A Guide To Hard Case Crime, Vol. 1

I'm a big fan of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint, and I buy everything they put out. It's one of those rare cases (like SubPop or Megaforce or Dell's Abyss) to put out consistent quality. They used to pop out a book a month, but unfortunately they've slowed down to maybe 4 a year or something. I hope they pick up again and don't peter out, so I figured I'd do my little part by reviewing them here on the blog-nobody-actually-seems-to-read. Maybe a few of the passersby will be inspired to pick up some of their stuff, or maybe even join their book club. So, here are reviews of all the HardCase books I've read so far. There are 65 of them so far, so I still have a whole lot of 'em to go, but from what I've read, and judging from the reviews on Amazon, they still haven't put out a bad book yet, so whatever you pick up will probably be rewarding. Even if, for some unthinkable reason, you don't like the story, you're still guaranteed some amazing cover-art. If you don't want to trust my word on it, their top-notch website (see link) will let you read sample chapters and give you more information on each title.

Volume 2 will be forthcoming in a few years when I read another dozen or so...

Fade To Blonde
- Max Phillips
Hard-boiled retro-noir (it seems set in the 50's) about Ray, a spot laborer (he wanted to be a screenwriter, did a little boxing, and ended up a knockaround guy) who's asked by a girl named Rebecca to protect her from a jealous boyfriend who wants to throw lye in her face. Or at least that's her story... Even though Ray sees through her, he still ends up in plenty of trouble. Excellent old-school noir that really reads like some of the classic Gold Medal good stuff. With writing like this still being done, hardboiled crime fiction is nowhere near dead. Great stuff. If I highlighted all the good lines the book would look like the Yellow Pages. ****

Two For The Money
- Max Alan Collins
Reprint of two novels, Bait Money and its sequel, Blood Money, that work pretty well as one long book. A thief named Nolan takes on a comic-book-obsessed sidekick named Jon to rob a bank, so that Nolan can turn the money over to the mob and get them off his back (he'd killed a mobster's relative). But of course things don't go smoothly, and Nolan's money ends up stolen, so he has to get it back. Not easy. Excellent hardboiled crime novels, definitely recommended. *** 1/2

The Gutter and the Grave
- Ed McBain
Reprint of a 1958 pulp novel that McBain put out under a pseudonym - although I don't know why he used the fake name because if I'd written something this great I'd damnsure want credit for it. Matt Cordell is a detective who hit the skids and became a gutter drunk after pistol-whipping a guy who stole his wife. An old friend seeks him out for help on a minor problem that turns into a major case of murder, which may get Matt beaten to death if eh doesn't back off. Matt's pretty competent for a chronic alcoholic, but that's easy to overlook because the story's so well-written and fast-moving and compulsively readable. A slamdunk for anyone who's looking for something gritty. ****

Bust - Ken Bruen & Jason Starr
Excellent noir with some black-humor undertones, depicting how a relatively-simple plan to kill a man's wife becomes a destructive maelstrom as more and more bad guys get involved and start trying to scam each other... which doesn’t work out well for any of them. Compelling and well-written and well-plotted, although I don’t think you’re meant to take it too seriously. The characters -- an Irish hit man, a hair-metal-listening criminal in a wheelchair, a titty-obsessed businessman, and a slutty Irish/Greek girl -- are all pretty odd and memorable. Another great HardCase original. *** 1/2

Witness To Myself - Seymour Shubin
This is a really good novel, but you’re going to have to be generous and grant it some leeway in regards to certain implausibilities. A lawyer named Alan is haunted by an incident that happened at the beach when he was a kid, when he made a sexual advance to a little girl and then panicked that she might tell on him, got a little too rough with her, and (maybe) accidentally killed her. He got away with it but it shadowed his entire life with guilt and he became obsessed with seeing if he actually did kill her or not. This is where some really not-believable stuff starts happening -- searching newspaper backfiles on the case gets a police sketch of him published in papers, people spot incriminating icons on his computer desktop, a man he saved from a suicide attempt starts stalking him, every development in a decades-cold case gets reported on, etc. Despite flaws, the story remains compelling and poignant, and the writing is great, so you probably won’t mind overlooking some lapses in realism (especially if you’ve been trained by reading guys like Cornell Woolrich). Shubin returned to writing after years to put this out for HardCase. ***

