Tag Archives: Hard Case Crime

Grave Descend by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

Hard Case Crime just added several early Michael Crichton novels to its canon, written between 1966 and 172 when Crichton was attending Harvard Medical School and moonlighting with these thrillers written under the pseudonym John Lange. And here’s a list of those titles:

Odds On (1966)

Scratch One (1967)

Easy Go (1968)

Zero Cool (1969)

The Venom Business (1970)

Drug of Choice (1970)

Grave Descend (1970

Binary (1972)

Zero Cool and Grave Descend are both re-issues for Hard Case Crime, while the other six titles are new to this publisher. Crichton was re-editing the Lange titles and preparing them for Hard Case Crime at the time of his death in 2008.

Grave descendAt 166 pages, Grave Descend is a slim thriller, a quick read that demands little from the reader and with very little down time. The story’s central figure is 39-year-old diver James McGregor who’s hired by a shady insurance company representative to dive off the coast of Jamaica, into hammerhead shark country, and retrieve a safe and a statue from a sunken yacht. The name of the yacht … Grave Descend.

McGregor, who’s lived in Kingston for 14 years, gets a call from a guest at the prestigious Plantation Inn located at Ocho Rios.

McGregor hated Ocho Rios. Once a beautiful and elegant strip of coastline, it was now a long succession of gaudy hotels, ratty nightclubs, stud services and steel-band discos, all patronized by hordes of vacous tourists who were seeking something a little more expensive but no different from Miami Beach.

I don’t know about you, but I always find it a bit creepy when tourists hang out in a luxury resort with guards posted at the entrance to keep out the natives. But it’s to this resort that McGregor drives in order to meet Mr. Wayne, an insurance representative  who flew into Kingston following the news that the yacht Grave Descend sank with little warning near to a reef, three-quarters of a mile off-shore. Luckily the six crew members, and a female passenger, Monica Grant survived. The plot thickens with the news that Monica is the mistress of the yacht owner, Robert Wayne, the brother of the insurance company representative, and that the yacht, insured for over 2 million dollars, appeared to sink after an explosion.

A few simple questions lead McGregor to the conclusion that no-one is telling the truth, but curious and also happy to earn a generous finder’s fee, McGregor agrees to dive with his partner down to the yacht, right in hammerhead country….

With brief scenes of ratty bars and desperate middle-aged tourists looking to score at the island’s many tacky nightspots, the book does a nice job of showing the two worlds: sharks in the water and sharks above. Which way do you choose to go?

He waited a moment, the upended, kicking down, following the narrow beam of the flashlight, which was yellow near the source but faded to green and the blue as it went deeper. In the light of the lamp, the thousands of undersea microcreatures shone like dust beneath the water, scattering the light.

As he went down, the water turned colder; he checked his gauge; it was twenty-five feet. His beam had still not reached the bottom. He went down, with the receiver around his neck beeping louder and louder.

The ocean around him was noisy. It was something you noticed on a night dive–the sea was alive with night creatures, eating and clicking with a strange, almost mechanical sound, like a bank of electronic relays far off.

While it is undoubtedly a coup for the publisher to land these 8 titles, I would like to see Hard Case Crime return to crime–resurrected vintage or fresh, lean and mean. I’d put Grave Descend more into thriller territory than crime–although of course there are crimes aplenty here, but they’re surrounded by adventure, sharks, diving, explosions, double crossing, and a couple of bikini-clad babes.

Review copy.

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Filed under Crichton Michael, Fiction

Joyland by Stephen King

First the disclaimer: I am not a Stephen King fan, and that’s mainly because I’m not a reader of horror fiction, but Joyland is a Hard Case Crime title, and I’m Hard Case fan. I mention not being a Stephen King fan because he is a popular author and while I’m sure that Joyland is going to attract new readers, I can’t say how this book compares to his other work. While I’d never read a Stephen King novel, I’ll admit to a mild curiosity due to the fact that I have watched and enjoyed a number of films based on his work. The films I’ve seen frequently explore the themes of innocence vs evil, youth and the loss of innocence, the layers beneath small town American life, and, all this of course, often laced with the supernatural.

