Three Donald Westlake titles from Hard Case Crime

The prodigious crime fiction writer Donald Westlake (1933-2008) has been a featured author of the Hard Case Crime imprint, with eight published titles to date. The Hard Case Crime brand has so far been an indicator of entertaining books, and Westlake’s reputation has seemed to have grown with time. This list summarizes my impressions of three Westlake books published in this series.

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hcc_westlake_cutie

Ken Laager cover. hardcasecrime.com

The Cutie (1960) might appear to be another for-the-paycheck mystery novel at first, but it features a main sleuth character that grows more interesting as the story progresses. George “Clay” Clayton is a high-ranking associate of the local gangsters, having joined the crew after the family head helped him escape culpability from a fatal car accident. A general problem-solver and occasional enforcer, Clay has the ability to remove his emotions from his often unpleasant activities.

Clay’s present unpleasant task arrives at his door when an syndicate heroin dealer comes seeking cover from the police, insisting that he was framed for murder. Clay must track down the true killer by gathering the pieces of the murder victim’s life. As the mysterious killer – the “cutie” of this book’s odd title – tries to cover his tracks, Clay becomes a target himself as we tries to save the organization. His introspective nature and role as the unwilling detective makes this novel a more interesting read than what I had first expected.

Clay also struggles to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend Ella, which strains under his workload, his status outside the law, and his reluctance to share the truth about exactly what he does for his boss. Ella is a solid character with her own motivations, not merely a sounding board for Clay’s speeches, and (along with a lone honest policeman) represent the larger “straight” world that doesn’t buy Clay’s act or his excuses.  Laager’s cover is an example of the cover art not being accurate of the book’s contents, but if this does not bother you (it shouldn’t – it’s a tribute to the specific but misleading covers of the past), The Cutie is a recommended read. 7/10.

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Westlake_TCiF

Gregory Manchess cover. hardcasecrime.com

The Comedy is Finished (2012) is a first-time publication of a long-unpublished manuscript, believed to be written sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. It tells the story of the kidnapping of a past-it comedian by perhaps the last remaining group of hippie-radicals. The Bob Hope-inspired comedian, Koo Davis, maintained a long career in television and movies by remaining politically neutral, but often went overseas to entertain deployed military. Also like Bob Hope, Davis had relationships with multiple women at the same time, being formally married to one but quietly sending the other money. Again like Bob Hope, Davis’ brand of comedy is the constant delivery of one-liners and self-deprecating jokes. So clearly the plot of this book is “Bob Hope gets kidnapped by the Weather Underground” which sounds rather hokey-jokey, but TCiF holds deeper themes and interesting characters. Davis realizes that he’s nearing the end of his life, and tries to piece together enough meaningful moments from his past to face his fate. It’s as if one of Bob Hope’s dramatic roles turned out to be surprisingly effective, in a good movie filmed in 1977.

TCiF is a longer book, and contains room for us to get to know the motley cast of radicals. There’s the cagey but disorganized leader, the intellectual, the scary intimidator, the unbalanced hippie who walks around naked (thereby making the Manchess cover art), and the docile house-minder named Joyce. Together they form a kind of desperate group in search of a sign that their revolution isn’t over, but it’s obvious from the start that their day is somewhere in the past, now that the Vietnam War is over. Their flawed seriousness is thrown into a pitched battle against Davis’ wisecracks, as the FBI attempts to close in on them. The lead investigator, in his attempt to resuscitate his own reputation by capturing Davis alive, provides an interesting and needed perspective from beyond the confines of the circle of radicals. TCiF was a one of strongest, and most unique, entries in the HCC series. 8/10.

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westlake_361

Richard Farrell cover. hardcasecrime.com

361 (1962) is a fast-paced tale of revenge and corruption written early in Westlake’s career. It features the tribulations of Ray Kelly, who, on his first day out of the Air Force in New York City:

  • sees his father shot to death
  • gets severely injured in a car wreck, breaking several bones
  • loses an eye in the ordeal

Ray was actually on his way to Binghamton, and when he finally arrives he discovers that his brother Bill recently lost his wife in another car wreck, and has descended into a depression-fueled drinking binge.

Ray and Bill soon find the resolve to return to New York and track down the gangsters behind the killings – using Bill’s savings and Ray’s dogged will. They face very long odds at surviving, let alone succeeding in this mission, but are aided by a few lucky breaks and Ray’s aggression. Ray evolves from an unassuming person to a cagey near-savage with an abruptness that reminded me of Call of the Wild – but Westlake had a gangster war to fit in, as well.

