin's role in the story is just one of the many questions readers will be wanting answered. The primary effect this has, though, is a lack of certainty in Alan's lifespan, adding to the suspense. Shubin skillfully carries his readers along, involving us deeply in Alan's story, and making this possible murderer an extremely sympathetic character. The conviction in Colin's voice is so strong that, many times, I had to remind myself that I was reading a crime novel, and not a non-fiction tome (Shubin has written in the true-crime field and it shows).
Witness to Myself has the old-time feel of noir fiction but is set firmly in the present. Like any modern thirty-somethings, Shubin's characters feel completely comfortable using the Internet for research — in fact, they prefer it. Alan keeps the Cape Cod Breeze's Web site link on his desktop for easy access, and Colin instantly goes to Google when trying to find the meaning of a half-remembered phrase. This is the first book I've read that has folded modern technology so seamlessly within its storyline — even more surprising coming from an "old-timer" like Shubin.
Richard Powell, Say It With Bullets
"At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didnít copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he had classed five guys as friends but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were-here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery." — from Say It With Bullets
Bill Wayne is on a bus tour of the Old West, but he's not in it for the advertised relaxation. Conveniently, the Treasure Trip makes stops in the five cities where his five Army buddies live. At least, they were his buddies until one of them shot him in the back and left him for dead.
Now he's going from city to city (Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, San Francisco, and Los Angeles) to talk with each of the men (Russ, Ken, Frankie, Cappy, and Domenic) to try and find out who did the shooting. Of course, if the first one doesn't spill, Bill will just have to kill him, and each one in turn until he gets to the bottom of things. A pretty simple plan, really.
It's too bad he didn't take into account pretty blonde tour guide Holly Clark, a girl from his past who is very interested in getting reacquainted. Interested enough to dog his every footstep, and observant enough to eventually put some pieces together.
And if that weren't bad enough, Holly's latest suitor is Cheyenne deputy sheriff Carson Smith, who has taken to following her throughout the tour. How is a man supposed to get anything done in this kind of situation?
Author Richard Powell (A Shot in the Dark and the Andy and Arabella Blake series) is not Dick Powell the actor, but Say It With Bullets would have been an ideal vehicle for the actor in his heyday (see Murder, My Sweet and others). It has a great blend of humor and tension in almost equal amounts (Bill Wayne is a terrific narrator, very self-aware and quick with a quip) that more than makes up for its somewhat predictable conclusion. And the characters all have wonderfully human foibles, including a dash of unexplained jealousy that even the jealous person doesn't quite fathom.
A descriptive taste of each of the cities adds to the experience, and Say It With Bullets is also incredibly fast-paced. In fact, I had intended on it being my current coat-pocket paperback, savoring it intermittently in waiting rooms and in line at the checkout. But Richard Powell's tale, to paraphrase a pop standard, "made me [finish it]. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do it...." (My only quibble has to do with its being the fifth reprint in a row to come from the Hard Case Crime archives. I preferred the previous mix of old and new — even though they're all new to me.)
Charles Williams, A Touch of Death
"She stopped her inspection of the room to look at me, the large eyes devoid of any expression whatever. 'I'll take bourbon and plain water'.
"If she wanted ice water, I thought, all she had to do was open a vein."
It's too bad the characters in crime novels don't read them, because then Lee Scarborough would know better than to get involved with the seductive Diana James on a get-rich-quick scheme involving an empty house and $120,000 of embezzled bank funds. Lucky for us he doesn't, though, because A Touch of Death is the best novel yet to come out of the Hard Case Crime archives.
A Touch of Death is a reprint of a 1953 novel by Charles Williams, who also wrote the books that inspired the films The Hot Spot and Dead Calm. (Orson Welles had attempted to adapt the latter novel, but that film was never finished.)
Ex-college football star Lee Scarborough is just looking to sell his car for some much needed cash when he runs across Diana James on a visit to a potential buyer. Something about her topless sunbathing makes him ignore what he came for, but the mention of an easy sixty grand sharply focuses his attention. It seems Diana knows where the money is and wants Lee to go look for it — somewhere in the embezzler's house — and split the proceeds.
The widow, Madelon Butler, is expected to be away for a few days, so it should be a piece of cake. Soon, Lee finds himself rummaging through the house in question — whereupon he runs smack dab into Madelon Butler! So he does the only thing he can think of to do, given the situation. What happens from then on is a complex melange of twists and turns that results one of the most shocking (yet completely organic) endings I've come across. This is one you'll be reading into the night.
Williams writes the silkiest prose I've ever come across. I slipped into A Touch of Death's combination of sex, scissors, and shady simoleons — with not one but two femmes fatales — like a warm oil bath. I usually take notes while reading in order to jot down specific details to include in my reviews, but this novel had me gripped from its first sentence. It didn't let go until I was fully swept up in its nightmarish ending like something out of Poe. And all told with such ease and confidence that it feels like it could have been written in one sitting, though I know it takes a lot of effort to make it look like that.