JoylandJoyland is narrated by a man in his 60s who recalls events that took place forty years earlier. There’s a great deal of nostalgia in the telling of this tale–not just for lost youth, but also for lost love, lost ideals, and even for a lost America. This is a quintessential American novel, and by that I mean that you can’t read it and imagine that it is taking place anywhere else. At the same time, King presents an America that never really existed. The story is set in a small seaside town called Heaven’s Bay. It’s 1973 and 21-year-old virgin, Devin Jones, takes a job working at a carnival, Joyland for the summer:

1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edwin G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.

See what I mean about the nostalgia? It’s hard these days to imagine a time when anyone imagined that politicians were anything other than ____, ____, _____, ____ (fill in the blanks), but back in the day, a number of people were genuinely shocked about Watergate. Notice how the author weaves in several issues is that little sentence: petrol rationing, concerns about energy, unrest in the Middle East, political crookery, and rather interestingly, the death of one of the acting greats who immortalized the portrayal of gangsters on the screen.

So our protagonist, Devin, separated from his long-time girlfriend for the summer, takes a job at Joyland–a low rent seaside carnival, owned by an old-school idealistic owner who believes in treating his employees and customers well, and here’s his pep talk for employees:

This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don’t already know that will come to know it. Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here.

King is not a subtle writer, but then again I think many of the moves he makes here are very deliberate. The place names are so obvious, you trip over them: Joyland, Heaven’s  Bay, Heaven Beach, but these very obvious elements to the story are matched by elements that are not so screamingly obvious. The carnival workers, for example, are a motley bunch, and no one seems to be quite who they say they are.

Devin, that clean-cut American boy, so clean-cut that he’s a virgin and drinks milk, takes a room at  Mrs Shoplaw’s Beachside Accomodations. She’s an interesting woman who is generous, kind, and welcoming to her summer lodgers–again there’s that sense of a world that doesn’t exist. It’s Mrs. Shoplaw who tells Devin about the ghost that haunts Joyland’s Horror House, the ghost of a girl who was brutally murdered on the ride–her throat slit and her body dumped beside the tracks. The murder was never solved. There’s  something very innocent about Devin, and sometimes innocence is a protection and at other times it’s a liability. Devin, of course, becomes involved in the old murder case while also losing that innocence and finally accepting some truths about his life.

Joyland is an unusual title for Hard Case Crime. It’s not hard-boiled, but crimes are committed, and because this is, after all, Stephen King, there’s a supernatural element to the tale. I’ve read reviews of the book that call it a masterpiece, and while I wouldn’t go that far, nonetheless, I’m glad I read it. After watching many Stephen King film adaptations, Joyland is about what I expected with its theme of the power of the good against the power of evil. The transition to adulthood is a dodgy period in which an individual can make any number of bad choices, but in Devin’s case, he repeatedly does good deeds and takes a definite stand against evil. The penultimate scene is presaged by Devin’s actions within the park, and incidents in which he doesn’t think, he acts. Each of these incidents are seemingly unconnected, but in reality, in a mystical sort of way, Devin is repeatedly tested by fate and with each incident, his aura of goodness strengthens for the moment of his final battle. As odd as this may sound, I thought about King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and how the knights had to sally forth on quests that basically became the moral measure of each man. The story’s nostalgia is nicely conveyed with Devin still not quite come to terms with the people he met and lost, so consequently the story is laced with a patina of loss and sadness.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, King Stephen

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has written a number of Nathan Heller novels which focus on real events, including the assassination of Huey Long, the Black Dahlia murder, and the Lindbergh kidnapping. In common with the Nathan Heller series, The Seduction of the Innocent, is also inspired by true events. Collins explains, however, that while the Heller books “hew religiously to actual events” he opted to take a different tack with this latest release from Hard Case Crime, and if you read the book, it’s easy to see why (more of that later). In his latest novel, Collins appears to have a lot of fun with his characters, and as a result, The Seduction of the Innocent is laced with the sort of humour that reminds me of Donald Westlake.