Grave Descend
- John Lange
Fast-reading pulpy crime novel (more of a novella, really -- it’s 202 large-print pages with a lot of blank pages snuck in) about a scuba diver named McGregor who’s hired to salvage a wrecked yacht off the Jamaican coast. From the very beginning the job makes him suspicious, and the further he goes the more wrong it all seems (such as finding out that the yacht didn’t even sink yet!) And the more he finds out the more danger he’s in. The book isn’t overly noirish and the writing is bare bones with no flash, but things keep moving and the plot keeps twisting, making it easily worth the short time it takes to read it. ***

361 - Donald E. Westlake
Reprint of Westlake’s hard-boiled 1962 crime novel in which a soldier named Ray Kelly comes home to reunite with his father and brother, only to have his father gunned down in an attack that also costs Ray an eye. Ray sets out to find out why it happened and how he can even the score. On the way he gets mixed up with the mob, finds out his lineage may not be what he’d thought it was, and loses more loved ones. Good stuff carved out of spare, no-screwing-around prose and not shy about violence when necessary. ***

Lucky At Cards - Lawrence Block
Reprint of an excellent 1964 crime novel with Block in top form. The narrator is a “card mechanic” named Bill Maynard, who gets caught cheating at poker and is beaten out of Chicago. While recovering in a small town he decides to pick up some extra cash by cheating a few locals at their weekly poker games. There he gets involved with a guy’s wife, who wants to run off with him... and her husband’s money. They can’t kill the husband, though, because he has a lot of restrictions in the trust he’s leaving her, so they have to find some other way to get him out of the picture so she can get at his money. The husband’s not as dumb as they’d counted on him being, though, and Bill ends up with a lot of trouble... much of it from letting the slutty wife override his own conscience. Even if you don’t know how to play poker (I admit ignorance) the card games manage to be intense, and Block has an unsettlingly intimate knowledge of how cheating is done, and the plot is tight. This is classic stuff, and you can’t go wrong with this one. ****

Home Is The Sailor - Day Keene
Excellent, ultra-hard boiled crime novel from 1952 about a big, tough, hellraising Swede sailor who plans to give up the sea but may end up giving up more than that, because after a near-fatal bar fight he gets hooked up with a woman named Corliss. He kills a guy who she said was attacking her, and they hid the body and then rush out and get married. The Swede soon starts thinking that Corliss isn’t quite what she seems to be. He’s right. The Swede is a kind of Mike Hammer-ish narrator, usually to’-ass up drunk and banged up from one violent altercation or other, always in a bad situation. Keene does a great job not giving the story any letup in momentum. A must-read. ****

The Vengeful Virgin - Gil Brewer
Reprint of a 1958 noir classic in the James M. Cain tradition, with a TV repairman getting mixed up in a hell of his own making when he helps an 18-year-old girl kill her invalid stepfather for a hefty inheritance. They work out a great, foolproof plan which, of course, doesn’t work. Very well-written, smart, and fast-moving. *** 1/2