Donald Hamilton, Night Walker
Hard Case Crime's line of crime novels is not just entertaining; it's also educational. Reading each one as it comes out has broadened by knowledge of hard-boiled crime fiction considerably — a field in which I thought I was already well-versed. Those looking for more than just the same names over and over again (Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Cain, Thompson, etc.), need look no further than the yellow ribbon. I look forward to each new entry with eagerness. Who knew that educating oneself could be so much fun? (But then again, who else thinks of reading a series of crime novels as "educational"?)
Night Walker is a reprint of an early novel by Donald Hamilton (who will turn 90 in 2006); one that doesn't feature his most famous creation, secret government agent Matt Helm, who Hamilton wrote about for over thirty years in almost thirty novels.
Those who only know Hamilton's work from the series of Helm films starring Dean Martin may be surprised by the lack of blatant comedy, but they won't miss out on any of the international intrigue in this standalone nail-biting suspense thriller with plenty of tension to go around.
Hitchhiking his way back to active duty in the Navy after only five years off (WWII ended in 1945, Korea began in 1950), Lieutenant David Young is given a much needed ride by Larry Wilson, a man with some subversive politics and a plan that involves Young, involuntarily. By the time Young realizes that he is a pawn in another man's game, he has awakened in a hospital bed with bandages covering his entire face, and with a new identity: Larry Wilson.
It seems that Mrs. Wilson had some plans of her own ....
Featuring wonderfully naturalistic dialogue with just the right amount of stammering repetition and hesitant stops and starts (one could call it Mamet-ian, if that weren't shamefully anachronistic), Night Walker moves along at a satisfying pace. The plotline is nicely complicated, and shows a real feel for the period (though it is a little too politically focused for my taste).
Hamilton also makes some interesting choices in Night Walker that make it more than just your average crime novel. First, he has all his major characters refer to each other by nicknames of sorts; "Sailor," "Red," "Honey," and others are bandied about as if these people weren't being completely betrayed by each other left and right, leading to a familiarity that instantly connected me to them. Also, there's a fascinating MacGuffin that I was trying to suss out the significance of for several chapters. I thought I had figured out pretty soon (thinking I had an advantage due to my familiarity with acrostics), but which had nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot.
On a related note, the kinetic cover art by Tim Gabor seems at first to be a little ... well, silly (is that Claude Rains under there?), but it actually illustrates one of the more shocking scenes in the novel. Who that gun belongs to and its connection to the other characters is at the heart of what keeps Night Walker's pages turning well into the night and makes it yet another fine addition to the Hard Case Crime curriculum.
Ed McBain, The Gutter and the Grave
Ever since he found his wife Toni with one of his operatives, all former private investigator Matt Cordell has wanted to do is crawl inside a bottle and stay there. He's been perfectly happy to wallow in his memories for the last five years, panhandling for change on the Bowery, and he doesn't want any trouble.
Enter trouble in the form of Johnny Bridges, a guy from Cordell's old neighborhood he hasn't seen in ten years. Johnny can't afford a real private detective — and he doesn't want to get the police involved for personal reasons — so he asks Matt for his help in figuring out whether his business partner, Dom Archese, is stealing from the till in their co-owned tailor shop.
Being that Cordell doesn't have a whole hell of a lot else filling his day, he says yes. This little piece of magnanimity (really just a way to get Johnny off his back) sweeps Matt into a full-fledged murder case where he encounters a shady cast of characters so full of lies that it is impossible to tell if anyone is ever telling the truth. (Not that it stops Cordell from climbing into the sack with as many of the potential femmes fatales as will let him.)
That's what you get for doing a guy a favor.
The Gutter and the Grave is a reprint of a novel originally published by Gold Medal under the title I'm Cannon — For Hire and the byline of "Curt Cannon" (the name the Cordell's character was changed to). This edition is Ed McBain's preferred text, complete with edits made just prior to his death. It is therefore a fascinating combination of the enthusiasm of a young writer (it is a little heavy on the exposition) and the restraint exercised by a seasoned pro (the violence is tight and visceral and not drawn out unnecessarily).
The Gutter and the Grave is a prime example of the fiction called noir: it's dark and it's dirty, and Matt Cordell is one depressing son of a bitch of a hero. He's full of self-pity and the smallest things set him off on a flashback. McBain keeps his prose raw and fluid, his dialogue sizzling, and a happy ending never crosses his mind (though there is a fun Blackboard Jungle reference for those who can appreciate it). This is a novel about the other side of society: the side where every day is a struggle and every relationship is just one more opportunity to take advantage of. It's the kind of potent novel that, after you get over the grungy feeling it leaves behind, makes you feel happy that you're not one of the characters — a perfect addition to the Hard Case Crime canon.
Lawrence Block, The Girl with the Long Green Heart
It was a crime novel from Lawrence Block that initiated the Hard Case Crime line (a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels) in 2004, and Grifter's Game was a nearly perfect choice. It set the tone for works to come while making a terrific impression on its own terms.
Now Ardai and company have returned with another fantastic Block reprint, again with a grifting theme. I love a good long-con tale, and The Girl with the Long Green Heart is one of the best. In terms of pure entertainment value (and educational value, if you're an aspiring criminal like me), it belongs side-by-side with The Sting.