seduction of the innocentMeshing fact and fiction into a perfect blend, the novel centres on the comic book industry–specifically our narrator Jack Starr, part owner of The Strip Joint, a Manhattan restaurant that’s just one part of the Starr Syndicate’s business concerns. Stripper Maggie Starr, known professionally as Libidia Von Stackpole, is Jack’s sexy stepmother who is the brains of the operation, and since she owns 75 % of the Starr Syndicate, she’s also his boss. The Starr Syndicate is also involved in the comic book business, and that’s a prickly business to be in as comic book crusader Dr. Werner Frederick  has made it his mission to clean up comic books and their perceived bad influence on children. Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs is getting a lot of press in a society in which censorship and blacklisting are the results of the vicious, paranoid politics of the times, and with a grand jury investigation about to begin, those within the comic book industry are feeling a lot of pressure. With tempers running high, a murder occurs, and the killer left a calling card which implicates that this is a crime committed by someone in the comic book biz. Jack Starr steps up to investigate, and along the way he tangles with a few colourful characters and a very sexy dame.

On one level, this is a great pulp story, full of eccentric and sometimes badly behaved characters: there’s Will Allison, a promising young artist, Bob Price, a comic book publisher who naively believes that testifying before the grand jury will help argue his cause, luscious artist Lyla Lamont and her abusive boyfriend, Pete Pine, and sexy psychologist, Sylvia who admits to mixed feelings about Dr. Frederick. While she disagrees strongly with Frederick’s position on comic book censorship, she admires other aspects of his career.

While Seduction of the Innocent is a great romp through the comic book scene of the 50s, it’s a lot more than that, and the novel also addresses the issue of censorship with one cast of characters arguing vehemently against any policing of their industry, and Dr. Frederick arguing that comic books poison the minds of children. Dr. Frederick seems to be a rational enough, even open-minded human being, but get him started on comic books, and we see a normally reasonable, gentle man go ballistic:

“I do not dispute that the comic strip,” he said, mildly irritated, “has blossomed in its limited way in the greater garden of the American newspaper. But its bastard child the comic book is a poisonous weed that infests our newsstands. A dozen state legislatures have worked to ban or limit this blight upon our children, and many parents have risen up, even having public burnings of these wretched pamphlets.”

And here I thought the doc didn’t like the Nazis….

With emotions in the comic book biz running at an all time high, it’s no wonder that someone ends up dead, and it’s Jack Starr’s job to make sure that the right man (or woman) takes the rap for this dastardly crime.

One of the aspects of this book that I enjoyed the most was the way the author used the facts of the times to create a good, solid pulp story which manages to include some very serious moral questions, and we see the catastrophic results of one man with a few credentials seizing the moral high ground, “riding the comet of a controversy of his own creation,” while the rest of the characters struggle to justify their existence. The real life comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham is, of course, the model for the fictional Dr. Frederick, and Wertham’s expose book was called Seduction of the Innocent (hence the tongue-in-cheek title of the book). So here Max Allan Collins turns a tense period of history into a crime zone that could so-easily have happened with just a little stretch of the imagination. While some of the aspects of the fictional Dr. Frederick character may seem over-the-top or bizarre just go read about the person this character is based on and you’ll see that this is not an exaggeration. In one part of the novel, our fictional Dr. Frederick has a fit over the content of several comics. He sees evil and smut where it doesn’t exist and conversely, he fails to see evil when it stares him in the face. Dr. Frederick shows glimpses of homophobia in his gross misinterpretation of some of the comic book heroes:

The undercurrent of homosexuality in the Batwing comic book,” he said as if tasting something sour, “is extremely damaging to impressionable minds, and children are inherently in that category.”

“Homosexual?” I asked.

That got me another flash of a look from Maggie.

“Impressionable,” he said sternly. “And the Amazonia comic book is rife with fetishistic bondage, and the lead character herself is clearly lesbian.”

“She has a boyfriend, doesn’t she?” I asked innocently. Some captain in the army or air force?”

“Amazonia is a closeted lesbian, frequently shown participating in semi-clothed frolicking with other lesbians.”

I never get invited to the good parties…

Dr. Frederick also sees comic book hero Wonder Guy as a “reprehensible exhibition of the Nazi theme of the Superman.”

