While digging around the Bargain Books in the mall, I stumbled upon a couple of paperbacks with some amazing pulp-noir crime covers. There was just something familiar about them, I thought, as I hastily assembled a collection of the most interesting novels. These things really fit the bill—beautiful women, men in trench coats, guns, cars with fins. Even the fonts were perfectly retro, flashbacks to the ’50s or ’70s. They even had a little yellow logo with a pistol that reminds me of the old Fawcett Gold Medal line,.
After I arrived home with my sack of twenty of them, I remembered where I’d seen them before. Hard Case Crime really broke to the surface when Stephen King penned a new one called “The Colorado Kid;” with this star power behind them, Hard Case Crime gained enough media attention to pop into several Google searches for pulp novel covers I’d been making. While I’d somehow missed “The Colorado Kid” and some of the others I’d found while Googling, I’d re-discovered a growing underground publisher focusing on reprinting classic crime pulps and publishing modern noir-style talent. And man, was I glad I found them at the Bargain Books.
So far, I’ve only read through a couple novels out of the sack, though I’m pretty enthused so far. The cover price is $7 each, though the Bargain Books has them for $3, and Amazon has them on their 4-for-3 deal. There’s even an annual deal where you get a book a month at half off, and some books have ads for the first year’s run for something like $50. So there’s plenty of ways to get a hold of them. I’ll post more mini-reviews as I go through the things.
Dodge wrote “To Catch a Thief,” one of my favorite Hitchcock flicks, and the similarities show through the pacing and character development. All of the characters are well-rounded, especially the female characters, and you get a fairly good idea of all the characters as the novel proceeds. This combines well with the betrayals, as the protagonist ends up crossed and double-crossed at every twist and turn. The story is a tight-knit little yarn of priceless treasure hidden in the ruins of South America and the assortment of treasure-hunters out to find it. Detective Al Colby is hired to carry a parcel via ship from Chile to Peru, a cake-walk task since he has to hold onto the parcel for ten days and return it once the ship docks in Peru. Only his employer dies mysteriously on the voyage. Investigating further, Colby realizes that the parcel may not have been as innocent as was claimed. From there, it’s a mad chase through exotic scenery to see who ends up with the treasure, with alliances shifting and forming all the way.
Reading through the story is a joy. There’s a real sense of mystery here, and the narrative twists and turns its way around a skillfully complex plot as a myriad of characters, each with their own motives. Quick-paced and never dull, I found little to complain about with this one. There’s plenty of mystery, plenty of danger, and it’s all set in an exotic South American setting, complete with a firm authorial authenticity regarding the setting. Highly recommended, and a good start to things.
The setting to this one interested me most: reporter Sam Briscoe passes by Ireland en route to Switzerland to see his daughter, interviews an IRA leader for a quick St. Patrick’s Day piece, and agrees to pass a sealed envelope on to a barkeeper back in New York. Only, as the bar erupts minutes after he leaves, Briscoe finds that his life, and the life of his daughter, may indeed be in jeopardy. Following this is a rough-and-tumble chase through New York to uncover the truth, and save Briscoe’s daughter from harm, before these mystery bombers can finish whatever they’re doing.
To be honest, this piece had a fairly slow start, and didn’t really get off the ground until Briscoe returned to New York, despite some creepy stalkers following him and his girl in the Swiss alps. Hamill has a definite gift with his narration, which made up for the slow start, at least making things interesting. After the novel gets going, it gets going; Briscoe is quickly enmeshed in the plots, and there’s quite a bit at stake. Despite its small flaws, the book was enjoyable and a good, quick read.
Prepared and published after Spillane’s death by Max Allen Collins, this is more or less Spillane’s swan-song. The plot deals with a retiring cop whose home street and precinct are being demolished. However, he finds out that his fiance, thought dead in a botched kidnapping, is still alive in a retirement village down in Florida, so he goes to live there as her neighbor. She’s got amnesia, but deep within her mind lies the key to a larger mystery—namely, what her abductors were after when they grabbed her in the first place. At its soft nougat core, this is a love story, buried under the hard-boiled detective shell and the bodies stacked like cordwood.
This is a definitive return to the form for Spillane, and it feels like a modern-day parable for both Spillane and his older readers. While everything is updated to a modern sensibility (a computer subplot, use of cell phones, the killers wield AK’s instead of Tommy guns, etc.), there’s a definite theme of age in here. The older characters, love rekindling at retirement, the fact it also comes as a large-print hardcover, all makes it feel kind of like Cocoon for Spillane’s crime-novel readers. The characterization is surprisingly crisp, even though the plot’s not terribly complex or groundbreaking. There’s quite a number of hiccups near the end, most of which are related to the fact Spillane died before writing the last three chapters. I can’t blame Collins too much; his prose does fit Spillane’s style, while at the same time it’s notably more literate. It feels like Spillane wrote out notes for three chapters which wouldn’t fit within three chapters, so, it feels a bit uneven, bumpy, and rushed. All in all, it was enjoyable, a fluffy popcorn novel which didn’t push any envelopes and took no prisoners.
So far, I’m really liking what Hard Case Crime is putting out. A short while after I bought and read some of them, I stumbled upon a wire display stand full of old paperbacks in the basement of an antique mall, which included a copy of The Guns of Heaven. Honestly, I thought the Hard Case copy looked better, with its slick cover, amazing art, retro-style fonts, everything so perfect that the company’s creator, Charles Ardai, is reported to have even measured out the margins and leading to give things the right retro feel.
I have a lot of respect for Ardai; after making his millions with Juno Online Services (mostly known for the blue CDs you got in your mail ten years ago advertising an internet connection for $9.99 a month), Ardai went on to start up a small, independant book publisher focused on simultaneously reprinting and discovering pulp-noir crime fiction. I wish there were many more people like Ardai out there today. We need some more good ole trashy paperbacks.