The title character is Evvie Stone, secretary (among other things) to millionaire Wallace J. Gunderman. He promised to marry Evvie a long time ago, but never came through with the ring. However, that hasn't stopped him from getting his milk for free, so to speak, and Evvie is primed for revenge.
Enter Doug Rance and John Hayden, a couple of long-time con artists who work terrifically together due to their complementary styles. They've hatched an ingenious plan guaranteed to relieve Gunderman of a hundred thousand of his precious dollars, and Evvie couldn't be more eager to help them out from the inside. But is she too eager?
Block devises a con so well, it makes you wonder if he hasn't been involved in a little "research" himself (in addition to his lock-picking expertise as shown in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series). The author has a way with words unlike any other author. Written in the first person, The Girl with the Long Green Heart has a lot of internal monologue from John's point-of-view. Much of it has to do with the planning of the job, but a preponderence is simply one man's thoughts when thrust into a set of situations he did not plan on, and Block manages to somehow make it all utterly riveting.
In which case, The Girl with the Long Green Heart reads like lightning — I was finished before I realized I was over halfway through. And it's that kind of readability that brings me back to Block (and Hard Case Crime) time and time again, whatever the book. He's not always the most original plotter (his Rhodenbarrs owe a huge debt to Agatha Christie and his Chip Harrison "mysteries" are just softcore Nero Wolfe rip-offs), but his distinctive voice ensures familiarity and his pure skill at storytelling promises a fun read every time — the primary reason why he is one of my favorite authors.
Stephen King, The Colorado Kid
Author Stephen King's entry in the Hard Case Crime series of pulp novels hardly fits into the style of the previous books at all. And it's likely to be a divisive entry with its love-it-or-hate-it conclusion. It's not that The Colorado Kid is bad, per se, it just doesn't play fair.
The plot consists primarily of a conversation between two aging newspaper editors — on an island off the coast of King's beloved Maine — telling their young ingenue, Stephanie, about the mysterious appearance of a dead man, found by two high school sweethearts (one of whom is the current mayor) back in the spring of 1980. A reporter from the Boston Globe tried to get the information from them for his series of unexplained mysteries and failed.
The two editors (one of whom is improbably named David Bowie!) take turns passing on bits of information in a mystery style that ultimately goes nowhere. But King has bigger fish to fry (certainly different from the ones contained in the fish-and-chips platter the mystery man, nicknamed The Colorado Kid until his identity was discovered, did or did not eat that night at 5:30 pm).
Even though it will likely be the publisher's biggest seller by a long shot, purely based on the reputation of the author, The Colorado Kid is one of Hard Case Crime's lesser releases. It doesn't even compare well to the rest of King's work. Feeling a lot like a short story padded out to 180 pages, it is loaded with the sort of folksy ramblings that authors like James A. Moore try to mimic, only these prove to be just so much cornstarch in the cocaine.
But it's hard to fault the Hard Case folk. After all, who would pass up the opportunity to publish a Stephen King novel? Not me, certainly — not even one with a plot as flimsy as this one (and one that doesn't even show its face for fifty-plus pages). No, you can't even say that the lack of editing is a problem, truly. This is simply a portrait of King at his most raw, with all his quirks present in sharp relief. That the fine cover painting (by Glen Orbik, also the artist of Hard Case Crime's Branded Woman) has little or nothing to do with the story, and is sexy for the sake of being sexy (not that that's a bad thing!) is simply part of the fun.
But, despite all my complaints about The Colorado Kid I have to say that I kept turning the pages, and I was sucked (and suckered) all the way to the non-ending. King's flowing style is here in full force, and this is one that can be read in a single sitting. Fans of the author will no doubt flock to the bookstores to pick up this slim and engaging read (replete with King's signature Maine colloquialisms peppered throughout), but many will then (as King expects and encourages in his Afterword) subsequently write him nasty letters. Consider this mine.
Peter Pavia, Dutch Uncle
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels, publishing new works in the old style, like Peter Pavia's Dutch Uncle, while also reprinting classics from the masters.)
His third day out on parole, Harry Healy runs into Leo, his one-time weekend cellmate. Leo offers Harry some work, but it's the kind of job that could put Harry right back into the clink; he refuses. But then Harry's "Dutch Uncle," Manfred Pfiser, presents another offer: just make a delivery and collect some cash. Easy, right? Well, it seems simple enough, and what's a favor between friends?
After a clumsy opener with a lot of exposition to handle, Peter Pavia's debut novel Dutch Uncle (he is the author of two non-fiction works: the lauded The Other Hollywood and the upcoming The Cuba Project), takes off ... sort of. The first corpse shows up on page 28 but, apart from a few distinctive scenes (the photography session was especially inspired), Pavia simply can't maintain the creativity or the speed necessary to make this kind of book work. This made it easy to put down and hard to pick up again.
Pavia seems to have patterned Dutch Uncle after the works of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen (Leonard goes by "Dutch" and it takes place in Miami, Hiaasen's familiar stomping ground). At least he aims high, unfortunately he doesn't come near to their quality and pure entertainment satisfaction. He is much better than they were starting out (some of Leonard's early novels are particularly unreadable) — and this gives him a definite head start on longevity — but he can't match Leonard's liveliness or Hiaasen's wackiness.
