Tag Archives: Hard Case Crime

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.”


“Earl, then.”


“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.


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.


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.


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


Filed under Collins, Max Allan, Fiction

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.


Filed under Halliday Brett

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….


Filed under Porkpie Jonny

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?


Filed under Guthrie Allan

Fake ID by Jason Starr

“Maybe it would take a little longer to get to Hollywood than I’d thought, but I’d get there eventually. I knew I had too much talent to go unnoticed forever.”

Jason Starr is a new author for me. He makes writing seem easy, and when the frank, down-to-earth narrator of Fake ID tells his sordid tale, it’s as though I’m listening, rather uncomfortably, to some loser telling a story as we sit on tatty bar stools in some dingy New York bar. While I admire clever novels that play with linguistic elements,  I also enjoy reading a novel that sounds like normal, relaxed human speech, and Starr’s Fake ID published by Hard Case Crime fits into this category. So if you have an aversion to swearing, then don’t bother with this book, but if you want to read a novel realistically narrated by a thuggish loser, well this is it.

The story is told by Tommy Russo a thirty-two-year-old New York bouncer fake IDwho tells himself that his employment at O’Reilley’s bar is just a “survival” job until he gets his big break as an actor, and with an audition for a dog food commercial on the horizon, well Tommy thinks he has reason to be optimistic. He leads a subsistence existence, working nights at the bar, and cadging free meals from the bar’s cook.  He gets a cut in rent on his vermin-infested 250 square feet apartment by cleaning & performing minor maintenance work in his grotty building. But Tommy has a problem–he’s a compulsive gambler, and when the novel begins Tommy’s at the track losing money:

“Now I only had sixty-four dollars left, including gas-and-toll money. I knew this wouldn’t be enough to last me the rest of the day so I got in line at the ATM to take money off my Visa card. There were four guys ahead of me. They looked like degenerates, wearing dirty jeans, sneakers and old winter jackets. Then I thought, How was I any better? Wasn’t I on the same line, waiting to take money off my credit card?”

At the track, Tommy runs into an old acquaintance, Pete, a foul-smelling Brooklyn shoe shop owner. Pete invites Tommy to be the fifth man in a horse-owning deal, with each man coming up with 10,000 for 1/5 ownership of a young, promising racehorse. At first Tommy  rejects the idea, but as he loses at the track and begins to mull over how shitty his life is, he decides to join the group. The only problem is…he doesn’t have 10,000.

As Tommy schemes for ways in which he can get his hands on a large chunk of money, his life begins to spiral out of control. At work, where he regularly picks up women for easy sex, he manipulates his cuckolded boss Frank–a sad little man who’s been harpooned by a frowzy, mean-tempered blonde who looked better when she was 100lbs lighter and didn’t drink scotch for her liquid breakfast. Careening between the pathological relationships in his life, and on endless gambling binges whenever he has a few dollars in his pocket, a picture begins to build up of a rather nasty character.

If you ever want to cite an example of an unreliable narrator, then stop here, because Tommy Russo is severely delusional. It’s not that apparent when the novel begins–we think he’s just another sad has-been clinging desperately to dreams of a Hollywood career. Everyone in Tommy’s life seems to know that Tommy isn’t going anywhere, and Tommy is the last one to get this. But as the novel wears on, it becomes creepily clear that Tommy is a sociopath and the novel rocks with Tommy’s dispassionate observations as he uses and abuses everyone in his life. As his life spirals increasingly out-of-control, Tommy’s delusions take over.

There’s a bleak dark humour here–well at least there is if you have my type of sicko humour. Tommy cherishes his dreams but is quick to slam others as “losers,” and I did have a laugh over Tommy stuffing himself with junk food while sitting and watching soap operas in his mousetrap of an apartment soothing himself with fantasies of when he’ll be a big shot racehorse owner:

“I only had about fifty dollars to my name, but I wanted to eat some food for a change. I bought cheeses–Swiss, cheddar, and a pack of those little triangle cheeses that come in the foil wrappers. I also bought a couple of kinds of dips and boxes of crackers. My days of hot dogs, pizza and sleazy diners were over with–from now on I was going to do everything with class.”

There are some hints cleverly weaved through the text that how Tommy sees himself is NOT how others see him. We only have his word for it that he’s this good-looking actor, and I’ll admit I had begun to wonder with all the junk food binges. But then there’s one scene when Tommy sees a copper he knew in high school and the copper doesn’t recognize Tommy. In fact he’s shocked at Tommy’s appearance and says “well, you look like you might’ve put on a few lbs.”

This unpretentious, unprepossessing little crime novel is a brilliant read, and much much cleverer than it may at first appear; it’s one of my favourite Hard Case Crime novels to date.  Jason Starr presents us with Tommy Russo’s manufactured world–a world in which Tommy thinks his talent as an actor gets him by in life, but in reality his acting skills cover the emotional disconnect between what Tommy thinks and what Tommy does:

“The first thing I said to myself when I saw her was, what the hell am I doing here? Without makeup and with her hair wrapped up in a towel she looked like she could be my grandmother. But it wasn’t her looks  that bothered me as much as her. I remembered how I’d always hated her, how I thought she was just a nasty drunk who treated her husband, a great guy, like a piece of dog shit. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Frank more than I already had, but there I was about to fuck his wife.”

Someone told me once that I have this peculiar habit of enjoying reading about nasty people. The comment threw me at the time, but after thinking it over, I realized it’s true: I do like reading about nasty people, and the soulless Tommy Russo certainly fits the bill….

