The Return of Hard Case Crime

I’ve been falling down on the job in terms of Hard Case Crime reviews—it’s not that I’m not reading them, it’s that I’m not reviewing them. It’s even more important considering the company’s recent publication woes; the company’s original publisher, Dorchester Publishing, was getting out of mass-market paperbacks.

Luckily, Charles Ardai was swamped with offers from publishers. The good news: Titan Books, based in the UK, is partnering with Hard Case to continue publishing. Titan has an interesting catalog so far, featuring a lot of graphic novel properties, also publishing novelizations for the BBC dinosaur show Primeval.

The bad news: There’ll be a roughly one-year delay until new Hard Case books show up, starting in September and October 2011.

The better news:  Hard Case returns firing both barrels. Those first two books next fall are brand new, one being Quarry’s Ex, a new installment in Max Allan Collins’ series about Quarry the hitman, the other being Choke Hold, Christa Faust’s sequel to her Edgar-nominated Money Shot. The covers are already out there, and they look great.

The worse news: Hard Case is moving towards a quarterly schedule instead of monthly, so Ardai can focus on his other projects… like Haven, the TV show on Syfy he writes and produces.

Also worth note is that Hard Case is coming out with its first hardcover: Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence, by Lawrence Block. Definitely an attention-grabbing title, and Block has a great reputation in the genre… something to keep an eye on.

So, a lot of mixed news this last fall for Hard Case: they’re surviving, but cutting down the number of books. They’re also moving towards trades and hardcovers instead of just mass-market paperbacks. While I personally prefer trades, mass-market paperbacks are a staple of the genre; besides, switching formats constantly means my Hard Case library won’t match up on my shelves.

In any case, the current library of Hard Case work includes a lot of solid novels and the occasional true gem. I’m still chewing through them. For the most part, I have little complaint about the individual books and no complaints about the product line.

Read more for reviews: Hard Case revisits some of lost novels of the 1950s and 1960s with gusto and abandon. Truth be told, I got into Hard Case because of their classic reprints, though their new books have been great.

HCC 011 - Branded Woman - Wade Miller - 1952

This is a good example of the 1950s crime-noir novels Hard Case is hell-bent on reprinting. Cay Morgan elbowed her way into jewelry smuggling, a tough woman in a man’s world, and held her own for quite a while. That came to a crashing halt when one of her rivals, The Trader, had her abducted and…well, branded, as a warning to stay out of his business. Needless to say, she packs up her revolver and a hired detective and sets off to Mazatlan, hoping to track down one of The Trader’s known associates… to give The Trader one in return.

Cay is one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across—a woman protagonist, and a strong one at that. At the same time, she’s human enough to let her emotions get in the way… which proves problematic near the end of the book. As far as books go, it’s an above-average example of noir crime. The book has some good plot twists, and the development leading to the conclusion is spot on. The Mexican setting is nicely described, a sunny, tropical paradise with The Trader lurking underneath. And the characters are all great, well-rounded and developed so they all feel very human. I’m not sure that branding is as truly horrible as we’re led to believe—having just read Gun Work, where the protagonist is tortured and maimed—but I assume it was a lot more horrific back in the 1950s.

This is one of those Hard Case Crime books I ended up really liking, for no particularly great reason. It’s well-written, has a unique protagonist, and is moderately surprising, but it’s still a very basic ‘50s crime paperback, and is far from the best in the Hard Case library. Still, the fact that I really liked it has to count for something. It’s well-rounded and very above average, and one of the better crime revenge stories I’ve read, thus earning my stamp of approval.

HCC 041 - Zero Cool - John Lange - 1969

Peter Ross is a radiologist on vacation in Spain, hoping to pick up girls and relax while “attending” a big medical conference. This is cut short when he agrees to do an autopsy, which he’s not qualified for, and discovers that the dead guy has… something… stuck inside him. Of course, everyone else wants that thing in the dead guy—the “artifact” macguffin—and want Ross, because they think he’s working for one of the other sides. Now he’s caught in a three-way crossfire, dodging rival gangs on his way to staying alive. Oh, he also meets up with the beautiful Angela Locke (the hottie on the cover reading Lange’s other Hard Case Crime, Grave Descend, one of the few I don’t own), who gets embroiled in the mess with him.

I have to say, this book is incredibly cinematic: between the flow, the characters, and the plot, it has “Hollywood thriller” written all over it. (It also follows a key rule of writing: show me a gun and, sometime during the book, it has to go off. Once the characters get to the Alhambra, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The pace is breakneck; I literally picked the book up and read it over a Saturday afternoon because I couldn’t put it down. And there are more twists and turns than in a knot of yarn. Characters turn out to be double agents, small groups turn out to be working for other groups, and most of them have a habit of winding up dead sooner or later. This is a book that doesn’t slow down and never lets go.

