I stocked up on some quick-to-read crime fiction this month, with plenty of Hard Case Crime volumes and a couple books out of the Parker series. It seems I stumbled across some below-average examples of both: Westlake definitely created a different Parker in some his other books, and two of the HCC books were just not to my liking. However, Charles Williams’ A Touch of Death made up for a lot, so I’ll keep going with HCC. I also managed to read two famous SF works from the decades past: Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (1967) is known as one of the classic science fiction novels of the 1960s – and largely deserves that reputation. Maybe it’s not easy for everyone to get into, but it manages to ask big questions while driving a complex story forward. Reviewed here. 8/10
A Touch of Death by Charles Williams (1953) is the best of the Hard Case Crime series, so far. If I ever put together a Mount Rushmore-style list of femme fatale characters from the HCC imprint, Mrs. Madelon Butler will certainly have a place. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a classic noir novel. Reviewed here. 9/10
The Very Good
Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973) is another famous and award-winning science fiction novel, often called the archetypical example of “hard SF.” A mysterious, planet-sized cylinder enters the solar system in a comet-type orbit, rapidly swinging close to the sun. On the way, the people of the near future (having spanned humanity’s reach from Mercury to the moons of Saturn) send the spaceship Endeavor to meet and explore this alien vessel (the Rama of the title). There’s some interesting explanations of the workings of Rama, along with speculation on what kind of intelligent life would be able to construct such a thing. However, the Endeavor crew and their UN-like board of superiors seemed to lack something – perhaps being more or less the typical Golden Age-type of genre characters made them too familiar. I felt it bog in the last third, even with the descriptions of a continually unfolding world inside the satellite. Other readers who are more dedicated fans of hard SF will likely regard it very highly. 7/10
Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler (1977) is the second entry in her “Patternist” series, telling the origin story of the psychically-linked men and women. Mary is the latest prodigal offspring of Doro, a being who can prolong his life my stealing the bodies of normal humans. Doro is at least many hundreds of years old, possibly of alien origin, and is almost certainly a monster in many ways. I found this character fascinating, as Mary attempts to understand his morals and motivations as a step in successfully rebelling against him. As an individual, Doro is practically invulnerable – he kills off the offspring of his deemed too dangerous, for good measure – but Mary has discovered a way to recruit other psychics and tap into their resources. The whole matter of telepathy is hand-wavy, which given my background in neuroscience, is far preferable than any attempt at explanation. More importantly, Butler tells the story of two individuals who feel it necessary to exploit others, while maintaining a familial relationship with them. The concept of “greater good” is seriously challenged here, making MoMM a recommended title, even if some of the plot seems to be repeating itself in the second half. 7/10
Coward’s Kiss by Lawrence Block (1961, also called Death Pulls a Doublecross) is an early detective novel by my current favorite high-output author of crime fiction. Like Grifter’s Game, it features a main character who probably figures things out a little too easily, this time a well-to-do private eye. He agrees to help his brother-in-law by removing a corpse from a Manhattan apartment, managing to be spied doing so by everyone but the authorities.
Block never really convincingly establishes why this resourceful sleuth agrees to go through so much trouble – he’s not desperate for money and he clearly never trusts or respects his brother-in-law. The secondary characters range from the interesting (the private eye’s girlfriend) to the cardboard-thin (the doctor brother-in-law, and the mobster goons), which is understandable given the amount of plot twists crammed into a rather small dime novel. Not too bad, for the genre and the time period. 5/10
A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block (1961) is a Hard Case Crime title that focuses on the hipster enclave of Greenwich Village. Drug use and murder drive the plot of this tight little book. Reviewed here. 6/10.
Borderline by Lawrence Block (1962) has far worse problems with the way it consumes its female characters for the purposes of the genre. So far, it’s my least favorite of the Hard Case Crime series. Really uncomfortable reading – reviewed here. 3/10.
361 by Donald Westlake (1962) is a title in the Hard Case Crime series. It’s a pretty good example of an underdog protagonist attempting to get to the bottom of the killing of his father. I reviewed it in this list. 6/10
The Hunter by Donald Westlake (1962) is the first of the Parker series, and the two-fisted thief is definitely very rough around the edges here. Having been double-crossed by his partner after a successful burglary, and shot in the stomach by his own wife, Parker punches his way through a series of tough-guy scenes. His weasel of a partner has tried to shelter himself with The Outfit, a sophisticated national ring of organized criminals.
The plot might seem too silly to turn into a good book, but Westlake (writing as Richard Stark, for those of you with a library card) pens a compelling narrative. It must be said that the women in this story go through a terrible time, almost as if there’s some metaphysical law in Parker’s/Stark’s universe that requires severe punishment for whatever sins they committed. Parker is definitely not nearly the likable character of the later books, but his taking apart of The Outfit at the edges is fun to watch. 6/10
The Jugger by Donald Westlake (1965) is the sixth of the Parker series, where Parker investigates the death of his only friend in the world, the retired bank-robber (or “jugger”) Joe Scheer. Scheer had been his link to the outside world, who would screen opportunities for Parker without blowing his cover. Unfortunately, retirement has somehow turned the Jugger into a scared old man, and someone has been trying to extract money and information from him. Parker travels to a small town in Nebraska to discover not only a greedy local police captain, but some other hangers-on looking for a rumored bundle of cash.
Better defined as a capable, tough and frequently-exasperated professional thief by this point in the series, Parker undergoes some uncharacteristic self-reflection. His thoughts include a complaint about Scheer’s failure to follow a “code,” as well as a reiteration as to why he’s in Nebraska in the first place. It’s odd that such words were spent on explicit descriptions of Parker’s motivation. Westlake himself was not satisfied with The Jugger, and these out-of-place moments may have arrived courtesy of an editor’s notes. Opinion of this book – mostly a breeze to digest and clearly written, of course – will likely hinge on whether the reader, after going through some of the previous books, is convinced that Parker operates by some explicit ethical standard. I’m not, and I think The Jugger suffers from inconsistency. 5/10
Gun Work by David J. Schow (2006) is another Hard Case Crime book that does not fit into the typical “procedural” or “noir” patterns of the series. Not only does its prose meet the high standard of HCC, but its story and attention to unusual details makes it unique. The negatives include nakedly gratuitous violence and a stapled-on ending. Summarized in more detail here. 4/10