Pavia has a good grasp on his setting and a terrific ear for dialogue, but his attempts at zany characters seem to rely solely on silly personal quirks that do little more than take up space, like one policeman's need for sensitivity training. And while quirks certainly flesh out characters, it's hard to build a real human around them. Even so, Dutch Uncle's main problem is its pacing. It drags in many spots, is merely slow in others, and I often found myself waiting for the story to "get on with it," leaving me sitting there with what suspense I could muster remaining unfulfilled. It's a fairly simple narrative — there are a lot of distractions, but nothing truly complex takes place. This should have made it easy to pick up the pace, but it takes too long to get anywhere. And that's just not what I want in a crime novel that purports to be about criminals "on the run."
On the other hand, this cover is one of the best Hard Case Crime offerings yet. Richard B. Farrell (The Confession, 361) is fast becoming my favorite of their artists, and he comes through again with an evocative illustration that portrays the essence of the novel without giving away too much of the plot. The cocaine-fueled title is singularly inspired.
Wade Miller, Branded Woman
"Five years had smoothed the scar's puckered edges, but the deep brand of the T was still gullied in her skin like a pale headless crucifix." -- Branded Woman
Author Wade Miller is likely best known (if he is known at all) as the writer of the novel that Orson Welles used as the source of his late-career masterpiece, Touch of Evil. However, this is only likely once you know that "Wade Miller" was a pseudonym used by Robert Wade and William Miller, who also used other pen names throughout their writing career.
One of those was "Whit Masterson," who is the "personality" credited with that source novel, originally called Badge of Evil. Of course, Welles took considerable license with the characters, switching the identities of a few, as well as locations, and beefing up the role of Hank Quinlan (which he played himself).
Confused yet? I was. (Other similar sounding pseudonyms the pair used were "Will Daemer" and "Dale Wilmer" — it seems the duo had a wry sense of humor.) What is important now, though, is that the two wrote Branded Woman, a new release from Hard Case Crime.
Cay Morgan was a jewel smuggler, the rare woman in what is considered a man's profession. She was entirely content to smuggle and let smuggle, but The Trader had other ideas; Cay needed to be taught a lesson and, although she had thought there was nothing worse than death, she soon found out otherwise. Half a decade later, she is in Mazatlán, on the trail of a man named Valdes, her only link to The Trader and her only opportunity for revenge.
Branded Woman features one of the more fascinating characters in crime literature in Cay Morgan. She is smart and sexy, seductive and skilled. If she lets her emotions rule her sometimes to her detriment ... well, that just shows that she has remained human, unlike the usual femmes fatales who only seem out for a buck — or a stabbed or broken heart. Despite all she has been through, she is still open to experiencing hope, and she can still love. That she doesn't have much luck in that arena is simply par for the course. (They wouldn't call the publisher Hard Case Crime if they were interested in printing books about people finding happiness.)
Branded Woman contains a complex chain of events leading up to an astonishing conclusion. Wade and Miller are expert plotters and their situations feel realistic while being entirely out of the ordinary. Having Cay seem like a real woman only ups the ante and makes this novel more impressive.
What I like best about the Hard Case Crime books is how they make me want to seek out authors I've never heard of before (Two for the Money made me an instant Max Allan Collins fan). So, now that I know there are more names to look for, Wade Miller (or Whit Masterson, or whatever the duo call themselves on any given book) is/are getting added to that list.
David Dodge, Plunder of the Sun
"When the nocturno pulled out for Cuzco, we slept in separate compartments .... I suppose I was getting old, but it was a dirty racket and the arithmetic was simple: eighty-four divided by two is forty-two, eighty-four divided by one is eighty-four.
"I didn't want to shoot Jeff if a locked door between us made it unnecessary." -- Plunder of the Sun
It's a first: a novel from Hard Case Crime that I didn't particularly like. Not that there's anything especially wrong with David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun; I'm just not a big fan of the international-treasure-hunt genre, which actually made it a struggle to get through the book. So much so that I would finish other books in the time between I put this one down and picked it up again. Purely a matter of personal taste, but it does make a difference.
Plunder of the Sun is the second of three novels by Dodge starring Mexican-born private detective Al Colby. It was made into a 1953 movie (recently released on DVD), produced by John Wayne(!) and starring Glenn Ford, with only minor plot changes. It was previously adapted for the radio series Escape (and a copy of that show is available for download from this site).
The plot, in essence, is fairly simple: Colby, vacationing in Chile (he is fluent in Spanish) is paid a too large a sum of money to ignore, in order to smuggle an unknown package to Peru. (He should have known better, but a thousand dollars is a thousand dollars.) Before long, his client is dead and a cadre of people are trying to get their hands on the mysterious package, which is alleged to contain information leading to an ancient Incan treasure. Can Colby decipher the message and get there first, or will he survive to get there at all?
As implied earlier, I didn't give two bits about Colby, his priceless Quechua pergaminos, or any of the losers tripping over themselves to get their hands on whatever lay at the proverbial spot marked X. But I wouldn't say it was Dodge's fault. In fact, it was his way with words, plotting skill, adept characterization (surprisingly enough, the females were especially well-drawn), and detailed setting (the author also wrote travelogues) that actually helped me make it to the end.