Anyone that reads that much dirt into a character who is a patent do-gooder like Wonder Guy deserves to be handcuffed, gagged, dressed in latex, and spanked by someone named The Gimp. But I’d guess that Dr. Frederick would probably enjoy that too much.

To complement the subject, there are several appropriate illustrations throughout the novel, and in the afterword, Max Allan Collins talks about his “fact-inspired” novel, the real comic book crusade, Dr Wertham and comic book censorship along with further reading suggestions on the topic.

Review copy.

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Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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Filed under Cain James M, Fiction

The Back Story to the Lost James Cain Novel

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about the discovery and upcoming 2o12 publication of a James M. Cain novel. Thrilling news for fans. Last night, thanks to The Rap Sheet’s newsletter, I got the back story to just how this novel was found. Here’s an interview conducted by author Duane Swierczynski on his Secret Dead blog with Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime.

I read Swierczynski’s book Fun and Games a few months back–it’s the first of a three-parter about Hollywood Starwhackers. I’ll be reading part II, Hell and Gone soon.

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Filed under Fiction, publishing, Swierczynski Duane

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (Rockstar Games)

One of the features I really like about the Kindle (apart from the free classics) is the way stories, novellas, and novels not published anywhere else find their way onto this device. Example: I came across L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories for the princely sum of 99 cents. How could I not buy this?

Ok, so what do you get for your 99 cents?

That Girl by Megan Abbott

See the Woman by Lawrence Block

Naked Angel by Joe R. Lansdale

Black Dahlia and White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

School for Murder by Francine Prose

What’s in a Name by Jonathan Santlofer

Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski

Postwar Room by Andrew Vachss

Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, wrote the introduction which explains that Rockstar Games set out to create a classic noir experience,” and that LA Noire puts the player “into the shoes of Cole Phelps” former Marine now a member of LAPD. In addition to creating the game, Rockstar Games also “invite[d] some of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the noir storytelling art … to each write a new short story inspired by the world of LA Noire.” Some of the stories, apparently, are inspired by cases in the game.

I’m a Megan Abbott fan, so I was happy to see her included, and her story, The Girl is a female-centric tale that focuses on the tawdry side of Hollywood. I’ve read all of Abbott’s novels, btw, and The Song is You is my favourite. The Song is You was inspired by the real-life, unsolved disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. It’s a bitterly haunting novel, and I found myself thinking about it as I read The Girl. The Girl is set in a “famous” LA house, and I know which house inspired Abbott here. It’s a “Mayan fortress made of ferroconcrete blocks stacked like teeth.”

The protagonist of the story is an actress called June. She doesn’t have much of a career, but she’s married to a gangster named Guy, and this career move has removed some of the desperation from June’s life. June’s agent tells her that she’ll meet Huston at the party:

“Key Largo. The part’s perfect for you.”

“Claire Trevor’s got it sewn up between her thighs,” June said softly, looking up at the house from the open door of the agent’s middling car. “Ten years, every bed I land in is still warm from her.”

“She’s not married to Guy,” the agent pointed out.

“You see how far that’s got me,” June said.

Ok, this is a Hollywood party of the movers and shakers, the power people of Tinseltown. June has already admitted that she’s slept around to get parts. What else is she willing to do?

The first few years in Hollywood, times were hard and June shared apartments, rooms, even, with a hundred girls, their shared pillowcases flossy with their peroxided hair.

Working counter girl, working  as an extra, working as a department-store model, a girl to look pretty at parties, she got by, barely. She even filled her teeth with white candle wax when they turned brown and died.

She said she would do things, and she wouldn’t suffer for them. She’s seen where suffering could get you, and it wasn’t her bag.

So she hustled and hustled and finally found the ways to get all those small roles at Republic, B-unit jobs at Fox. She never could be sure, though, is she was making headway or running on her last bit of garter-flashing luck.

I am a fan of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, so it wasn’t too surprising that another favourite story came from this author. Lansdale’s story, Naked Angel, is about patrolman Adam Coats who finds a dead body frozen inside a huge block of ice.

Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half-eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.

