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.
I read the first three of these, and while I enjoyed them I’d agree that they’re not on the same page as the LoA picks… I started out reading a lot of HCC books, I think my favorites were the David Goodis and Charles Williams (which are great if you like the savagely despondent Jim Thompson school of noir), and the one by Wade Miller (though it’s a bit weak and cliche compared to their other works).
If you did enjoy Jim Thompson, then I cannot under-emphasize the excellent Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze. It’s been described as “beyond perfection”, which I think is a bit hyperbolic… but it’s definitely one of the best of its kind.
And it sounds like you’ve discovered that the Lawrence Block volumes are some of the gems in the HCC line, but I have to say, his Borderline was hands-down my least-favorite HCC.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Should say “I’ve read the first four of these,” not first three. Ah well.
I do plan to keep going with both HCC and Block. What intrigues me about the the HCC back-catalogue are some names that aren’t necessarily famous for crime fiction – Hamill, Smartt Bell, Fuller, and (of course) Silverberg – but are known for other works.
Pingback: Three Donald Westlake titles from Hard Case Crime | gaping blackbird
Pingback: After the First Death, by Lawrence Block | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Stop This Man, by Peter Rabe | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Sinner Man, by Lawrence Block | gaping blackbird
Pingback: The Girl With the Long Green Heart, by Lawrence Block | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Killing Castro, by Lawrence Block | gaping blackbird
Hadn’t seen this before. I tried reading the Scudders, but when I reached Eight Million Ways to Die, I felt like “If this is the best the series has to offer, I’m not that interested.” When it comes to series characters, he’s not in Westlake’s league–whereas when it comes to one-shot characters, particularly grifters of some kind, he can easily rival Westlake, sometimes outdo him. Maybe I’ll give Scudder another try sometime.
Lucky At Cards was a 1964 sleaze paperback, written under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord–far better than any comparable novel in that vein Westlake wrote that I’ve seen. It’s just a great little crime novel with a few extra sex scenes thrown in–and all of them are important to the story, develop character, create motivation. I don’t think Westlake ever gave his all when writing sleazes–he was holding back, in spite of some interesting stylistic exercises. Block tackled the same material with gusto and élan. Maybe the best sleaze book anyone ever wrote, but how could you ever know for sure?
[ed.: fixed italics]
LikeLiked by 1 person
I seem to have liked the Scudder books more, probably due to my fascination with the workings of alcoholism. That, and other forms of substance abuse, was the disease I studied for several years as a post-doc researcher (before I finally decided to get back into software). So, I suppose for me alcoholism is the recurring “character” for me as Scudder is.
As for Lucky at Cards, it certainly seems to be Block’s best out of that “sleaze” era. I’ve been thinking about going back to it, for its high-stakes gin rummy scene. Barry Malzberg also wrote several (well, maybe many) sleaze books, a few of which have a cult-literary reputation. They’ve been very scarce for decades, but Starkhouse Press is coming out with a two-book omnibus. I know Malzberg from his SF work, so I couldn’t really comment on those titles.
Shoot. Can you fix the italics? Just the title was supposed to be that way.