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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.