I wasn’t sure which was worse–thinking that the morgue attendant’s smock was covered in blood or realising that he was eating a messy meatball sandwich a few feet away from the stiffs.

Another favourite I’m going to mention is Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski. This is the story of Bill Shelton, an underpaid Los Angeles surveyor who thinks he gets lucky when he picks up a waitress named Bonnie. Wait. I’ll revise that. She picks him up. Bad sign. A few dates and a little tongue hockey later, Bill’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Bonnie out of trouble.

These are classic noir tales: the easy pick-up femme fatale, affairs torched by lust, greed and ambition, and our characters lured by opportunity only to be tricked by fate. Some of these short stories have the feel that they could be fleshed out into novellas, but hey for 99 cents, I’m not bitching.  And if you want the low-down on the other stories, knock yourself out and spring for a copy.

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Filed under Abbott Megan, Block Lawrence, Fiction, Lansdale Joe R, Oates Joyce Carol, Prose Francine, Santlofer Jonathan, Swierczynski Duane, Vachss Andrew

Incredible News from Hard Case Crime

Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime just announced that after a 9-year search, Hard Case Crime has “located and secured the rights” to a never-before published James M. Cain novel. The book is called The Cocktail Waitress. Here’s a quote from Charles:

It’s the story of a beautiful young widow whose first husband died under suspicious circumstances and who finds herself pursued by two new men, each of whom has something she wants.  But she can’t have both of them…or can she?  It’s steamy, gritty, suspenseful, and altogether worthy of the legacy of this great writer. We can’t wait to show it to you.

And I can’t wait to read it.

In the meantime, after a short hiatus, HARD CASE CRIME is back! So crime fans, let’s make sure they stay. Here’s the autumn line up:

Quarry’s Ex by Max Allan Collins

Getting Off  by Lawrence Block

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (a follow up to Money Shot)

The Consummata by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

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Murder is My Business by Brett Halliday

“He said I should see a private detective and you were the cheapest one in New Orleans.”

As a member of the Hard Case Crime Book Club, I never know which book is going to appear on my doorstep. Some of the selections lean towards pulp, some have an edge of noir, and some are classic crime novels. This month, I opened the package to find Murder is My Business by Brett Halliday. Halliday is a new name for me, but there on the cover was the phrase: A Mike Shayne Mystery. That got my attention. See there’s a whole series of Mike Shayne films, and a DVD set featuring several of the Shayne films was released back in 2007.

A little investigation uncovered that Halliday’s real name was Davis Dresser, and that he wrote a long list of crime novels. Perhaps Hard Case Crime will pick up more of these titles. I hope so.

Murder is My Business, published in 1945, was not the first of Halliday’s novels to feature PI Michael Shayne, and the novel doesn’t give many details about this character–probably because we are supposed to be familiar with him already. Shayne has one of those laid-back, easy-going personalities that makes him very easy to underestimate, and naturally he uses this to his advantage. The book makes several references to Shayne’s red hair and the fact that he’s of Irish descent. Shayne also has a habit of tugging on his earlobe when he’s chewing over a theory.

When the novel begins, New Orleans PI Shayne is contacted by Mrs. Delray, a distraught older woman who’s received a letter from her son, Jimmie. Jimmie has spent the last five years working at a mine in Mexico, but he returned to Texas to enlist in WWII. The letter explains that Jimmie  has been ‘recruited’ by a mystery man to enlist under another name in order to be part of a spy ring. The story stinks, and since Jimmie hasn’t been heard of since he enlisted, naturally his mother is worried. After the papers pick up a news story about an El Paso soldier run over in a car accident, his mother is convinced that the dead man is her son.

Shayne’s client has no money to pay the PI for his work, but he flies to El Paso to investigate anyway. The only reason the dead soldier made the paper is that the driver of the car was one of El Paso’s richest men, Jeff Towne. Towne is about to be elected mayor of El Paso, and the car accident that left a young soldier dead may damage Towne at the polls.

Shayne handled a case for Towne ten years ago, and there’s still a bad taste left in his mouth for the  way in which he helped bust up Towne’s daughter’s romance with a poet. So Shayne takes the case–partly because he’s intrigued and partly because he sniffs that there’s money in this case somewhere for him. There’s also the unspoken idea that there’s unfinished business between him and Towne.