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Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake

“But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum?”

Like any good pulp novel, Someone Owes Me Money pulls the reader right into the plot with very few preliminaries. The book’s protagonist is a likeable, unflappable ‘self-educated’ New York City cab driver named Chet Conway, a man who became a cab driver so that he can indulge his first love–gambling. He can work the “day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open.” Chet admits this with an easy, frank style in the book’s second paragraph, and when I read this, I knew I was hooked. Chet is a wonderful protagonist, and this character reminds me once again why I enjoy Westlake so much. At the same time, I admit that I don’t enjoy ALL Westlake novels equally, but in Somebody Owes Me Money, Westlake is at the top of his game.

Gambling is at the core of Chet’s life, and yet at the same time his ‘hobby’ isn’t entirely out-of-control. While it dictates his life, for example how much he works and whether or not he has a love life, he still controls his gambling urges enough to reason through how much he can afford to lose. One day after driving a well-heeled fare to a swanky address, Chet is annoyed when he doesn’t receive the normal tip. Instead the man tells Chet to bet money on an outsider horse named Purple Pecunia scheduled to race that day.

westlakeMethodically Chet chews over the information. And after dismissing his annoyance at being robbed of a tip, he decides that there was something different about this fare, and playing a “hunch” Chet calls his bookie, Tommy McKay and places thirty-five dollars on Purple Pecunia. When the horse wins at 27-1, Chet is set to collect $980. But when Chet goes over to Tommy’s house to collect the loot, all he finds is a stiff “sunny side up” in the living room.

From this moment on, Chet stubbornly refuses to ditch the idea that someone somewhere owes him money, and he reasons that if he wants his winnings, he has little choice but to begin investigating the crime. Chet rapidly becomes the prime suspect in the murder, but what’s even worse than that is he still hasn’t managed to collect his dough. Plagued by Tommy’s hysterical frumpy wife, a sexy gun-toting dame looking for revenge, and a slew of angry, competing Neanderthal gangsters, Chet’s life may never be the same.

This novel isn’t fluff, and Westlake’s canny observations of human nature add a great deal of depth to the story. Laced with strong well-drawn characters, Chet’s world is packed with colorful personalities from his weekly poker game, and we meet Chet’s father–a man whose hobby is an obsessive search for the best insurance policy available. In his pursuit of a policy that contains a lucrative flaw, Chet’s father displays “the faith and the obstinacy of a man with a roulette system,” and it’s through this relationship that Chet’s gambling addiction begins to make sense.

Written with a wry sense of humor, Somebody Owes Me Money is a wonderful escapist read and a superb addition to the Hard Case Crime canon. There’s one perfect scene in the book when Chet imagines, just for a moment, that he’s Robert Mitchum. Chet notes, “there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us,” and for noir/crime fans, that is most definitely true.


Filed under Westlake, Donald

361 by Donald Westlake

“Your father. You think you know him. You forget he lived a lot of years before he started you. All of a sudden you find out you never knew who the hell he was.”

Ok, so I’m a self-confessed Hard Case Crime fan, and a few years back I decided to take the plunge and join the Hard Case Crime Book Club. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but what it boils down to is that HCC sends me a book each month. Just about the time I am starting to wonder: “Isn’t it time for this month’s Hard Case Crime to arrive?” well, there it is. Getting a book you didn’t actually preselect can lead to disappointments (of course buying books off the shelf doesn’t spare readers this fate necessarily), but for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed the highly readable selection. I imagine Charles Ardai (founder and editor of Hard Case Crime) slaving over a stack of manuscripts trying to decide which ones will make the cut, and since HCC books tend to grab me on page one, I think that Ardai probably rejects any novels that start off slowly.

361  from Donald Westlake starts off really strongly with the return of Ray Kelly. It’s the 60s, and 23-year-old Ray has just got out of the Air Force. He arrives in New York expecting to be picked up by his brother, Bill, but instead he’s supposed to take a cab and meet his father at a hotel.

Ray has spent three years in the Air Force, and he’s eager to get back and see the sights. His father, however, seems nervous and jittery, reluctant to go outside. Ray chalks this up to fatigue, but the next day, they are ambushed in the car. Ray’s father is killed and Ray ends up in the hospital. Weeks later he is released and he’s looking for revenge.

Although 361 starts out with a blast, it fizzles when Ray hooks up with his brother Bill. Ray goes off on a vengeance rampage with Bill as a somewhat reluctant side-kick. As Ray searches for the truth, the novel spins on itself as Ray goes fishing for leads and information. Instead of increasing tension as the plot develops ,the novel enters the doldrums with too many leads and too few developments.

Westlake’s crime fiction is hit-or-miss for me. Westlake without humour leaves me with just another crime novel that’s not so different from dozens of other authors–hence I am not a fan of the Richard Stark novels, but I loved The Cutie and Somebody Owes Me Money. I love dark, bitter noir, but Westlake without humour isn’t dark or bitter enough for my tastes. With humour, Westlake gives the crimes a light, bizarre touch that I find refreshing, and his protagonists for these books are people I want to read about for a few hours.  In 361,  Ray Kelly remains a rather uninteresting anti-hero–in spite of the tragedy that hits him early in the book. But that’s ok, I’m currently reading Hard Case Crime’s Fake ID by Jason Starr and it’s a terrific crime novel.


Filed under Westlake, Donald