I liked Dodge's style enough that I would likely try another of his books, as long as it contained a significantly different setup. Apparently, the three Colby books are all similar, so maybe his other series character, accountant James "Whit" Whitney (who has been compared to Nick Charles of The Thin Man), would be more my style. However, given that Plunder of the Sun marks the return in print of any of his books (which is really hard to imagine, given that he also wrote the novel that the Alfred Hitchcock / Cary Grant / Grace Kelly romantic caper To Catch a Thief was based on), that may prove difficult.
Donald E. Westlake, 361
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Donald E. Westlake's 361.)
Just when Raymond Kelly was returning from military service, just when he was ready to settle down and spend some time with his family — his brother, his father, his brother's wife whom he's heard all about and is excited to see in person for the first time — just then, that's when it all went wrong.
One occasion of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a month later he wakes up in a hospital room minus a father, a sister-in-law and an eye. With no family left but his brother, Bill, they set to find out who is responsible and wind up discovering a little more about their family than they ever guessed, including the surprising significance of their father's last word. But blood must avenge blood, so Ray and Bill spend a lot of the novel playing a Holmes and Watson with attitude.
The prose in 361 is so fast that I had to slow down my reading just to keep up. It is a fascinating example of the development of Westlake's craft. Most of the Westlake I've read came from a much later period of his career (1980s or later), and I've not read any of the Richard Stark novels, but this book seems like it would suit Parker fans more than those of his comic mysteries. The many fans of other Hard Case Crime novels, however, will eat it right up.
Only his third novel, 361 is not as solid and confident (or as funny) as the only other earlier work I had read — the Edgar Award–winning God Save the Mark, published just five years later in 1967. What carries it along wonderfully, however, besides the pure power of the storytelling, is the sense that, behind the typewriter is a writer intensely trying to make an impression on the reader. And, as usual, he succeeds.
One thing was decidedly familiar, reminding me of the Donald E. Westlake style his fans know and love: the number of surprises present in this story allow for plenty of leeway in telling the story. You start to think he's going one way, and he goes another. Or he'll spring something unexpected, hiding it within a paragraph of description or "stage business" (as opposed to giving it its own paragraph like most writers do), thus guaranteeing that the reader does a mental "double-take." That's the kind of writing that makes me celebrate. And that's the kind of writing you can expect from 361.
Allan Guthrie, Kiss Her Goodbye
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, like Allan Guthrie's Kiss Her Goodbye, as well as reprinting classics from the masters.)
I had always thought of noir fiction as being a purely American thing, inspired as it was by mid- and post-war disillusionment and the consequences thereafter. However, crime happens everywhere and, if nothing else, Trainspotting proved that the Scots can get just as nuts as Americans — not that that's necessarily a good thing. Part of a recent trend so widespread it has its own name ("tartan noir"), Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie is a portrait of the other side of the ocean, and shows just how similar the responses of humans are given specific circumstances.
Joe Hope is an enforcer (not unlike Nolan in Two for the Money); his friend Cooper loans people money and, if it is not collected, brings Joe with him — and Joe's baseball bat, an odd accessory for Edinburgh — to offer some incentive in the form of broken bones. (If more motivation is needed, hitman Park is at the ready.)
When word is received of the suicide of his daughter, Gemma, Joe immediately flies to visit her cousin Adam in Orkney, with whom she was staying, to deliver his particular brand of blame. Instead, he is greeted by the local police, there to arrest him for the murder of his own wife, Ruth (the evidence is circumstantial but damning).
Caught in a presumably impossible situation, and still in the process of grieving his losses, Joe then conspires — along with his lawyer and hooker girlfriend, Tina — to discover what really happened, and why someone would want to frame him. Meanwhile, Adam isn't being very helpful because he has Gemma's diary, which contains information that could ruin everything.
Guthrie (Two-Way Split) is a fiend with his pen, and he's not just "taking the piss," either (to quote his main character). Not content to follow a formulaic narrative flow, he keeps the suspense up throughout Kiss Her Goodbye, leaving the important answers for the final ten pages. And he doesn't waste time on closure: after a literal head-cracker of an ending and two pages of wrap-up, it's over.
Considering how Guthrie keeps us guessing throughout Kiss Her Goodbye, his ending isn't as inventive as it could have been; it's just a little too pat after the intensity and imagination of what came before. To be fair, though, it does arise organically from the characters' expected behaviors and, after being sent through the wringer for 200 pages, an easy ending is a bit of a relief.
Joe Hope is a fascinating character with some intriguing flaws (including one I never would have expected, although I suspect Freud would have a field day with it); in fact, all of the characters are fully realized — except perhaps Ruth, but she is really more of a plot catalyst than a necessary character. Kiss Her Goodbye is a welcome addition to the Hard Case Crime canon — and comes with another terrific cover from Chuck Pyle (Grifter's Game). It's got enough violence and pathos to satisfy even the most jaded crime reader, and it offers solid insight into the realization that everybody is crazy, no matter where you live.
Day Keene, Home is the Sailor
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Day Keene's Home is the Sailor.)