There’s only two problems with this book. First, the author added a prologue and epilogue, Ross narrating this story to his grandkids, as a framing device. (I know they’re new because they reference DVD players.) These are unnecessary, since it’s not a great segue into the book, and all it tells us is that Ross survives. (They get a little creepy when you realize Ross is telling his grandkids about all those pre-mom “relationships” he had…) The second problem is bigger, but less annoying: the plot rolls all over Europe, through Barcelona to Paris to Grenada, but there’s really no feel for the setting. At all. Besides a few vague descriptions, there’s really nothing to grab onto…a letdown, considering these are gorgeous, evocative places we’re talking about. To nitpick some more, the ending is flimsy, and while it’s a zippy little book, everything takes a backseat to moving forward, so don’t expect deep characterization or anything. Instead, expect plot holes.

Lange is actually the pseudonym for a fairly well-known writer—not one you’d expect, but one you can find with a little bit of Googling. And oddly, that surprised the hell out of me, since this book is like nothing else of his that I’ve read. Zero Cool has a number of small flaws, but it’s one of the most enjoyable Hard Case books so far. It’s fast and furious entertainment, which makes up for a lot of the small flaws.

Shooting Star/Spiderweb – Robert Bloch

HCC 042 - Shooting Star/Spiderweb - Robert Bloch - 1958/1954

I wish more people would do doubles or flip books. I have to imagine they’re a bitch to make, printing half a book upside-down and all, and they’re a niche market, but nothing screams retro like a flip book. In this case, the Hard Case people decided to take two of Robert Bloch’s early works, both set around Hollywood, and make a double out of them. As you probably already know, Bloch is the guy who wrote Psycho, was the youngest member of the Lovecraft Circle, won a Hugo, a Bram Stoker Award, a World Fantasy Award, and served as president of the Mystery Writers of America. In short, he’s a total badass and great writer, specializing in weird horror and crime mysteries.

Shooting Star follows one-eyed private dick Mark Clayburn. He’s hired by his old pal Harry Bannock to clear the name of a murdered western star, because Bannock owns the TV syndication rights to the guy’s films. So Clayburn has to solve the guy’s murder, and point out how he didn’t smoke reefers at all. (This was probably a lot more relevant in the 1950s.) Opening up the investigation again causes all sorts of trouble to come out of the woodwork, and when more people end up murdered, Clayburn’s own life is at stake, and nobody wants to talk about the dead guy other than to say he smoked a lot of pot.

The book has a serious reefer madness, anti-drug paranoia; I can’t remember the last Hollywood celebrity whose career was cut short because they smoked a couple of joints. That’s not a serious flaw, however; it’s a product of the mid-1950s after all. The flaw is that the book’s just a simple detective tale: Clayburn investigates, people die, he ends up solving the crime, and nobody goes home happy. Of course, coming from Bloch, the writing is top notch, especially the dialogue, and the narration from Clayburn. What we’re left with is a well-written, but overly straightforward Hollywood Detective tale. It fit the bill, but left me wanting more.

Spiderweb, by contrast, follows Eddie Haines. He came to Hollywood to become an announcer (…), but things never panned out. With no leads, and no money, he finds himself staring into a mirror with a straight razor in hand when he’s “saved” by The Professor, Otto Hermann. This shady character is a schemer, developing a confidence act to trick personal secrets out of Hollywood stars in order to blackmail them. To do this, he needs Haines’ vocal talents. Soon enough, Haines is a sham psychologist counseling starlets, but he falls for a woman, his conscience rears its head, and he wants out. The Professor has incriminating evidence on him, however, but as The Professor’s plans escalate into extortion and murder, Haines begins to plan for himself.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot from Spiderweb, especially since it got the bar code while Shooting Star got the scantily-clad woman with a gun. But Spiderweb managed to deliver in a hard way, blowing my preconceptions away. It’s clearly the more entertaining of the two, a great psychological thriller. The plot isn’t terribly original—guy gets into crime, conscience appears, does the right thing, gets out of crime and takes dirty money with him. But what makes it work is the unique setup (fake shrinks blackmailing people) and the characters. The Professor is truly eerie as you see some flashes of a demented madman underneath his veneer of civility. Bloch’s writing is still exceptional, making Spiderweb a solidly entertaining read, making up for any of Shooting Star‘s flaws.

2 thoughts on “The Return of Hard Case Crime

  1. Broke my heart when the paperbacks stopped coming in my mailbox… anyway, good news and looking forward to the new ones when they (finally) appear. Still have plenty of holes in my pb collection to fill in!


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