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
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.
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.
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.
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
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