Day Keene's name (itself a pseudonym for Gunnar Hjerstedt) isn't as well-known as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler, the acknowledged masters of noir literature. That's probably because Keene's writing isn't as generally palatable, tending toward an even darker tone than the others.
Even in a book with such irredeemable characters as Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, there is a sense that they are at least aware that what they are doing is wrong. There is no such guarantee with Day Keene. (In one of his later books, for example, one character has molested his mentally-disabled sister so often that she stays in bed most of the time, just waiting.)
Home is the Sailor is, like most of its ilk, based on the common assumption that a woman who is good in bed can make a man do anything, and killing is just the beginning. Usually the men in these books are about half-witted, mostly unaware of how skillfully they are being manipulated until it's too late. Such is the fate of Swede Nelson, who falls into the clutches of young widow Corliss Mason and gets taken on the ride of his life, with options for the other kind, when all he wants to do is settle down and buy a farm....
Corliss is a lot of the draw that this book holds, her status as a femme fatale is secure, and Swede Nelson is the kind of fallible hero who is easy to identify with. I saw the revelation coming miles away, but I've been reading a lot of these kinds of books lately, and Keene more than makes up for it with the pace of the story (though it is a little on the long side once things start to wrap up). With Home is the Sailor acting as the springboard, I'll definitely be looking for more from Day Keene.
(I do have a couple of questions: How does a guy named Swen Nelson, of Scandinavian descent, nicknamed "Swede," end up with brown hair on the book cover? And why did it take two artists to do it? Although I have to admit that the separation is invisible.)
Domenic Stansberry, The Confession
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, like Domenic Stansberry's The Confession, as well as reprinting classics from the masters.)
Jake Danser is in a hell of a fix. His wife Elizabeth has found out about his mistress Sara and wants a divorce. Sara wants a commitment but Jake want to save his marriage. In the meantime, Elizabeth has taken up with local prosecutor Minor Robinson during the separation. When Sara is found strangled with a tie very similar to Jake's own, he becomes the prime suspect and Robinson is determined to prove him guilty. Could he be guilty? Well, he does have this disorder where he blacks out for periods of time...
Author Domenic Stansberry successfully utilizes the "confessional" style made most famous by Edgar Allan Poe in such tales as "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." (No wonder it won the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Paperback Original.) Luckily, Danser does not deluge us with the same multiple protestations regarding his samity as Poe's protagonists did. Stansberry's skillful prose style also lends a level of credence to The Confession, which is essentially a "didhedoit" where the lead character seems often as clueless as the readers.
Danser tells his own story, ten years after, so at the very least, we know he's not dead, but we don't know where he's telling it from (I had assumed it was prison). The confessional style works well for this tale of a man who doesn't seem entirely sure of his own innocence, keeping the all-important doubt in the reader's mind all the way through this highly suspenseful novel. It's easy to see how Stansberry was nominated for two previous Edgar Allan Poe awards: he really knows his way around the psychological crime genre.
The cover, by artist Richard B. Farrell (using his own hands and his wife as models), again represents the inside contents well. The title of the book would seem to give away the ending, but any mention of the ending at all is bound to be a giveaway of some sort. I'll just say, in the sensationalistic style of publishing blurbs everywhere (it doesn't seem entirely inappropriate for this line): "I confess! I was astounded by The Confession."
Max Allan Collins, Two for the Money
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Max Allan Collins's Two for the Money.)
Max Allan Collins is one of those authors that other authors don't want to hate, but simply have to because he is so prolific, and because he makes it look so easy. Since his first novel was published thirty years ago, Collins has churned out mystery series, stand-alones, comics, and movie and TV tie-ins to the tune of 80+ published full-length works — even going so far as to write the novelization of the screenplay of a film (Road to Perdition) that was already based on his own work (in this case, a graphic novel)! Two for the Money contains his first two published novels (in their 1981 revised versions, as opposed to the 1973 originals): Bait Money and Blood Money, #1 and #2 in a series of eight (so far) books starring professional thief Nolan.
The book seems to start at the end of one story and the beginning of another as we are introduced to Nolan 35 days into his convalescence from a gunshot wound. (Although "convalescence" may be the wrong word since he seems to be spending the majority of the time having sex with the waitress who has put him up — and put up with him — for all that time.) One phone call changes all of that, however, and he sneaks out soon after she goes to work.
The first book (Bait Money) of Two for the Money falls under the "last big heist" heading, with Nolan wanting to retire. He's 48 and it's definitely time to give up this high-risk business. Unfortunately, some "Family" members have a grudge against him that makes that difficult-to-impossible. But he has an out: if he pulls one more heist for them, to the tune of $100,000, they will "forgive" him. The catch is that he has to pull it with the planner's nephew, Jon. This contrasting of old blood and new has long been a cliche (it may even have been then), but Collins' skill at characterization makes it work, even if a few leaps of faith need to be taken.
Book Two (Blood Money) was written very soon after the acceptance of Bait Money for publication, and so follows closely on the latter's heels. Collins himself even sees the two as one long novel, hence the omnibus publication. In it, we learn more about Jon, an aspiring comics (or "graphic story") artist. Jon's love of comics is a thread that runs throughout Blood Money and this is a world that Collins certainly knows something about, having written for the comic strip Dick Tracy from 1977 to 1993 (Max Allan Collins fans should note that reprints of that series are becoming available under the title Dick Tracy: The Collins Casefiles), as well as authoring numerous graphic novels of his own creation.
