Hard Case Crime - Reviving hard-boiled pulp

One of the Hound's favourite publishing labels is Hard Case Crime. Their wonderfully illustrated covers are created in a retro-style reminiscent of the mid-20th Century pulp publishers, like Gold Medal Books. The thrill of the street-wise detectives, femme fatales and vengeance seekers, make up these cracking reads where every word is filed under entertainment.

Now associated with Titan Books, Hard Case Crime’s distinctive brand was established by the writers/editors Charles Ardai and Max Allan Collins with the purpose of reviving the storytelling and visual style of the great pulp crime novels of yesteryear. Their mix of half-forgotten and never-before-published titles by the likes of Ed McBain, Lawrence Block, Donald E Westlake and James M Cain are printed alongside fresh work inspired by the old reads. All re-edited and ready for a new audience.

The forgotten gems stand up well and there’s plenty of great new novels too, such as Stephen King’s contributions: The Colorado Kid (adapted into the hit SyFy television series Haven) and Joyland, both of which have been huge hits.

 

A few books to consider:

 

 

Hard Case Crime - Style with substance

The Cocktail Waitress

James M Cain

At his best, there is no greater writer than James M Cain. When the Hound heard that there was a new novel from Cain, he immediately made space at the top of his ‘to read list’. Thankfully, The Cocktail Waitress did not disappoint.

After her husband’s death, Joan Medford takes a job serving drinks in a cocktail lounge. Young and beautiful, she proves a hit and the tips are good, especially from one rich old gentleman who gives her $50,000 and a proposal of marriage. But Joan finds him repulsive and has her eye on another man, a handsome young rogue. The pressure is on. The suspicious cops are on her case and her dead husband’s family have their own issues with her. And, as we only get Joan’s version of events, we have our own suspicions, too. We like the narrator but can we trust her?

The Cocktail Waitress was discovered among Cain’s papers after a decade-long search. Cain includes elements of own life in this novel whilst returning to familiar themes. As in The Postman Always Rings Twice there’s a love triangle with a young attractive woman, an older unattractive but successful man and a younger man of dubious morals. As in Mildred Pierce, the first-person lead is a strong female struggling to provide for her child and taking a waitressing job.

Cain tinkered with the manuscript up to his death, the ending still a work-in-progress. Charles Ardai used the several full manuscripts plus partial ones and various fragments to polish the version now published for the first time.

The writing is unmistakeably Cain. Taut, tough, real and raw. With its foreign excursions and many twists this is truly an exciting find from the daddy of noir.

"Swift and absorbing...pulses with more authentic primal energy than the work of any number of Cain imitators from the 1930s to the present"  Wall Street Journal

Joyland

Stephen King

It is the summer of 1973. Raising money for his tuition fees, college student Devin Jones takes a job working at Joyland, a traditional amusement park in North Carolina, complete with a haunted house that may actually be haunted. An innocent girl has been killed there, the murdered getting away with it. It slowly dawns on Devin that his girlfriend is cooling off their long distance relationship whilst he's dealing with his own loss in this coming-of-age novel about carny life – and death…

The many carny characters and different roles are fondly portrayed but beneath the surface of ‘selling fun’ is a dark thread waiting to be picked at.

Devin makes friends in the form of Erin and Tom, and soon learns the ropes, finding a particular talent for dressing up in a baking hot costume as the park’s mascot. A role he uses to entertain a young boy who has a terminal illness. The boy and his beautiful mother provide an intriguing distraction for Devin who, along with his own troubles, joins his pals in becoming an ‘amateur sleuth’ following the vision of the dead girl in the horror house. With the killer still at large, Devin closes in on a truth that doesn’t want to be revealed.

Part mystery (it’s a whodunit), part horror, part retro-feel. In fact, this book is unavailable as an ebook because the author so wanted the old-fashioned atmosphere created, and its paperback look, to remain faithful to a time that’s gone but not forgotten.

Scratch One

Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

One of eight titles from Michael Crichton brought back by Hard Case Crime. They were originally written between 1966 and 1972 during his time at Harvard.

To prevent an arms shipment from reaching the Middle East a terrorist group has been carrying out targeted assassinations. An arms dealer in Denmark drinks a poisoned martini; an American diplomat in Portugal is shot in the head, and a Frenchman is murdered in his hospital bed. All part of an international conspiracy. In response, the United States sends one of its deadliest agents to take the killers down but he’s delayed in transit. Unfortunate then for the hapless American lawyer, Roger Carr, who has been mistaken for the professional killer.

