As my local Bargain Books had a massive half off sale this New Years’ Day, I wandered in to pick up the Hard Case Crime books I’m missing. Besides the classic noir and mystery novels from pulp era writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block, there’s also plenty of modern talent mixed in, including Stephan King and Max Allen Collins. There’s some fantastic page-turners in here, including a lot of books which can only be found under the Hard Case label.
Needless to say, I continue to read and shill their material like the rabid fanboy I am.
Honestly, I feel kinda guilty about buying these from Bargain Books for half off, but at this rate I may as well just sign up for a subscription directly, seeing as how I own 40 of the first 46 books.
From the first few pages, the novel’s dark atmosphere works as a strong hook, drawing you in through the pain-filled narrative of Joe Dunne, a narrative he relates to a passing American missionary who’s stumbled into the Mexican seaside village Dunne has “retired” to. The atmosphere is enhanced not only by Dunne drowning his sorrows on the lam, however; it starts with the back cover blurb about the plot.
Three young college students go missing in Mississippi while working on voter registration, and the father of one of them hires Dunne to find proof of their death, and then to bring back proof of their killers’ are dead. If that’s not a heavy concept I don’t know what is, considering the politically-charged implications of the real event which occurred just a few years previous. (To be fair, this is not as political as you might think; it’s a PI mystery/thriller through and through.) Dunne’s in this one for the big money, planning on retiring in Mexico after he finishes this job, and ends up taking his assistant Kirby with him as part of his cover. The fact Kirby comes from the deep south herself is a strong asset.
The book’s faults lies with its pacing—the mystery works at a snail’s pace, with clever and methodical planning eating up the vast majority of the story. When the action does come, it’s brief, almost anti-climactic, and the “shock ending” mentioned on the back cover is almost cruel in its random arrival. However, the writing is strong—incredibly so. The characterizations and Dunne’s monologue-narrative are brilliant, both tangible and interesting, a pervasiveness which drives the reader on to finish Dunne’s tale.
Rifkin’s writing, through the persona of Dunne, is amazing, drawing the reader in while introducing interesting new characters, something befitting the slower pacing. His attention to detail, and Dunne’s persona, are amazing as he runs through the PI setting up his investigatory plans and backup-plans. In short, while the mystery is thinly hidden, at least Rifkin’s engaging enough to make the drawn-out revelations palatable to the reader.
By comparison, 361 is a terse little book which hits hard and fast, and doesn’t let up until you’ve run out of pages. Ray Kelly gets out of the Air Force, and prepares to enter civilian life again. All that changes when his life is thrown upside-down; after his father arrives to take him home, a car drives up next to theirs and opens fire. Waking up in the hospital to find he’s lost an eye and a father, Ray and his brother Bill prepare to serve vengeance on the unknown killers.
It sounds so straightforward, but Westlake has plenty of surprises up his sleeve. Just when you think you know what’s coming next, the rug is pulled out from under you with a rapid surprise. In some cases, Westlake builds up the feeling of straightforwardness so expectations set in, right before he drops another surprise in your lap. Heck, the first chapter is a great example—things are going fairly smoothly, perhaps even a bit dully, until the last page, where Ray very calmly reports the car driving up and his father’s death. It’s a marvelous effect, keeping the reader on their toes and keeping the plot rapidly flexible.
This is what you should think of when words like “hardboiled,” “mystery,” and “thriller” are tossed around. It’s a perfect revenge tale, the story of a man with everything taken from him trying to get back at those who wronged him. The action doesn’t really slow down, as there are plenty of fistfights and gunfights, near-escapes and frightfully random twists, all at a breakneck pace. Westlake uses a lot of short, choppy sentences, which adds to the speedy pacing; it doesn’t hurt that it charts in at just over two-hundred pages.
It’s a grim story that doesn’t cut any corners, full of twists and turns. Not only is it a fast read, but it’s also highly enjoyable. It, like most of the other Hard Case offerings, doesn’t push any envelopes or expand the boundaries. But it’s a book that grips you and demands to be finished. And, really, who could ask for anything more.