Collins wastes no time getting Blood Money off to a running start. A vital supporting character from Bait Money is killed — and $800,000 is stolen — in the first few pages. Later, Nolan finds out that someone he thought was dead isn't. Collins uses a fascinating technique throughout this entry of having news delivered by telephone to one character and then backing up to show the story leading up to the exchange, this time from the caller's perspective. He also adds useful tidbits of information, like how having high blood pressure can make a victim more likely to die of a gunshot wound. He also showcases the unheralded victim of a gunfight: the guy who has to clean up the mess.
Darkly funny details like these make Two for the Money a joy to read, Max Allan Collins a new favorite author, and Nolan a character I plan on revisiting soon. Collins admits that Nolan is an almost complete rip-off of Donald Westlake pseudonym Richard Stark's Parker, but Westlake appreciated the differences Collins offered the stories and gave Collins his blessing to continue the series. These stories would make terrific movies, and artist Mark Texeira helps out Hollywood's casting directors by drawing his own preferences on the cover painting, with Nolan resembling a cleaned-up Nick Nolte, and Jon and the irresistible Shelly looking strikingly like modern "it couple" Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon. Someone should advise Nolte to latch on to this possible comeback opportunity. In the meantime, I'm going to latch on to all the Max Allan Collins books I can get my hands on.
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, like Richard Aleas's Little Girl Lost, as well as reprinting classics from the masters.)
When the headline "Stripper Murdered" boasts a photo of his ex-girlfriend Miranda Sugarman, John Blake is floored. This is the girl who left their hometown to go off to medical school in Wisconsin to become an eye doctor. What happened that caused her to end up dead on the roof of The Sin Factory? The New York P.I. decides to use his skills to find out.
With the most striking first chapter in recent memory, Little Girl Lost, the debut novel of Richard Aleas (pseudonym of acclaimed writer, editor, and entrepreneur Charles Ardai), starts out strong and keeps up the pace (though I don't know that I'd have given my book the same title as a bestselling celebrity autobiography).
When your central character is a P.I., you've got to make him not like all the others to keep a reader's interest past the crime he's trying to solve. John Blake — interestingly, given the genre — is not your typical "tough guy." Instead of running headlong into trouble willy-nilly, he likes to avoid it, but not enough to appear weak. He's like Jackie Chan; he knows he can handle himself, he'd just like to get away with as few bruises as possible (Robert Parker's Spenser also comes to mind). Blake depends on his intelligence and quick wit to get him through. This makes him easier to identify with for a reader with no chance whatsoever of finding himself in such a situation (I hope).
The hero's emotional attachment to the victim recalls Dashiell Hammett's classic The Maltese Falcon and this makes him a more sympathetic character, as well as giving us a voyeuristic view into his conflicting feelings. Sitting idly by, we get to watch as Blake realizes that the Miranda who got herself two bullets in the head on a seedy rooftop on New Year's Eve is much different than the girl he loved ten years ago (as depicted through selective flashbacks).
With help from his boss Leo and a stripper named Rachel Firestone — who finds that she has a surprising knack for detective work — Blake descends into the underworld of flesh display and runs into trouble that goes by the names of Wayne Lenz and Murco "Catch" Khachadurian. Along the way, Aleas gives us an insider's view into the day-to-day workings of a private investigator. This attention to detail, a fast-paced plot, a terrific cover from famed illustrator Robert McGinnis (which continues the half-naked-girl-with-a-gun theme of Fade to Blonde and was reportedly even more revealing before the publishers had him "pull up her pants"), fascinating characters (who are seldom all that they seem), and Aleas' definite knack for the genre, all combine to make Little Girl Lost an absolutely terrific read. It's therefore not surprising that it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best First Novel.
Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair), Top of the Heap
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Erle Stanley Gardner's Top of the Heap.)
Erle Stanley Gardner is best known for creating the archetype of the good lawyer in the series of novels starring his character Perry Mason, who was featured in a number of films in the 1930s played by Warren William and others, but was most famously portrayed by Raymond Burr in the popular television drama that ran for nine seasons on CBS and that thrives in syndication to this day. (Did you know that Gardner himself played a judge in the final episode?)
What most people don't know is that he also wrote another series of novels, under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, featuring the investigation team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. The Cool and Lam books numbered 29 and were published between 1939 and 1970, around the same time that Gardner was writing the Mason novels. Though Top of the Heap is the thirteenth in the series, it also serves as a fine introduction to the characters, though mostly Lam, as the legman, is featured.
When John Carver Billings ('"The Second," he amended.') enters the offices of Cool and Lam, asking for the "senior partner," Donald Lam sits back and waits for the sparks to fly, since that title refers to Bertha Cool and Billings doesn't appear to be the kind of guy who will accept a woman as a detective. But when Bertha calmly calls Donald into her office, sans explosion, he knows there must be a lot of money involved. Billings is looking for someone to corroborate his whereabouts of the previous Tuesday night and is willing to pay for the privilege, but what seems like a simple job — with a five-hundred-dollar bonus attached — turns into something entirely other when Donald actually does some investigation and discovers that Billings has other things on his mind besides his innocence.
