Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hard Case Crime Favorites

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hard Case Crime.  I have always loved film noir, crime stories and detective novels, but I was totally ignorant of the vast catalog of pulp fiction produced in the 1950s PBO scene.  I ran across “The Colorado Kid” while looking at some Stephen King novels, found the HCC website and was awakened to what I had been missing.  HCC has now published over 50 novels and recently celebrated its 5th anniversary.  In honor of that milestone, here are my 5 favorite HCC titles:

1.    “The Vengeful Virgin” by Gil Brewer

This is quintessential pulp, it has it all - femme fatales bewitching a hapless dude into committing the “perfect” crime.  Jack Ruxton, tv salesman meets young Shirley Angela who convinces him to help her kill her sickly uncle so that they can make off with his dough.  Throw in two other unpredictable women and Ruxton finds himself in way over his head. To me, this one epitomizes everything that is great about Hard Case Crime and Brewer became my favorite 50s PBO writer and I'm not sure he wrote anything better than The Vengeful Virgin.

2.    “Little Girl Lost” by Richard Aleas

A modern-day pulp detective story set in NYC.  John Blake investigates the death of his ex-girlfriend after she is inexplicably found dead on the roof of a scummy strip club.  Blake is an imperfect investigator that doesn’t always escape from his mistakes. Aleas draws you in deep and then hits you in the gut.  Dark, direct and tough.

3.    “Fright” by Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich is one of the giants of the genre and Fright does not disappoint.  Prescott Marshall makes a mistake on the eve of his wedding to a high society dame. It’s a mistake that infests his mind and grows like
a weed that eventually strangles him and everyone he loves.  One of the few novels in the HCC canon that genuinely made me tense.  Woorich puts you into Prescott’s head and makes you feel the pain.

4.    “Bust” by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

Noir comedy done right.  The misadventures of Max, a high-living executive in his own mind, and his shameless secretary Angela.  Not only is it funny, but the comedy is interwoven with an inventive and nasty little crime tale.  Max and Angela devolved into self-referential parody in the sequels, but you can’t go wrong with Bust.

5.    “The Peddler” by Richard S. Prather

Picking the fifth and final title for my favorites list was tough.  I settled on The Peddler because it tells an archetypal pulp story incredibly well. 
Tony Romero has dreams of being big.  He enters the organized crime scene in San Francisco and quickly pushes his way to the top.  Along the way we get an unflinching view of Tony’s dirty business.  Eventually, of course, Tony is spectacularly destroyed by his unchecked ambition and hubris.  Prather’s Shell Scott novels may be a bit silly, but the Peddler is in a different league.

Honorable mentions:

“The Girl With the Long Green Heart” by Lawrence Block
“Home Is the Sailor” by Day Keene
“The Last Match” by David Dodge
“The Last Quarry” by Max Allen Collins
“Robbie’s Wife” by Russell Hill

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"So Rich, So Dead" by Gil Brewer

Gold Medal No. 196, 1951

“There was this rushing hum . . . Marie reached out toward me, both hands outstretched, her eyes pleading. She was clothed in something silken, diaphanous. Her hair flowed across her shoulders in that soft jet, like the overside of a cloud when the moon is down. She reached toward me, drifted close, yet came no nearer. I tried to tell her to go away, leave me alone.”

So begins the tale of Bill Maddern. Bill is a P.I., running an agency with his brother. He returns from a trip to find his brother dead and a mysterious message regarding a half-million bucks his brother located for a client. He also finds out that his nightmare about Marie came true. She is found dead in his office as well-

"There’s no use going into it. It was sordid and mean and something you have to see sometimes in this business. But you don’t have to think about it if you’re on the outside. You can forget, because it wasn’t you or yours. It was somebody else; somebody your reading about. She had been literally beaten to death. The things that had been done to her probably nobody will ever know except for the killer himself. She’d gone out fighting for her life. She wasn’t Marie now. This wasn’t Marie."

Bill quickly becomes suspect no. 1 in his bro’s murder and goes on the lamb. While hiding out from the police and working to clear his name, Bill meets up with a variety of ne’er-do-wells, including a strange little man named Leander and his babe, Rita. Bill also befriends a sweet young lass that agrees to become his new secretary - after a couple minutes conversation. Suspicious you ask, no, of course not . . .

I’m a huge Gil Brewer fan and have been steadily hunting down and reading his novels. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead is my least favorite, so far. Most of the characters, particularly the ladies, are flatly drawn and relatively lifeless. The plot slogs along without too many stand-out scenes or ideas. The nice emotional hook set up with the death of Marie isn’t effectively woven through the plot as Maddern’s driving force. Maddern seems more concerned with making sure the money is secure and clearing his name than he is of getting revenge for Marie's death. You'd never catch Mike Hammer acting that way. The ending, which I gather was supposed to be a surprise, was about as cookie-cutter as you can get for an early 50s P.I. story.

The Leander and Rita characters are the most interesting thing here. Rita’s a blond bombshell that Maddern can’t seem to resist despite knowing she is poison. Brewer informs us, in that subtle 50s kind of way, she “enjoys” the pain Leander dispenses with his cane. Together they put Maddern through the wringer and that is where the book is at its best.