Ray gets his chance at revenge, when he discovers a familial link with an old capo whose jail sentence has just ended. This is involves him being knowingly manipulated, and shuttling between the big city and small towns in upstate New York. In all, 361 is an attempt to describe a story too large for its size, especially as the main character has to learn the world of the gangsters along with the reader (in The Cutie, we had the benefit of the character’s perspective to give exposition when needed). Still it’s an interesting character study and battle against fate. 6/10.

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I’m still working with a small sample size, but early Westlake books compare favorably to early Block books (which I opine about here and here): the problem-solving main characters are more desperate and myopic in 361 and The Cutie, and less aware of future plot developments than the more plotting (and frankly, author-like) protagonists of Lucky at Cards and Grifter’s Game. This makes them less in control, and more interesting – at least in case of these early one-off novels.

The Comedy is Finished had the length that gave enough room for both a multi-stage plot and a cast of changing characters, with plenty of action and humor besides. Hopefully, it is just the first example of what Westlake could do with a larger novel, and I’m optimistic about the other titles of his that remain in the HCC catalog.

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September reads – a list

This is a list of the month’s reading experiences, with a sentence or two about each.

The Best

BKTG01567A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick (1977) – This is one of PKD’s top-tier novels, and the best book I’ve read so far that features the drug counter-culture of the middle decades of the 20th century. I wrote about its main SF element (the drug Substance D) and the theme of self-serving bias in a more detailed review. 9/10.

I’m also a fan of Richard Linklater’s animated film adaption of this book, and plan on writing something about it in the near future.

 

 

ConfessionsOfNatTurner

The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron (1967) – I recently wrote about the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for Banned Books Week; it may not have been banned from libraries per se, but it has definitely been pushed out of literature curricula. This story of Nat Turner’s upbringing, life and rebellion deserves the level of positive attention that it initially received. 9/10.

 

 

The Very Good

lenore-devilThe Devil Knows You’re Dead, by Lawrence Block (1993) – The 11th book in the Matthew Scudder series follows a the private detective around Manhattan as he tracks the killer of an untrustworthy acquaintance. It’s a more sophisticated, but also more frustrating, update of the second book (Time to Murder and Create), where the victim is a seedy blackmailer. Despite his serious relationship with Elaine, Scudder gets mixed up with the widow of the victim. The crime plot and the emotion plot are resolved in a parallel fashion, but I found it more appropriate for the latter. As usual, it is a very well-written page-turner, but I’m afraid Block didn’t quite stick the landing this time. 7/10.

THGRNHLLSF1962The Green Hills of Earth, by Robert A. Heinlein (1951). This sequence of Heinlein’s “future history” stories was surprisingly efficient and readable. The title story is about a flight engineer who has been blinded from radiation, but proves his worth in space one final, heroic time. “Delilah and the Space Rigger” is an example of how Heinlein sometimes had women be the capable hero. “The Long Watch” is an example of how Heinlein commemorated wartime heroes in SF stories – this time with a coup attempt being spoiled by an engineer who manually disables atomic weaponry. 7/10.

 

 

mourner_original_1

The Mourner, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark, 1963) – The 4th book in the Parker series features the stoic criminal in a plot to steal a statue (one of the Mourners of Dijon) from the house of a mysterious immigrant. He brings in a trustworthy friend, but they both get double-crossed and wounded for their troubles. The hidden gun and the history of the Mourner statue are interesting tidbits, but the clever adversary is the true highlight of this quick read. 7/10.

 

 

score-by-richard-starkThe Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark, 1963) – The 5th book in Parker series breaks the pattern of the preceding books to some degree – here, the heist is the entire story rather than part of a “heist, double-cross, pursuit” sequence. Parker is recruited into a massive burglary operation where an entire mining town is knocked over. The planning chapters are as entertaining as the action scenes, and the aftermath had some suspense as well. Maybe the book was a bit overstuffed with characters for a Parker novel, but it was still a fast and fun read. 7/10.

The Rest

Grifter’s Game, by Lawrence Block (1961). I covered this one already in one of my Hard Case Crime posts. It’s a good, fast example of early Block. 5/10.

Have Space Suit, Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein (1958). To be honest, I was hoping for a bit more from one of Heinlein’s most well-regarded “juvenile” SF novels. A space-obsessed Kip wins a leftover spacesuit by sending in piles of soap labels. Finding mockery in his home town, he repairs the suit and wears it around the yard. This is when a two spacecraft land near him, taking him on an adventure of kidnapping, escape and rebellion. The first 75% of the novel was excellent 1950’s SF adventure, but then it veers into a drawn-out court sequence that kills momentum – think The Phantom Menace in book form. 6/10.