Murder is My Business is a great little tale–nothing too heavy, nothing too violent–although the body count rises as Shayne digs into this case of blackmail, murder, revenge, corruption and greed. The book is set in WWII against the various threats and paranoid theories of the times–Nazi spy rings and infiltration of the U.S. via Mexico.

The book’s strength is in its portrayal of the iconic PI figure operating in society.  Apart from his secretary, Shayne has no relationships and no allegiances–except to himself. In the Delray case, Shayne gets mixed up in a hotbed of dirty politics, and while a lesser man would succumb to bribery from the highest bidder, Shayne finds the scrabble for money and power amusing. Shayne remains ambivalent to obsessions and impulses such as revenge, power, greed, and money that drive the other characters, and yet those characters, simply because Shayne doesn’t possess a shred of sentimentality, loyalty, or spout the right phrases, tend to view Shayne as some sort of flawed human being. Here’s an exchange between Shayne and Lance Bayliss, a one-time poet who’s one  of those people who is always attracted to a cause and led by the nose by his mis-placed idealism. At one time, he admired the Third Reich, but after “Hitler marched into Poland,”  he’s become a virulent antifascist.

“That’s the trouble with you here in America.” Lance Bayliss stopped in mid-stride to level a trembling forefinger at Shayne. “You underestimate the danger. You sit back and say blandly, ‘It can’t happen here.’ It can! It happened in Germany. you don’t realize the forces moving us towards fascism in the United States, with men like Jeff Towne eager to leave the movement.”

Shayne said, “perhaps,” remaining unperturbed.

“There’s no perhaps about it. Men like Towne have to be stopped before they get started. He was stopped until you stepped in with your talk of an autopsy to muddy the issue. You used to stand for something, Shayne. Have you changed that much in ten years?”

“I draw bigger fees than I did ten years ago.”

“Is a fat fee more important to you than the welfare of your country?” Lance’s voice trembled with wrath.

 Shayne’s shady edge makes him a great gumshoe, and he’s a character I suspect readers could become fond of in successive volumes. He never gets excited, but he plugs steadily away, working with the cops, quietly determined to get paid, but that determination still allows for a few ethical manoeuvres in his pursuit of the truth. Shayne works as a loner, and in typical PI fashion he answers to no one except himself and the occasional paying client, and since he works outside of established institutions and hierarchy, he’s also free to break whatever rules and laws he can get away with.

Another great addition to the Hard Case Crime canon.

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The Corpse Wore Pasties by Jonny Porkpie

“So what was this exactly? That you were doin’? Some kinda strip show?” said Officer Brooklyn.

“Some kinda titty show?” echoed Officer Bronx 

I love Hard Case Crime. This is a publisher who’s committed–heart and soul–to reviving long-lost pulp and crime titles, but at the same time, the brains at Hard Case don’t vegetate in the past; many of their titles are new, and this brings me to The Corpse Wore Pasties by Jonny Porkpie.  Just in case you don’t know, the type of pasties we are talking about are those tiny adhesive nipple patches worn by strippers and burlesque dancers (my favourite pasties are sequins with tassels, but I digress). Now there’s a world of difference between strippers and burlesque dancers–just ask the book’s author, Jonny Porkpie, “The Burlesque Mayor of New York.” Stripping…that’s about heavy breathing and dollar bills. Burlesque, well that’s a time tested art form.

Porkpie (who takes his last name from the type of hat he wears) must be a very busy man. In his real life (in other words–anything not inside the pages of his first novel), Porkpie also co-produces Pinchbottom Burlesque with his Missus.– Nasty Canasta. I’d hazard a guess that Porkpie is a really interesting character as he unabashedly places himself in his novel with a generous dollop of self-deprecating humour. To take the piss out of oneself takes a strong, confident personality, and Porkpie does just that, and he does it well with The Corpse Wore Pasties–a light-hearted, entertaining, slick, crime-centred romp through the glamorous world of burlesque:

“I’m not talking baggy-pants comedian. Some have called me a no-pants comedian, but that’s not entirely accurate either. My acts tend towards the humorous, sure, but when push comes to shove, and bump comes to grind, I’m the same sort of burlesque performer that Sally Rand was, or Gypsy Rose Lee–though they had certain assets that I lack. And that particular pair of assets might, to an audience be the ones more likely to inspire lust than laughter.”

