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


  1. HCC was a major find for me, and in many ways has lead me on a fun and sometimes strange trip to a place that I was long ago (high school)-- that place being crime fiction.

    Nice Selection, and aside from a few that I have yet to crack, I can't disagree with your assessments. I recently finished First Quarry which was the first Max Allen Collins book that I have really liked.

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