The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and D. Sally (1977). This is a Malcolm Gladwell-recommended book about the growing use of metrics and analysis in the game of soccer. There are plenty of good points for the casual fan: arguments about forwards being overvalued, the rate of goals per game being low compared to the past, etc. However, we never get to learn how to read those Opta charts I keep seeing in soccer articles, and a lot of ink was spent on characters that just weren’t very interesting. 5/10.

Critical Threshold, by Brian Stableford (1977). The 2nd entry in the Daedalus Mission series is much like the first: the main character, a biologist, relates his narrative and his dialogue in the form of epic lectures. He is not supposed to be likable, but can be a drag at times because there’s no escaping him. He is one of a crew of select scientists and technicians in an ongoing mission to reconnect with lost colonial planets. The planet in this story his covered in forest, and the colony has decayed into oblivion over a several generations. A generally very downbeat story, and a prickly contrast to the more popular Star Trek shows and books, but once again Stableford redeems it with some interesting science. I have just enough to keep going with this series. 6/10.

A World Out of Time, by Larry Niven (1976). This fixup of Jurgen-inspired stories started ok but slid downhill. The time-travel and cryogenic-based plot degenerated into an inferior version of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. 3/10.

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

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Time magazine. July 6, 1981

One of the most notable cultural developments of the last few years has been the growing acceptance of open and legal recreational drug use, especially across the western United States. This has arisen out of an embrace by many of a so-called counter-culture where regular use of THC and experimentation of harder drugs (psychedelics and tranquilizers, etc.) were thought to be generally harmless. Even drugs known to be powerfully addictive and dangerous have enjoyed media status as chic and adventurous.

The “too cool for mainstream” mirage of the drug-centered counter-culture is brilliantly attacked by Philip K. Dick’s novel of paranoia and drug abuse A Scanner Darkly (1977). ASD is essentially a semi-autobiographical literary novel infused with science fiction elements. I’ve heard reviewers claim that the “scramble suits” and hologram-recording surveillance devices were extra details added by Dick to help the book’s genre marketability, but this is overlooking the most important future technology of them all: the drug Substance D.

Substance D is both extremely addictive and directly attributable to brain damage, resulting in a deterioration of the corpus callosum – the large bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. When this is damaged or severed – usually as a last-resort surgery for epilepsy patients – someone can experience an internal contention between two intentional actions. Outwardly observable signs of this are uncommon, however, and the split-brain condition is usually managed by the domination of one hemisphere over the other. Even though Michael Gazzaniga’s famous studies of split-brain patients were published in the 1970’s, Dick seems to have been inspired by Joseph Bogen’s 1969 writings to create the “multiple minds in one brain” theme in this novel.

BKTG01567

Vintage Books edition. isfdb.org

My Vintage edition of ASD features an obscured “scanned” face, rows of identical upward-facing heads and a pattern of what looks like to be chemical structure diagrams. The chemical diagrams are of smallish molecules that seem to resemble cathinone or maybe ephedrine, which are stimulants and very unlike the Substance D of the novel. Perhaps the various chemical structures pictured reflect the incomplete understanding of Substance D and whether it’s a synthetic or natural chemical. For a 1990’s paperback, the design is not bad, but my favorite cover has to be the Quays artwork on the 1977 Doubleday hardcover. That one features a faceless figure walking between the facades of two buildings indicative of decaying institutions. The smudge on the upper left illustrates the pervasive sickness of the character’s environment.

SCNNRDRKLW1977

The Quays cover for Doubleday. isfdb.org

ASD tells the story of Bob Arctor, an undercover agent attempting to trap a distributor of Substance D (an elusive guy named Weeks). He does so by allowing some of his D-using friends to live in his house, and by buying increasingly large numbers of D “tabs” from his friend Donna. He also uses small amounts of D himself to fit in with his investigative targets. He has vague memories about a past life with a wife and children, but remains convinced that he actively chose a career with the narcs (as opposed to using D first, and then turning to the police).

The book actually opens by following not Bob but one of the D-users, Charles Freck, who is on the prowl for D when he encounters Donna. After some fakery and denials, Freck convinces Donna to supply him with tabs of D in the near future. When she writes his contact information, Freck smugly notes her apparent ignorance:

What difficulty she had writing, he thought. Peering and slowly scrawling … They don’t teach the chicks jack shit in school anymore, he thought. Flat-out illiterate. But foxy.