Carr’s an ambitionless playboy in Nice, France with the cushy assignment of buying a villa: he’s an everyman character who finds himself in the middle of an international arms deal. Life's been easy for Carr, his father being an influential senator, but now he’s been mistaken for a secret agent his life is in danger. He was hoping to fill his trip with women, drinking and gambling but how wrong can a man be?

It’s a fun novel, perhaps inspired by Ian Fleming’s Bond, with Carr riding his luck. His interest in romance (with the one woman that changes him…) makes him likeable and we even feel a little sorry for him. The pace is fast and it’s thoroughly entertaining if not as hard-boiled as you might be expecting. More glamour than grit but plenty of action and chases, as some of the world’s deadliest men are after Carr as he strives to stay alive and prove his true identity.

361

Donald E Westlake

The men in the tan-and-cream Chrysler came with guns blazing. When Ray Kelly woke up in the hospital, it was a month later, he was missing an eye, and his father was dead.

Then things started to get bad.

If that paragraph doesn’t hook you, you don’t love hard-boiled crime.

This is a devastating story of betrayal and revenge, an exploration of the limits of family loyalty and how far a man will go when everything he loves is taken from him.

After leaving hospital Kelly vows revenge for his father’s killing and his own glass eye. He a young man, just out of the Air Force, and only just discovering his family secrets. He and his brother learn that their father was mixed up with the mob. The must first find out why he was killed and who was responsible  before they can make have their revenge.

361 is one of Westlake's early books having been first published before Westlake penned his first Parker book The Hunter (writing as Richard Stark). Like his Stark books it’s stripped down prose is hard. Blunt. The violence is realistic, no nonsense. More like the Parker novels than the Dortmunder ones but there’re still flashes of the Westlake humour and his dialogue crackles, as ever.

Dead Street

 Micky Spillane

This is Spillane’s final novel. He died a year before its publication. His friend, Hard Case Crime’s Max Allan Collins, prepared the manuscript for publication and completed the last three chapters himself using Spillane’s outline.

For 20 years, former NYPD cop Jack ‘Shooter’ Stang has lived with the memory of his girlfriend’s death during an attempted abduction by the mob. But what if the love of his life is alive? What if she somehow secretly survived—but lost her sight, and her memory, and everything else she had... except her enemies?

Now Jack has a second chance to save the only woman he ever loved—or to lose her for good... and what does she have to do with stolen nuclear material?

The style is recognisably Micky Spillane but this pulp novel with its gangsters has a contemporary setting, post 9/11, with modern themes of computer viruses and Al-Qaeda threats given the full Spillane treatment. A physically changing Manhattan and the 'retirement state' of Florida provide the locations. The themes of death and second chances are visited here making it a particularly moving read given that it’s the author's final novel.

It’s also a love story, the past being revisited, a time when Bettie and Stang lived together, a time when he was a top detective and she knew who he was. And a present era with Bette in a retirement home, full of retired cops like Stang. He’s back with her once more but he’s not the only one wanting her…

The qualities associated with Spillane, the fast pace, the violence, the tough - at times shocking - justice, are to be found here. 

Getting Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence

 Lawrence Block (writing as Jill Emerson)

So this girl walks into a bar…

...and when she walks out there’s a man with her. She goes to bed with him, and she likes that part. Then she kills him, and she likes that even better.

On her way out, she cleans out his wallet.

She keeps moving, and has a new name for each change of address. She’s been doing this for a while, and she’s good at it. And then a chance remark gets her thinking of the men who got away, the lucky ones who survived a night with her.

She starts writing down names. And now she’s a girl with a mission. Picking up their trails. Hunting them down. Crossing them off her list..

Block has gone back to his erotica roots with this one using. And his protagomist is a woman that's appeared before in short stories.

The title is apt, rightly stating that this is a book of sex and violence, just so folks won’t be offended.

We follow Kit Tolliver a backup singer (various versions of her name exist) and serial killer, as she goes from town to town on her routine of seduction and murder. Can Kit override the damage caused by her tragic past and become a better person? And what will happen to her?

We meet some dodgy characters but it’s Kit that leads the noir in this dark novel of graphic sex, strong violence, bad language and black-humour.

The Gutter and the Grave

 Ed McBain

Detective Matt Cordell was happily married, gainfully employed, and sober. But that was before he caught his wife cheating on him with one of his operatives and took it out on the man with the butt end of a .45.

Now Matt makes his home on the streets of New York and his only companions are the city’s bartenders. But trouble still knows how to find him, and when Johnny Bridges shows up from the old neighbourhood, begging for Matt’s help, Cordell finds himself drawn into a case full of beautiful women and bloody murder.