The novel opens in an East Village bar with a Dreamland burlesque show, and Porkpie is the host for the evening’s performances, replacing Dreamland’s regular producer and host, LuLu LaRue. This should be an easy gig for Porkpie, but things begin to go wrong when Victoria Vice unexpectedly appears to join the line-up of performers. Victoria is the “rare performer that absolutely nobody liked,” not only is she a first-rate bitch, but she’s a “thief” and a “plagiarist.” And in burlesque, this is “the worst kind of thief you can be.”  Many other burlesque performers have suffered from Victoria’s “creative larceny;” she’s notorious for visiting shows and ripping off acts. So when Victoria appears to join the evening’s line up, the atomsphere in the ad-hoc chaotic, changing room shifts to rage. And before the evening is over, someone ends up dead.

Although there are no lack of suspects, Porkpie manages to top the list, and after a brush with the cops, he decides that as number 1 suspect, he’d better try solving the crime himself. Against the sage advice of his ever-patient wife, Nasty Canasta, Porkpie plunges into the investigation in true noir style. Soon Porkpie is questioning burlesque characters such as:  Brioche a Tete, Cherries Jubilee, Eva Desire, Angelina Blood, and Jillian Knockers. Can it be any wonder that he finds himself “running at top speed across the Brooklyn Bridge, half-naked, in the middle of the night, pursued by all five members of a heavy metal band.”?

I have a weakness for Hard Case titles that blend crime with a large dose of humour (Somebody Owes Me Money, Fifty-to-One), so for my twisted tastes, The Corpse Wore Pasties was a delightful, funny read. I began the book knowing next to nothing about burlesque, and I learned a few things about the biz–including the meaning of the term “sexual misdirection.”  This diverting pulp novel, with its lurid elements added to just a hint of camp, is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek fun (my favourite part is when Porkpie is questioned by the cops). I looked forward to this title for months, and it was exactly what I hoped it would be–an entertaining, behind-the-scenes look at the world of burlesque:

“Look, I don’t want to discourage anyone from buying a ticket, but if you’re going to be one of those men who sits alone, refuses to take off his outerwear even when the air-conditioning is broken, wears dark glasses and leather gloves, doesn’t brush his hair or beard, and keeps trying to catch a glimpse of the girls getting dressed backstage…if you’re going to be one of those guys, maybe a downmarket West Side Highway strip club would be more to your tastes than a night of burlesque. Burlesque is a different monster altogether. It’s more about wit than anything that rhymes with wit; more about cleverness than any other c-word. Burlesque is a matter of brains over boobs… which, I suppose, is the standard arrangement, but you get my point. One creep in the audience working a Show World 1977 vibe could potentially sour the room.”

I sincerely hope that this won’t be a one-shot wonder, and that Porkpie has more novels up his sleeves or perhaps even in his Super Jonny Porkpie outfit….

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Kiss Her Goodbye by Allan Guthrie

“First rule of debt collecting: If you want to improve the odds on your client being at home, visit him at night when he ought to be curled up in bed asleep. Second rule: Always carry a weapon.”

kiss her goodbyeKiss Her Goodbye from Allan Guthrie is a bit of change of pace for Hard Case Crime. Hard Case Crime  titles are a blend of classic ‘lost’ noir and new bold titles. Some of the books have humour (Somebody Owes Me Money) and some are dark and bleak (Money Shot). Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye lands firmly in the dark, hard-edged category–there’s little humanity in these pages–just a sliding scale of nastiness. But the difference with this Hard Case title is that the author is Scottish and the story is set largely in Edinburgh.