Freck and Donna are both connected to Bob, but Dick establishes the plot and setting outside of Bob’s viewpoint, because Bob’s understanding of his world will prove to be very limited. Other drugged-out characters in Bob’s house include Jim Barris, a neurotic but clever technician, Jerry Fabin, who melts down following car problems, and Ernie Luckman, who appears congenial but baffled by his surroundings. These individuals seem largely inspired by Dick’s frequent semi-random visitors in his Berkeley house during the years he lived alone and experimented with drugs.

Inside the government building, Bob wears a scramble suit that obscures his identity, and effectively morphs into Fred, a frustrated narcotics agent. He expresses internal contempt for his audience of “straights” after giving a speech to the local Lion’s Club – insulting their intelligence:

Robert Arctor halted. Stared at them, at the straights in their fat suits, their fat ties, their fat shoes, and he thought, Substance D can’t destroy their brains; they have none.

Not only does this show emotional separation from his non-drug using, civilian past, but also feeds a theme of self-serving bias. ASD is populated by characters who believe they are more intelligent than they really are, and have more control over their circumstances than they actually do. Barris, for example, can explain what’s wrong with a car or Bob’s “cephscope,” but there is no evidence he can fix these things. Later in the book, the entire group is arguing about how a supposed ten-speed bicycle can have only seven gears – an extended exchange that is captured on video by hidden “holoscanners.” Medical staff take Bob/Fred in for examination after reviewing the footage:

“Just tell me,” Fred said, “was it the Lions Club speech that alerted you?”

The two medical deputies exchanged glances.

“No,” the standing one said finally. “It had to do with an exchange that was – off the cuff,” …

“Something about a stolen bicycle,” the other deputy said. “A so-called seven-speed bicycle. You’d been trying to figure out where the other three speeds has gone was that it?” Again they glanced at each other, the two medical deputies. “You felt they had been left on the floor of the garage it had been stolen from?”

“Hell,” Fred protested. “That was Charles Freck’s fault, not mine; he got everybody’s ass in an uproar talking about it. I just thought it was funny.”

This scene is one of the funniest in the book, but also shows the ambiguity of Bob/Fred’s mental health at the time. The Substance D has begun to take its toll, and the agency has caught on to it.

Besides his fears of his D habit being found out, Bob harbors an increasing paranoia about Barris. He takes Barris’ claims about his technical expertise at face value, and therefore fears his ability uncover the holoscanners and sabotage him. Furthermore, the holoscanners were set up by the agency to entrap Bob (whose identity inside the agency is hidden by the scatter suit), not Barris. Of course, Barris claims to have set up a camera himself, for any invaders of Bob’s home during an ill-fated road trip.

The one character Bob trusts is Donna, who grants him some physical intimacy but repeatedly denies him sex. Her arguments for doing this are rather crude and make up the part of ASD that hasn’t aged particularly well. Although she is a source of D tablets for Bob, he never actually witnesses her using them – although they do smoke hash together. It’s a relationship she is in control of, and she steers him into a state of emotional dependence on her as well as a chemical one on D.

Besides the surveillance and intermittent reporting to Hank, Bob’s mission includes finding a way into the mysterious New-Path clinics. His initial attempt, while still on his mission to catch Weeks, was to pose as a filthy, large-dose D-user. This ruse seems to be successful until he asks the admittance staff about Weeks, and then makes his own conclusions about the state of his efforts:

This was a drag, and he felt restless and irritable. “My buddy,” he said, “the black guy. Did he make it here? I sure hope he didn’t get picked up by the pigs on the way – he was so out of it, man, he could hardly navigate. He thought-”

“There are no one-to-one relationships at New-Path,” the girl said. “You’ll learn that.”

“Yeah, but did he make it here?” Arctor said. He could see he was wasting his time. Jesus, he thought: this is worse that we do downtown, this hassling. And she won’t tell me jack shit. Policy, he realized. Like an iron wall. Once you get into one of these place you’re dead to the world.

So it’s this moment of awareness, and not his cover being threatened, that sends him out of New-Path. It happens early in ASG, when Bob’s state of decay is still almost entirely an act. The passage also shows how a corporation is a more formidable entity than the average dealer like Weeks, or other dangerous individual like Barris. I won’t do further into the relationship between Bob, Donna and New-Path – no need to spoil the plot of the book – but it does echo a theme I’ve seen in Dick’s earlier short fiction: that of a populace trapped in a kind of compulsive consumerism. Of course, in ASG the populace is the “too smart for the straight life” counter-culture and the product is Substance D.