Zero Cool - John Lange
Lightning-fast spy-caper type of tale with a young doctor getting in crazy mixed-up trouble in 1960’s Spain when he’s approached to do an autopsy on a dead gangster. Some people tell him they’ll kill him if he performs it, and others say they’ll kill him if he doesn’t. Even though he’s a radiologist, not a pathologist, he finally does it and they make him hide a package inside the body for smuggling purposes. That’s not the end of his troubles, though, since a colorful assortment of hoodlums (an eccentric professor, a dwarf count, a cowboy named Tex, etc.) all think he has information they’re willing to torture out of him, and everyone he meets seems to be in on the baffling conspiracy. Despite being a HardCase Crime book, this reads more like some wacky 60’s spy spoof; it’s played pretty straight, but the crazy situations (including a device stolen from an old Bela Lugosi movie, The Devil Bat!) make you wonder if Lange’s tongue wasn’t pretty far in his cheek. Even the cover has an in-joke that readers of Lange’s previous HardCase novel Grave Descend (whose cover was also painted by Gregory Manchess) will probably spot. It’s assuredly meant as a tall tale and thus deviates from the HardCase code a bit, but it’s well-done and entertaining, so who cares about being a purist? ***

The Murderer Vine - Shepard Rifkin
Amazingly good crime novel (originally published in 1970) that plays like Mississippi Burning gone film noir. A low-rent detective is hired to go to civil-rights-era Mississippi to find out who killed his son (an activist who was registering Blacks to vote) and then kill them all. It’s not the kind of thing the detective usually does, but the man offers half a million dollars, so, armed with a machine gun, a Southern secretary, and a cover story about researching dialects, off he goes into Hell. Very well-done, riveting read, with an effective ending. ****

Gun Work - David J. Schow
Horror novelist Schow turns to hardboiled crime in this action-packed post-Tarrantino novel, in which a gun expert named Barney tries to repay his old friend Carl, who once saved his life. Carl calls Barney down to Mexico to help free his wife, who’s been kidnapped. Barney provides excellent and expert assistance, but unluckily for him the whole shmear is a set-up, and Barney is captured, tortured for months, and nearly killed. He survives and, with the aid of some luchadores (masked Mexican wrestlers, if you’re unfamilar), seeks vengeance. Schow’s typically-hip prose is sometimes too smugly impressed with itself and some of what’s supposed to be badass just comes across as more geeky than badass. Some of the gun-worship, for instance, reads as much like a woman describing a Dior gown as it does a guy describing a firearm, and you’ll likely roll your eyes at some of the faux-macho prose-posturing, because Schow’s just trying too dadgum hard. Other times, though, it works exactly the way Schow wants it to, and sections of the book are intense and unputdownable. Others are comic-bookish action blitzes that feel like the climax of a Mack Bolan Executioner novel... but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of Schow’s strange obsessions pop up again and I got a little deja vu (he has a thing about people with modified, missing-finger hands), but mostly I was glad to have something to read from a guy who I wish was more prolific. Despite a few shortcomings, it’s a great (and very harsh and harrowing) revenge tale with a strong cinematic feel (if Robert Rodriguez hasn’t already bought the screen rights, he should) and a reminiscent-of-Spillane climax. It’s also the most violent HardCase Crime book I’ve read yet. *** 1/2

Nobody’s Angel - Jack Clark
Melancholy, existential crime novel about a cab driver working in Chicago while two killers are loose: one killing cabdrivers and the other slashing up hookers. He loses a friend tot he former and possibly gains a friend from the latter, when he discovers one of the hooker-killer’s victims, still alive in an alley. While dealing with the paranoia and sleaze of his nightly route, he tries to find the killers... and avoid becoming one of their victims. This is more of a slice-of-life than a focused, plot-driven novel, mostly following the protagonist through his shifts and showing his customers, the other people he meets, and what a cabbie’s life is like. The writing is simple but strong, and it stays compelling even when nothing’s really happening. Clark is a real cabdriver and originally had this novel self-published and sold it to customers in his cab. HardCase Crime did the world beyond Chicago a service by making it more widely available, and it’s a welcome addition to the tiny subgenre of cab-driver-crime pulp (whose only other member, to my knowledge, is John K. Butler with his Steve Midnight stories, which you can score in the Stroke of Midnight collection). Clark’s novel has a very authentic feel, not trying to be politically correct, just telling the truth about what cabbies do. ***

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