Joe Hope is a collector for loan shark, Cooper in Edinburgh, and the book begins on the morning after an all-nighter for Joe and Cooper. The two men spent the night paying a visit to a “young twat” named Billy who is behind on his payments. Billy had been “overheard in his local calling Cooper a wanker,” and then subsequently bragged about the fact he had no intention of paying Cooper back. To a loan shark, these words are a red flag, and so Cooper and Joe visit Billy and spend a few sadistic minutes whacking him with a baseball bat–the weapon of choice for both men. After beating Billy senseless, it’s off to a brothel for Joe and Cooper, and then they crawl back to Cooper’s place in the early morning.

Joe is still recuperating when he gets a confused, hysterical phone call from his wife, Ruth. Summoned home and still suffering the ill effects of the all-nighter, it takes Joe some time to understand that his only child, 19-year-old Gem has committed suicide. Gem, who recently dropped out of university, was living on the Orkney islands with her cousin, Adam. Ruth and Joe, whose poisonous marriage leaves only recriminations and hatred, immediately try to blame each other in an endless round of accusations and violence.

Joe flounders around for a couple of days while he tries to absorb the news. Gem’s death is obscured by heavy drinking, more fights with Ruth and a visit to his favourite prostitute, the scrappy Tina. When Joe sobers up and comes to his senses, he receives a strange call from Adam. Instead of Adam calling to give Joe condolences, he lobs accusations and Joe explodes:

“Joe whispered,’Taking the fucking piss.’ His shoulders were shaking. An explosion of rage shattered his self-control. He shouted into the phone, ‘taking the fucking piss.”‘He yelled once again into the phone, pulled back his arm and threw the phone as hard as he could against the nearest wall. The casing broke, scattering plastic over the pavement. A couple of passers-by looked at him and he felt suddenly embarrassed. He bent down, picked up the bigger pieces and ambled to the bin twenty feet down the road. Casual as you like. As if phone hurling was a traditional Scottish sport.”

Things are bad for Joe, but they are about to get worse. Joe decides to travel to Orkney and discover the reasons behind Gem’s death. Soon Joe finds himself accused of a brutal savage murder and more….

Kiss Her Goodbye is a very typical Hard Case Crime title–now this does not mean that these books are interchangeable, but that there seems to be a certain standard for selection. I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again, I imagine editor Charles Ardai sitting in his office, choosing manuscripts considered for publication with one pile of accepted manuscripts and another pile of rejects, and if the books don’t grab on page one…well they are tossed in the reject stack. Hard Case titles always grab the reader on page one–there is no preamble–no build up, and although I’ve been a bit disappointed in a couple of the selections, I’ve generally come to expect a certain standard when it comes to these books. They are all highly readable–pulp, noir and crime, yes, and the tales vary–some with humour and some without, but mainly very entertaining books that you can sink into. So it’s very easy to go and buy a Hard Case title without worrying too much about the fact that you’ve never read this particular author before. In fact it’s a great way to discover new authors if you like the crime genre, and through Hard Case I’ve discovered Jason Starr, Charles Ardai, Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, David Goodis and Christa Faust (just to mention a few). I am a die-hard fan, and this translates to the fact that I joined the Hard Case Crime Book Club as I found myself buying all the titles and now the titles arrive faithfully once a month. On top of that, you just have to love the covers….

Kiss Her Goodbye is a book without heroes, and yet at the same time, Joe, who seems like a nasty piece of work at the beginning of the novel, is gradually revealed to be a stunted human being. He’s a tangled mess of sexual problems and thwarted ambition, and although at one point he was enrolled in university and had a future, now he’s sunk to the lowly position of working for an Edinburgh loan shark. At 39, he’s out of touch with his only child, loathed and ridiculed by his wife while a prostitute, paid by the hour, is his only friend. Emotionally crippled and underemployed, Joe is a man who communicates with a baseball bat. He’s hardly Mr. Sensitive, but Joe not only has to clear himself of a rather intricate frame but, perhaps more troubling, he has to unravel his own deep-rooted, painful problems in order to get to the truth. While I guessed some of the plot twists and turns, Joe is clueless, but that’s because in order to discover the truth, he has to accept some unpleasant facts about his life that he’d rather not examine.  You can’t very well take a baseball bat to your past, can you?

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