Out of the many Philip K. Dick novels I’ve read, I consider a handful of them to be true genre masterpieces: Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and A Maze of Death (1970). A Scanner Darkly, published in 1977, also belongs on this list. Considering that all of his famous short fiction was published in the 1950’s, PKD’s best work appears to have arisen from most, if not all, stages of his long writing career. ASD astutely mixes SF elements into an under-the-surface look at the lives connected by illicit drug use, in the general hangover felt from the reckless 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite its imperfections, it stands out today as a coherent, engrossing look into the bridge between damage to the brain and unreliability of the mind. 9/10.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron

Most of this blog covers genre fiction – I tend to leave more traditionally “serious” books to those who wish to make a career (or, at least a serious hobby) out of debating literature. However, and despite its great popular and critical impact upon publication, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) may have attained a kind of genre status over time, given how contemporary critics place it on the wrong side of enlightened opinion.

ConfessionsOfNatTurner

Random House 1st edition. wikipedia.org

The Confessions of Nat Turner deservingly won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel the year it was published, but drew critical backlash soon afterward – mainly due to Styron being a white Southerner. I became interested in the book after reading James Baldwin’s excellent Go Tell it on the Mountain and learning about Baldwin’s encouragement of Styron’s audacious work. Eventually, TCoNT was named one of the best 100 English language novels by Time magazine in 2005, but who knows if it would do so today. Time magazine had already descended into a pandering, simpering parody of itself by 2006, so I doubt it would promote Styron’s work in the face of political correctness.

Styron imagined the life, relationships and internal dialogue of Nat Turner, who led the largest and deadliest slave revolt in United States history. His story is told entirely for Turner’s perspective, from childhood as a relatively privileged house slave to the day of his execution. Styron depicts multiple evolving subcultures among the slaves and between slaves and slave-owners, drawing many disturbing parallels in how the various characters resolve their places in society. From his station inside a plantation house, for example, Turner expresses contempt for the slaves who work in the fields every day and live in squalid shacks. His kinship with the outdoor slaves grows over time, when he is forced into the same circumstances – at the apparent expense of his regard for the lives of whites (innocent or guilty of abuses).

The story also features explanations for what might have turned Turner into a killer, as well as how he managed to covertly recruit a band of fellow revolutionaries. Having learned to read, and mostly conceal his intellect from the whites who would fear him the most, he patiently taps into the frustration and rage of other slaves, especially those whose families have been broken by the constant human trafficking between Virginia and other Southern states.

The role of religious inspiration is also explored here – containing some very interesting moments where Turner divines a call to action from two atmospheric events (a solar eclipse, and maybe the effects of a Mount St. Helens eruption). He is also refused an audience by the local white minister, in a kind of obvious condemnation of a church abiding of the slave state at the time. When Turner stabs his only direct victim, a young woman who had befriended him (in her mind at least) a few years prior, she appears to express a kind of Christian forgiveness. This last scene has been used to criticize Styron, but I think it’s a reflection of Turner’s unreliable narration as a conflicted psychotic, and not a heavy-handed attempt to martyrize any of the many victims.

Any responsible description of TCoNT must include the warning that the novel is filled with descriptions of the abuse that Turner and other slaves suffered. The vile language used by the slave masters, traders and other whites – often cleverly linked with the genteel racist terms used inside the plantation houses – is pervasive. Physical and sexual crimes are committed without any sort of retribution or justice. And yet, Virginia is preferred by the slaves over the prospect of servitude in Alabama (where many are sent), a kind of industrial-scale hell on Earth created to supply cotton.

Before this book, the story of Nat Turner had been buried in obscurity, so it could be argued that Styron created one of the most successful works of historical fiction ever written. However, this story is at least as much about mental illness as it is about racism and slavery, and is assured to be uncomfortable reading for a long time to come. 9/10.

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NOTE: the Vanity Fair article linked in the first paragraph is recommended for those who are interested in the story of Styron’s novel, if not in reading the novel itself.

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Five More Books from Hard Case Crime

Continuing the tour into the Hard Case Crime catalogue, we have five more crime novels, including two from Lawrence Block that almost bookend his entire career:

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HCC grifters

Chuck Pyle cover. hardcasecrime.com

Grifter’s Game (1961), by Lawrence Block is an early noir story about a traveling con-man (the grifter) lucking into a pair of expensive suitcases at an Atlantic City hotel. Soon afterward, he also meets Mona, the bored wife of a rich businessman. When the grifter discovers a large amount of pure heroin inside the baggage, he devises a way to make off with Mona and a large sum of the businessman’s money. The violence that envelops even the quieter ends of the organized drug trade is a theme revisited in Block’s later novel A Walk Among the Tombstones. The main character is not a refined effort like Block’s famous detectives and burglars of later decades, and seems to spend an undue time lighting cigarettes and daydreaming. He also seems to be a bit too good at evading whatever consequence arise from his various deeds – spontaneous grifting wouldn’t seem to be that easy – and an ominous mob associate seems to just disappear from the book after his only appearance. However, the novel still proves to be a quick page-turner and ends in a surprisingly dark fashion. This re-discovery is the first of the Hard Case Crime books, and is a good pace-setter. 5/10.

