Last year I embarked on an ambitious project to read the finest contemporary fiction, an endeavor I dubbed The 2005 Booklist Project. And it worked, for a while: I read House of Leaves, perhaps my favorite book of the last decade; I read other experimental fictions such as Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler’s Wife, as well as more traditional narratives such as Blindness and Oracle Night. And I loaded up my bedside table still more recommendations; Wicked, Gilead, Life Of Pi, etc.
And then, like a drinker who resolves only to drink only the finest Bordeaux and Pinot Noir, I rediscovered the joy off getting buzzed off of a $4 bottle of drugstore merlot. Or, in this case, I discovered Hard Case Crime.
Hard Case Crime is relatively new publishing house, one that specializes in new and vintage “hardboiled” pulp fiction novels. I’ve always been a fan of the genre (as a teen I read scores of Earl Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane), but, in the last decade, I had found my noir in cyberpunk, steampunk, Frank Miller comics, and films in which the cinematography is best described a “caliginous.” Hard Case Crime novels, though, are the real deal, full of deeply-flawed protagonists who reach for a .45 or a fifth of whiskey at the drop of a hat, and make unironic references to molls and mooks.
About half of the books in the series are reprints of classics for the form, and the others are brand new works by contemporary authors (though typically in the classic hardboiled era and tone). As most Hard Case Crime novels are around 200 pages, full of dialog, and compulsively readable, I can usually plow through an entire title in two evenings. Here are the five I have read since discovering the line:
- 361 by Donald E. Westlake: 361 was my first, and a perfect introduction to the series. It’s a reprint of a classic by one of the masters of the hardboiled form, and served as a good primer on the genre. The hero finishes off a bottle of liquor on about every third page, tangles with the mob, and carries around a piece as nonchalantly as you or I might carry around orange Tic-Tacs. 361 isn’t especially well written, but I was nonetheless putting holds on every available Hard Case Crime novel at my local library moments after finishing it.
- Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge: I don’t know if it’s because I spent a few years in South America, or because I had never read a “treasure hunt” novel before, but I enjoyed Plunder quite a bit. Like an Indiana Jones sequel written by Raymnd Chandler, Plunder has an archeologist hiring a petty criminal to help him locate a lost Incan fortune. Dodge manages to cram a surprising amount of ancient South American history into the book, too — enough that you feel like you’re learning something, but not so much that the story ever becomes academic. Plunder is a reprint, and recommended.
- The Colorado Kid by Stephen King: Yes, that Stephen King. Apparently the editors at Hard Case Crime sent a few novels to King and asked if he would supply cover blurbs; instead he said he opted to write an book for the series. Colorado Kid is polarizing — lots of people hated it, many thought it pretty good. I’m in the latter category, though I’ll concede that the book is essentially a 70-page (and perhaps 20-page) short story padded out to 180 pages, the first third of which is undisguised throat-clearing.
- Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block: Block is one of my favorite modern dark mystery writers, but, honest to God, I can hardly remember a thing about this book, even having read it only few months ago. I don’t recall disliking it, but I don’t recall thinking it was anything special, either (despite its winning an Edgar award). Chalk it up as forgettable — though that’s not exactly a scathing indictment in a genre as light as this one.
Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips: The copyright date on Blonde in 2004, but Phillips has the classic noir style down so pat that I had to double-check online to convince myself it wasn’t a reprint. He’s especially skilled at writing snappy patter, and the characters routinely exchanged banter that made me wish I was even half as clever with my own ad-libs. The story is kind of weak (and falls apart near the end), but the atmosphere, pacing, and dialogue are top-notch.
I get most of my Hard Case Crime novels from the library, but the books are exclusively paperback and typically only cost around $6, so I’ve purchased a few as well — and then, having read them, immediately give them to friends I thought would appreciate them. Hard Case even has a subscription program, where you get two novels a month for seven bucks. (I would sign up for that in a heartbeat if I hadn’t joined one of those “12 CDs for a penny!!” deals as a youth and found myself hounded by Columbia Records for years thereafter, instilling within me a lifelong fear of commercial “book clubs”. Man, there’s a Hard Case Crime novel idea right there: “CLUBBED TO DEATH: He signed on for the twelve CDs … and he never knew peace again!”)