Two (technically three) more Hard Case Crime books; Max Allan Collins lives up to his reputation, and I finally find a Hard Case Crime book I can’t glowingly endorse. (There’s always at least one.) Hard Case Crime continues to dominate the market for classic pulp/noir mysteries, crime, and adventure novels; they’re up to 67 announced books, including a number of big names in the field (Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ed McBain). If there was anything I would change about the company, I’d switch up their production to more than one book a month, but that’s just me being greedy.
Originally published as two books (Bait Money and Blood Money) with a near-simultaneous release in 1973, Two For The Money compiles slightly altered 1981 editions of the two into a single book. Collins himself says they make the most sense together in the afterword, making a single volume out of the first two books of Collins’ noteworthy antihero Nolan. The novel(s) are well-rounded, fast-paced, and tightly knit; Collins is a master of dialogue and description, even at the age of twenty-five (these are his first published books, by the way), and makes true hardboiled novels with a side of humor. In the end, they make one great read; it has some minuscule flaws, especially when you’re chewing your way through the second helping, but this volume is entertaining and engaging. I couldn’t put it down even if I wanted to.
In Bait Money, Nolan is on the run from the mob, having left the organization after killing the brother of higher-up mafioso Charlie and making off with his money. Aging and looking to retire from his life of crime, Nolan attempts a deal with one of his remaining mob connections, and Charlie makes him a bargain: pay $100,000 in under a week. So, to pay off Charlie, Nolan sets off on the quintessential Last Big Heist, along with Jon, the nephew of his info contact, and some other amateurs. It’s a wonderful experiment in watching crime happen, with some great planning and a lot of lead-up. Normally, this can be a seriously tedious exercise, but Collins manages to make it work through some reoccurring characters and a cast of trouble: an ex-football star turned Mafia hitman, the angered doorman of Nolan’s last contact, and a lot of sex, drugs, and drama between the amateurs.
Blood Money picks up shortly after the first book ends; one of the more important secondary characters from the first book is offed, and the killer makes off with a lot of Nolan’s retirement fund. Now, it’s time for revenge; Nolan begins tracking down the killer, only to find out that he’s not the only one searching. It’s got less planning, more action, and a slightly slower start, even with the aforementioned killing and robbing. Blood Money has a notable amount of exposition compared to the first book, and by now some of Collins’ (early?) stylistic choices begin to show up in full force (starting a chapter with a scene only to divulge into exposition of how the characters got to that scene while said characters eat a sandwich, which seems to happen about every other chapter). It’s a little weaker than the first book, and the various “big reveals” aren’t as big or revealing as one would hope, but in the end the book is still solid.
Lawrence Block has a great reputation for crime/noir/mystery readers, so I decided I’d start off the summer by randomly pulling one of his books off my shelf. I ended up with A Diet of Treacle, originally published as Pads are for Pleasure or something inane like that, which is one of his earlier books. Originally meant as a trashy, sleazy paperback, the book is too tame to do anything truly scandalous, ending up as a modernized love story in the vein of West Side Story (aka Romeo and Juliet), only stripped down to the floorboards.
The book follows three main characters around in the swingin’ world of late-1950s Greenwich Village hipsters. First is Joe, mentally scarred Korean War vet who spends his days doing as little as possible and smoking pot. Next up is his roommate Shank, who (if you couldn’t surmise from his name) is the psychopathic crazy of the book, making his money by selling drugs and robbing/raping people. Third is Anita, the stereotypical “good girl” who leaves her pre-determined life (idealized suburban white-collar Americana circa 1960, thanks for asking) to go slumming in the Village, where she falls for Joe. She moves in with the two and tries to be “hip.” After a lengthy start which made me wonder if I was reading an anti-beatnik marijuana morality tale, Shank finally lives up to the front cover and murders a detective who decided to reappear at the worst possible time.
The book’s flaws are serious, starting with the underdeveloped plot, underdeveloped characters, and slow pacing. Worst of all, Block breaks the golden rule of writing—Show Don’t Tell—in a hard, ugly, downright painful way. The book slows down into long periods of telling, stopping frequently at Exposition Junction, and becomes a real drag in the first two halves. One entire chapter consists of Joe’s introspection; needless to say it was boring as hell, so I skimmed it. The point-of-view is third-person omniscient, jumping between the three without any hint that we’ve switched characters and back again, making it hard to tell them apart. Namely because the characters are mostly underdeveloped; Shank is the strongest, and easily unlikable, but Joe and Anita were so two-dimensional and stereotypical I couldn’t really care about them.
A Diet of Treacle is a fast and effortless read—I finished it in two short sessions—with an interesting idea and a lot of problems. I can’t say I’ve ever disliked a Hard Case Crime, but this one sure disappointed me. Much like with Killing Castro, Block proves he’s got talent; his dialogue is sharp, Anita’s transformation is done well, and when the book really opens up, it goes places… the idea is definitely there. The ending and last third of the book, combined with the Alice in Wonderland quote, is solid gold, a fantastic idea. But, what could have worked wonders as a short story is too bloated and sagging as a novel. Judging by reviews, a lot of people love this one, and an equal number of people hate it, so YMMV.