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Tag Archive: Hard Case Crime


Review by C.J. Bunce

Twenty years ago this weekend, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed back to China by the United Kingdom as the last act of the old British Empire, without incident.

The anniversary of this transfer of power coincides with the release by Hard Case Crime of one of crime fiction readers’ most eagerly awaited events: the final novel of Donald E. Westlake.  The result surpasses all expectations from one of America’s most celebrated authors:  the adventure of Ian Fleming, the complexity of Michael Crichton, the surprises of Stephen King, the thrills of Peter Benchley, the pulse of John Grisham.  A taut thriller, gripping, heart-pounding, and jaw-dropping, Forever and a Death is Donald E. Westlake saving his best for last.  Forever and a Death is his never-before-published new novel–a James Bond story of sorts–with an intriguing backstory.  Tapped to write the second James Bond film to feature Pierce Brosnan as Bond, Westlake created a compelling story of international intrigue revolving around the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.  Because of the success of GoldenEye, the uncertainty of a smooth transfer of power of Hong Kong, and a distaste by the Chinese market for Bond,  the Broccoli family and the Bond franchise machine amicably parted ways with Westlake.  But he then reworked his story in secret, leaving behind at his death in 2008 a stunning action adventure, only snipping the world famous spy from the story.

The result is one of the most intelligent, loathsome, and shrewd Bond villains you’ll ever meet, Richard Curtis, an enormously wealthy business mogul who has amassed a network of corporations across the globe that will allow him to carry out his every wish.  When he is booted from Hong Kong at the transfer of power, he becomes fixated on a power play to destroy Hong Kong as payback.  As with many wealthy CEOs, Curtis is charismatic and influential.  He has encircled himself with individuals who are beholden to him for their own wealth and they would do anything to maintain his and their own lifestyle.  And that includes murder.  Not as preposterous as many Ian Fleming constructions, the method Westlake creates for Curtis is completely believable: using a series of carefully calculated explosions, a soliton wave will be created that will shake the very foundation of Hong Kong and reduce the entirety of the city–skyscrapers, homes, and millions of lives–to sediment.  Westlake introduces his male protagonist to show us the way, a trusted engineer named George Manville (a partner in action with Bond in the original treatment).  Kept in the dark about the ultimate goal, Manville completes the first test on a small abandoned island near Australia that he believes to be part of a plan to make the island into a lavish resort.  But when an environmental group tries to stimy Curtis’s test, a headstrong activist and diver emerges, a woman named Kim Baldur (who would become, to a small extent, Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies) dives into the ocean and swims for shore to stop the operation.  Unfortunately for her, Manville neglected to incorporate a kill switch to the project, and she is swallowed by the wave and what would have been a superb Honey Ryder-esque Bond girl is left for dead.  And this is only the introduction of the novel.

Artist Paul Mann completing the original artwork for the cover of Forever and a Death (from Illustrated 007).

Westlake peppers his story with completely unique characters, and readers will find they empathize with even the most minor of them as they are subjected to Curtis’s gruesome tactics.  You may need to remind yourself to breathe as well-meaning whistleblowers find themselves in Hong Kong’s underbelly just as Curtis begins to carry out a plan to walk away from his destruction with a haul of gold bars that rest in the bank vaults beneath the city.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.  James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre.  But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with.  That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.

The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision.  Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale.  Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page.  The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death.  Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk.  Or was he?  Police repeatedly return to question her.  Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.

     

Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress.  Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again.  She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity.  As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate.  The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel.  She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions.  Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader.  She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg.  She takes actions that risk her job.  So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too?  What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son?  Can we trust her?  Can we trust Cain?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of the 1985 movie Fletch, you probably think of Chevy Chase’ s humorous, over-the-top take on undercover reporter I.M. Fletcher.  But Fletch the movie was only loosely based on the award-winning mystery novels by author Gregory Mcdonald.  Mcdonald wrote dozens of novels before his death in 2008.  One of those is Snatched, a kidnapping story reprinted this year for the first time in 30 years by Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint.

Originally published in 1978 as Who Took Toby Rinaldi? in the U.S. and Snatched in the UK, Mcdonald crafted a thriller about the botched kidnapping of the eight-year-old son of a Persian Gulf region ambassador to the United Nations as he readies a proposal with global impact before the U.N.  The proposal itself is a bit of a Pelican Brief MacGuffin, but the real action follows a thug named Spike as he hides the abducted boy, Toby Rinaldi.  Toby was on his way to meet his mother Christina for a visit to a Disneyland-esque theme park in California called Fantazyland.  Key to the action and tension are the efforts and setbacks faced by Christina as she attempts to catch the kidnapper, despite her husband’s foreign security squad in the U.S. trying to keep the kidnapping secret.