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Boyd easy

Glen Orbik cover. hardcasecrime.com

Easy Death (2014) by Daniel Boyd is a solid crime novel describing a Christmastime armored truck robbery from multiple viewpoints. So many viewpoints, in fact, that it was difficult to identify with any of the characters on more than a superficial level. Within a single chapter they are well described, but it’s all too easy to lose track of who has what personality trait. However, the Ohio blizzard setting is memorably featured and the action carries the book in classic police-procedural fashion. There is also a richly-described climactic shootout between police and a deranged gunman holed up in a water tower. If you don’t mind some odd-fitting characters, this is a solid entry for the HCC series. 6/10.

 

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Cain cocktail

Michael Koelsch cover. hardcasecrime.com

The Cocktail Waitress (2012) by James M. Cain is a first-time publication of a manuscript by the legendary author of A Postman Always Rings Twice (for me, the perfect noir novel). This book tells the struggles of a young wife of a abusive alcoholic who dies in car crash. Left to care for a child and falling under the suspicious watch of neighbors, she starts working as a skimpily-dressed server in the cocktail bar of a local restaurant. This leads her into entanglements with more than one man, a sham marriage, and more suspicious deaths. Told from the point of view of this potential femme fatale, we are left to wonder about the truth of her recollections and hidden motives. Somewhere between a confessional and a pack of fabrications, TCW feels like a fix-up of connected novellas (in fact, the editor Charles Ardai describes the process of putting together this story from multiple sources left in Cain’s papers). Not quite the level of Cain’s best-known work, this one is still well worth reading. 7/10.

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silverberg mink

Michael Koelsch cover. hardcasecrime.com

Blood on the Mink (1962) by Robert Silverberg is a rediscovered crime novel written in the early hyper-productive phase of the science fiction grandmaster. This story features an undercover investigator of a organized counterfeit ring. The agent is impersonating a West Coast contact of the gangsters in Philadelphia, where all of the double-crossing and shooting happens, in pursuit of the highly-skilled engraver behind the fake currency. Consistent with the theme of forgery, the true identity (and perhaps, the true morality) of the agent is never revealed. Inevitably, his cover is blown, and just as inevitably, he gets entangled with the gorgeous girlfriend of the capo, a classic steak-eating tough guy. A vividly described scene of deadly retribution by the gang (shown on the cover) kicks off a frantic series of misdirections and wild hunt for the hidden engraver. Despite the feeling that Silverberg is sticking to a decades-old formula (this was actually first published in one of the last of the pulp serials), he does an impressive job with keeping you wondering what happens next. Perhaps I had some tempered expectations (I tend to think Silverberg published his best works under his own name, after 1966), but BotM is neatly plotted, surprisingly good and a definite cut above adequate. 7/10.

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Block deep blue

Glen Orbik cover. hardcasecrime.com

The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes (2015), by Lawrence Block is an original novel and perhaps an archetypical example of “Florida noir.” My only previous Florida noir experiences have been John D. MacDonald’s “Travis McGee” novels, but they share a sense of nihilism, frequent and almost random sexual encounters, and an absence of law enforcement until well after the principal characters’ fates have been decided. This novel might actually be a twisted tribute to the McGee series, with the protagonist being an introspective ex-policeman who seems to be a slave to his base urges, despite his formidable cunning. Also impressive is the manner in which the blue-eyed femme fatale reels him in. Once again, the businessman husband is the target, but Block’s approach in this one is more brutal and with significant collateral damage. Also, this is so far the dirtiest HCC book, by a considerable margin – veering into the absurd in more than one occasion. I wouldn’t care to see the main character in another novel, but stylistically, this is Block at close to the top of his game: 7/10.

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This batch of HCC titles earned consistently good marks, with no real weak or standout entries. Blood on the Mink was actually the first HCC book I ever read, and currently I pick up any that I come across. Overall, it’s a very entertaining imprint with a variety of plots and styles.

