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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pingback: September reads – a list | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Three Donald Westlake titles from Hard Case Crime | gaping blackbird
Pingback: October reads – a list | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Passport to Peril, by Robert Bogardus Parker | gaping blackbird
Pingback: Now Wait For Last Year, by Philip K. Dick | gaping blackbird
Pingback: The Girl With the Long Green Heart, by Lawrence Block | gaping blackbird
Pingback: The Last Stand, by Mickey Spillane | gaping blackbird