It’s just like the old days—only this time, when the beatings come, he may wind up on the receiving end...

Originally published as I'm Cannon - For Hire, the premise is not new: the PI/troubled-drinker come down-and-out, asked to do a favour for a friend, but there is something wonderfully familiar about the writing in this stand-alone novel. The drinking, a result of finding his wife cheating on him with an employee, plays a role as Matt Cordell must fight that demon if he’s to solve what starts as theft and grows into murder investigations.

It’s a damned good piece of hard-boiled fiction. Authentic with a strong plot, the first person narration is powerful with a touch of humour, and the dialogue fizzes, as you’d expect from the author of the legendary 87th Precinct Series.

 

Other books from Hard Case Crime:

 

69 BARROW STREET/STRANGE EMBRACE by Lawrence Block

BABY MOLL by John Farris

BINARY by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

BLACKMAILER by George Axelrod

BLOOD ON THE MINK by Robert Silverberg

BORDERLINE by Lawrence Block

BRAINQUAKE by Samuel Fuller

BRANDED WOMAN by Wade Miller

BUST by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

CASINO MOON by Peter Blauner

CATCH AND RELEASE by Lawrence Block

CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust

THE COLORADO KID by Stephen King

THE COMEDY IS FINISHED by Donald E. Westlake

THE CONFESSION by Domenic Stansberry

THE CONSUMMATA by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

THE CORPSE WORE PASTIES by Jonny Porkpie

THE CUTIE by Donald E. Westlake

THE DEAD MAN’S BROTHER by Roger Zelazny

DEADLY BELOVED by Max Allan Collins

A DIET OF TREACLE by Lawrence Block

DRUG OF CHOICE by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

DUTCH UNCLE by Peter Pavia

EASY DEATH by Daniel Boyd

EASY GO by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

FADE TO BLONDE by Max Phillips

FAKE I.D. by Jason Starr

FALSE NEGATIVE by Joseph Koenig

FIFTY-TO-ONE by Charles Ardai

THE FIRST QUARRY by Max Allan Collins

FRIGHT by Cornell Woolrich

THE GIRL WITH THE LONG GREEN HEART by Lawrence Block

GRAVE DESCEND by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

GRIFTER’S GAME by Lawrence Block

GUN WORK by David J. Schow

THE GUNS OF HEAVEN by Pete Hamill

HOME IS THE SAILOR by Day Keene

HONEY IN HIS MOUTH by Lester Dent

HOUSE DICK by E. Howard Hunt

KILL NOW, PAY LATER by Robert Terrall

KILLING CASTRO by Lawrence Block

KISS HER GOODBYE by Allan Guthrie

THE LAST MATCH by David Dodge

THE LAST QUARRY by Max Allan Collins

LEMONS NEVER LIE by Richard Stark

LITTLE GIRL LOST by Richard Aleas

LOSERS LIVE LONGER by Russell Atwood

LUCKY AT CARDS by Lawrence Block

THE MAX by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake

MONEY SHOT by Christa Faust

MURDER IS MY BUSINESS by Brett Halliday

THE MURDERER VINE by Shepard Rifkin

NIGHT WALKER by Donald Hamilton

NO HOUSE LIMIT by Steve Fisher

NOBODY’S ANGEL by Jack Clark

ODDS ON by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

PASSPORT TO PERIL by Robert B. Parker

THE PEDDLER by Richard S. Prather

PLUNDER OF THE SUN by David Dodge

QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE by Max Allan Collins

QUARRY’S EX by Max Allan Collins

ROBBIE’S WIFE by Russell Hill

SAY IT WITH BULLETS by Richard Powell

THE SECRET LIVES OF MARRIED WOMEN by Elissa Wald

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT by Max Allan Collins

SHOOTING STAR/SPIDERWEB by Robert Bloch

SLIDE by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY by Donald E. Westlake

SONGS OF INNOCENCE by Richard Aleas

STOP THIS MAN! by Peter Rabe

STRAIGHT CUT by Madison Smartt Bell

TOP OF THE HEAP by Erle Stanley Gardner

A TOUCH OF DEATH by Charles Williams

THE TWENTY-YEAR DEATH by Ariel S. Winter

TWO FOR THE MONEY by Max Allan Collins

THE VALLEY OF FEAR by A.C. Doyle

THE VENGEFUL VIRGIN by Gil Brewer

THE VENOM BUSINESS by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

WEB OF THE CITY by Harlan Ellison

WITNESS TO MYSELF by Seymour Shubin

THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN by David Goodis

THE WRONG QUARRY by Max Allan Collins

ZERO COOL by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

 

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