 

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Five Books from Hard Case Crime

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been dipping into the genre of crime fiction – the blanket term I’ll use to cover noir, mystery, and police procedural stories. I started with a few Jim Thompson paperbacks and the two fantastic Library of America Crime Novels anthologies, and eventually discovered the Hard Case Crime imprint.

Hard Case Crime (HCC) books are issued in paperbacks and feature original cover art in the style of the “lurid” covers of the 1940s-1970s. Not only do HCC covers match the quality and spirit (they are an exact match of the actual story, by design) of the classic paperbacks, they are often painted by the same artists, or their dedicated proteges. HCC books are either reprints of long out-of-print works by vintage crime authors, original publications by contemporary writers, or first-time printings of previously lost manuscripts. The most well-known HCC author has been Stephen King, who submitted The Colorado Kid in 2005 after being asked for a cover blurb, and Joyland in 2013. While I haven’t gotten to King’s novels yet, I’ve read ten HCC books so far and became a dedicated fan of the series.

While I would not put the HCC novels (so far) on the level of quality of the LoA anthologies, they all have been entertaining page turners. Listed below are a few comments about five HCC volumes that I’ve recently read.

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hcc_atwood

Robert McGinnis cover. hardcasecrime.com

Losers Live Longer, by Russell Atwood (2009) is an original story done in the style of vintage sleuth paperbacks. A down-on-his-luck private eye inherits a case from his retirement-age mentor, a minor legend who gets run down to open the story. What follows is a kind of a desperate trope-ridden adventure through the city, with a feeling that we’ve all seen this kind of thing before. Besides the protagonist and his deceased mentor, I didn’t get much of a feel for any of the others in a large cast of characters. Maybe it kept too faithfully to the traditions of the genre for my taste, but it ended up being a good read: 6/10.

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HCC_bloch

Arthur Suydam and Larry Schwinger covers. hardcasecrime.com

Shooting Star, by Robert Bloch (1958) is a Hollywood murder story with a femme fatale and some vintage reefer madness paranoia. We follow a private eye who needs the income to investigate, but seems in continual doubt about whether he should drop out, until (of course) we finds himself too far involved with one of the women. I chose this one because Bloch’s horror novel Psycho was such a surprisingly good book (9/10), but Shooting Star came up a bit short for me. 5/10.

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Spiderweb, by Robert Bloch (1954) was published with Shooting Star as a double volume, and is the better novel. It is a noir story about a radio personality (Eddie) who poses as a psychologist in order to con the rich and famous of Hollywood. He does this under the guidance of a mysterious immigrant (Dr. Otto) who seems to be two steps ahead of everyone else until the very end. Eddie has no medical knowledge behind his artifice, but struggles with his moral core, while Dr. Otto has knowledge and intelligence but no discernible soul. The ensuing tension between them comes to a head when Eddie refuses to completely destroy someone they had been scamming. Also, there is a woman whom Eddie falls for and tries to protect from the machinations of Dr. Otto – but she is actually  a reasonable secondary character and not merely a helpless prop.

Spiderweb really doesn’t really measure up to either Psycho or my favorite carnival-noir story (the amazing Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham), but it is a solid read in its own way. My favorite scene is where Dr. Otto takes a skeptical Eddie on a tour of a public beach, and challenges him to choose between rejoining “normal” society or continue skimming their share from its ignorance. Bloch is not a very easy author to collect these days, but at some point I’ll get to his science fiction stories. Worth picking up. 6/10.

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HCC_Block_lucky

Chuck Pyle cover. hardcasecrime.com

Lucky at Cards, by Lawrence Block (1964) was the first Block novel that I ever read, a relatively simple noir tale of a drifter card sharp who gets entangled with the wife of one of his “marks.” The antihero Bill opens the story having just escaped Chicago with bruises and missing teeth, finding new friends (and targets) while in a dentist’s chair. Bill cannot seem to pull himself away from the scammer’s lifestyle, even as he realizes how it’s consuming him. This is made clear when he discovers Joyce (who graces the Pyle cover), a woman with a criminal past and an eye for opportunity. Joyce reels him in rather easily, and  soon Bill is pulled out his comfort zone of small-time thievery.

LaC features multiple “action” scenes describing card games where Bill plays for critically high stakes. Besides poker, Block includes gratuitous amounts of gin rummy, making it a solid entry in the “books about games” canon. There’s a sense of building action and desperation throughout what, on the surface, appears to be a formulaic potboiler. Worth checking out. 7/10.