Of course, the more Lam investigates, the more he uncovers, eventually angering both Billings and Bertha. Speaking of, extreme detective characters like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe — and now the foul-mouthed, greedy, ungrateful, jumping-to-conclusions charmer Bertha Cool — are best taken in small doses. Some entries of the series are reported to focus more on her but Top of the Heap offers just enough for us to still find her amusing without crossing over into annoyance. It's the sidekick/legman character: Doctor Watson and Archie Goodwin — and Donald Lam — that we're supposed to identify with, anyway.
I was pleasantly surprised at how Gardner made the story intriguingly complicated but managed to keep it understandable. I never really got into his Perry Mason novels (I wanted them to be as tightly-written as the TV shows), but I'll definitely be on the lookout for more of the Cool and Lam series. (Maybe Hard Case Crime can issue more entries? Hint, hint.) The cover picture (and tagline, for that matter) doesn't have much at all to do with the story, but it's certainly beautiful work and in any case, this is another terrific offering from this new imprint. It's almost too much to ask that they keep up this level of quality, but I only expect more greatness to come.
Max Phillips, Fade to Blonde
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, like Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde, as well as reprinting classics from the masters..)
Ray Corson is a wannabe-screenwriter, ex-boxer, and odd job man. Now he's about to get involved in his oddest job yet: protecting ex-porn actress Rebecca LaFontaine from Lance Halliday, pretty-boy mobster, stag film producer, and lye enthusiast.
Max Phillips is the co-founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, but any publishing house with an eye for the future would have taken on Fade to Blonde. When an author like Phillips — who usually writes meaningful mainstream fiction like The Artist's Wife and Snakebite Sonnet — tries his hand at hard-boiled genre fiction, the end result is either going to be a joke or a classic. My wager is on the latter.
Rebecca LaFontaine turns out to be one of the more interesting femmes fatales I've met lately, if only because she's so full of surprises. Just when you think you've got a bead on her, Corson discovers something else about her — or she confesses it, and this girl just aches to confess things, especially if they're only tangentially related to the truth and will assist in her use of her physical attributes to get her way — that changes key perceptions about her character. (For another take on this type of sexually manipulative woman in a different setting, and from her own viewpoint, see the abovementioned The Artist's Wife.)
You can tell Phillips is a literary novelist because that little piece of story I described at the beginning is just that: the beginning. In the course of Corson's travels, he comes across more people and gets himself involved in more difficult situations than should be able to fit in these 220-odd pages. What keeps Fade to Blonde from being 500 pages is Phillips' economy with words (I'll skip the Hemingway reference, though, if you don't mind). This keeps the story moving because there are often two or more things going on at once; even when Ray is just sitting on a stool in a restaurant — or holding one of Rebecca's marketable breasts in his hand — dialogue (and often money) is being exchanged that moves the plot forward.
Everything eventually comes together, though in a typical "mystery" ending, where Corson discovers the mysterious thread that ties all the information together. In the end, when he goes back to his previous way of life, it's a little disappointing, but you know that he isn't likely to keep minding his own business for long. Fade to Blonde may be a little high-toned for the average pulp aficionado, but those who appreciate it will enjoy Phillips' depth of characterization and especially his ability to stick to the rules of the genre while giving it his own stamp of intellect.
Lawrence Block, Grifter's Game
(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game, which was originally published as Mona and now has the author's preferred title.)
Joe Marlin spends his days skipping out on hotel bills and double-crossing gold-diggers; not the best of lives, but it works for him. One day, after lifting some luggage to check in to his next hotel with (if you go without, they pay closer attention), he discovers a large cache of heroin. Later that night, he meets the married Mona Brassard, and they get to know each other better.
Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the heroin and the heroine are somehow connected, but Block keeps the pace of Grifter's Game moving so fast that it doesn't matter. Joe is quickly in love — and in over his head — and this portrait of love between the hardest of hearts can only end in disaster. We just don't know what form it will take — other than that mentioned in the tagline, of course. (I love those floating eyes in the cover illustration by Chuck Pyle, by the way.)
Grifter's Game was an excellent choice to inaugurate the new Hard Case Crime line. Since it comes from very near that period, the details are fresh and natural: phone exchanges that begin with words, Joe's lunch in an Automat, even the mention that "the elevator was self-service" plants us right in the middle of the time — and this was at the beginning of Block's career. (Marlin's skill with locks predicts Block's later Burglar series, and his Matthew Scudder is an example of what happens when genre-dictated drinking gets out-of-hand.)
Lawrence Block is one of my favorite authors for that skill with detail. His insertion of humor in the story as a necessary means to break the tension is another reason (Marlin's response to a juicer pitchman is priceless). But, in the end, what I like best about the author is his creativity. A book like this could have ended in any of a dozen ways, all of them somewhat predictable, but Block comes up with one that absolutely knocks you to the floor, turning Grifter's Game from a really good story into a surprising and terrific one.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)