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HCC_Block_Walk

hardcasecrime.com

A Walk Among the Tombstones, by Lawrence Block (1992) is the tenth book in the Matthew Scudder series, which follows an unlicensed private eye as he tracks murders through a very gritty New York City. HCC reissued this one with a generic-looking movie tie-in cover.

Scudder is hired by an illicit drug distributor, whose wife was first abducted on a shopping trip, held for ransom, and then returned as a cut-up corpse in the trunk of a car. While brutal, this crime fits a primary theme of the series: for various political and practical reasons, New York systematically fails to protect its women from violence. As Scudder uncovers more victims from the same perpetrators, we clearly see the weak points in the police and civic institutions. At the same time, Block effectively communicates the kind of risks imposed on mostly innocent people by the industry of trafficking drugs, even (or perhaps, especially) for those who operate quietly and nonviolently.

Of course, Scudder determines that his status outside the law makes him the best hope for bringing some justice to the killers, and he systematically tracks them down throughout the course of the novel. A few interesting secondary characters are featured along the way, as are the beginnings of the information age. At the same time, Scudder has his struggles with depression and alcoholism, continuing a character arc from the very first book in the series.

Of the ten Scudder novels I’ve read so far, AWAtT is among those that I’ve enjoyed the most, along with The Sins of the Fathers (the 1st one, 8/10), Eight Million Ways to Die (the 5th one, where Scudder really becomes a memorable character, 8/10), When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (the 6th one, and my favorite, 9/10) and Out on the Cutting Edge (the 7th one, which felt routine until the great ending, 8/10). I found other Scudder novels to be very good but a notch below these, namely: Time to Murder and Create (the 2nd one, 7/10), In the Midst of Death (the 3rd one, 6/10) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (the 9th one, 7/10). Finally, there were two entries in the series that I considered the weakest, despite featuring Block’s trademark high-quality writing: A Stab in the Dark (the 5th one, too unlikely of a resolution, 5/10) and A Ticket to the Boneyard (the 8th one, too cruel even for this kind of fiction, 4/10). In AWAtT, Block certainly pushed the limits of violence in what is arguably a mainstream but very dark crime novel, but the compelling characters and flow of action make it a standout work. 8/10.

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Obviously, Lawrence Block is the heavy-hitter in this batch of titles, but the list does sample the mix of re-discoveries and originals in the HCC imprint. While different in content and quality, they all have been entertaining genre page-turners and quality publications.

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Tom O’Bedlam by Robert Silverberg

Continuing our mini-tour through Robert Silverberg’s post-1980 novels, we have the 1985 SF epic Tom O’Bedlam, about a vagrant possessed with uncanny visions. Although I found many things to appreciate in both Gilgamesh the King and Star of Gypsies (both written as first-person memoirs), Silverberg’s more familiar third-person point-of-view a stronger way of maintaining a longer story.

TOB is told from the perspectives of Tom, the titular prophet, the leader of a “scratcher” band of murderous scavengers, a burnt-out academic and a new-age psychiatric caretaker. Besides Tom, the caretaker Elszabet is the most interesting character, providing a future post-holocaust history of the country as well as intimate descriptions of the patients and the imprecise methods used to treat them.

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Jim Burns cover for Warner. isfdb.org

Besides these characters, there are number of supplementary personalities, mainly the patients, who are themselves less interesting but flesh out the book with perspectives on artificial humans, sexuality and organized religion. Everybody at some point becomes afflicted with powerful “space dreams” that impart both visions into alien worlds and troublesome fugue states. A large number of people are inspired to join a new-age cult in pursuit of these visions, embarking on an enormous pilgrimage from the urban centers of Southern California northward.

Elszabet and colleagues puzzle over the persistence of these dreams inside their Mendocino sanctuary-retreat, which lies in the path of the chaotic pilgrimage. Eventually, Tom finds his way to Elszabet, who is then charged with finding the meaning of his contagious visions.

The best parts of the story focus on the dogged efforts of the medical staff to solve the problems of their patients while the last of the post-civilized world collapses around them. It’s clear that having the professional role of doctor or researcher is critical to these people, even as their actual place in the world is diminished as civilization collapses around them. This is a theme we see in other Silverberg works, like Hawksbill Station and Nightwings.

The subplots are brought together at the end of the novel in a logical but dramatic manner – provided we accept the premise of an actual rapture being somehow possible. The troubles associated with the psychiatric treatments reflect a hangover from the old “New Wave” enthusiasm for inner-space science and neurotechnology – Silverberg is basically saying that we will never have the time to figure out our own brains. All told, it is a skillful novel of a struggle between hope and despair, the final battle after the rest of the world is used up. 8/10.

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