   

Snatched is a great read.  Its slow, simmering pace reflects nailbiters of the 1960s-1970s like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Charley Varrick, Magnum Force, or Bullitt.  Many of the characters are intentionally frustrating.  The characters are frustrated, and that is channeled to the reader page after page.  Toby’s father is caught between the direct demands of his king and responsibility to family.  The political factions behind the kidnapping plot–a small group of tried and tested, denizen mercenaries whose failure to communicate and coordinate because of their own personal distractions cause them to trip over each other as they attempt what might otherwise be the simplest of crimes.  Despite Mcdonald’s Fletch character translated to the big screen, make no mistake:  Snatched is not a comedy.  It’s also low on violence, other than a little boy in jeopardy as the main plot point, which is handled deftly by Mcdonald.

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sinner-man-cover

When Elmore Leonard said that Laurence Block grabs the reader and never lets go, he showed he had Block figured out.  Apparently that applies back to Block’s first crime novel, just released for the first time under Block’s name after more than 50 years.  Sinner Man is one of the rare books sought out and released by Hard Case Crime, known for its publishing of never before seen, shelved novels of well-known writers and reprints of out-of-print novels from decades past.  As with Michael Crichton’s and Gore Vidal’s early lost novels, reviewed previously here at borg.com, Block knew how to craft a compelling noir piece from the start of his career.

Sinner Man follows an insurance salesman, a hothead, who accidentally kills his wife during an argument.  Instead of turning himself in and facing a manslaughter charge, he plots out a plan to create a new life, in modern parlance “off the grid.”  What will keep readers glued to the story is the path he takes, the methodical “how to” guide Block lays out for anyone who wants to disappear in the Northeast U.S. circa 1950s.  As he discusses in an afterword, some of the details allowed a criminal to vanish more simply then compared to today, which almost begs for a modern-day update.  Readers will not be able to avoid adapting and contrasting his plan to today’s world as the story develops.  According to Block, the title Sinner Man was derived from the spiritual song about a man who could not escape no matter where he turned.

Block’s anti-hero ends up working for a small city mob network.  His lead is a typical bad man with tastes for booze and good clothes.  Readers will not be cheering for him as much as wondering when and how he is going to “get what’s coming to him” if the classic Crime Does Not Pay lesson from pulp stories rings true.  He’s a thug, he’s violent toward women, and becomes a killer for hire.  The mob here isn’t the kind you’d find in the Godfather, but more like the lower echelon heavies in Casino and Goodfellas.

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triggerman_1_cover_a    peepland_1_cover_c

Some of our favorite books we’ve reviewed at borg.com are the pulp noir novels from Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint.  We’ve read the obscure-but-excellent, previously unpublished or out-of-print works from the likes of Stephen King, Gore Vidal, Ed McBain, Michael Crichton, and more, all from one publishing house.  Next month Hard Case Crime is turning to the comic book medium to offer new, serialized stories that could have come straight from early 20th century magazines.  And we have previews below for borg.com readers.

First up is Triggerman, Issue #1, available in comic book stores this week.  It’s a Prohibition era story from producer/screenwriter/director giant Walter Hill (Deadwood, Red Heat, Aliens film series, Last Man Standing, Geronimo, Rustler’s Rhapsody, Crossroads, 48 Hrs, Brewster’s Millions, The Getaway, The Long Riders), French writer Matz, and the artist known as Jef, who supplies some evocative, classic pulp style imagery.  It’s billed as a Lawless meets Bonnie & Clyde story.  Fans of Road to Perdition will love this series.

triggerman_1_cover_b    peepland_1_cover_d

Peepland, Issue #1, begins a semi-autobiographical, neo-noir tale from novelists Christa Faust (Money Shot, Nightmare on Elm Street) & Gary Phillips (The Underbelly, The Rinse).  Peepland is billed as Taxi Driver meets Goodfellas, with gorgeous art from Andrea Camerini (Il Troio).  Fans of Howard Chaykin’s Satellite Sam should check out this new series.

Here are preview pages and cover art, courtesy of Hard Case Crime:
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Westlake Forever and a Death Hard Case Crime

Whether you knew him as Tucker Coe, Curt Clark, Samuel Holt, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Judson Jack Carmichael–or Richard Stark–you’ve probably read something by hard-boiled crime novelist and mystery writer Donald E. Westlake.  His most famous of these were probably his Parker novels, written under the pen name Richard Stark.  Westlake passed away eight years ago, but after more than 100 novels have hit the bookstores over the decades yet another as-yet unpublished Westlake novel will be released next year.

True to form as the latest groundbreaking imprint for true crime fans, Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime will be releasing Westlake’s Forever and a Death next year.  Aficionados of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and all the movie adaptations should take note.  Forever and a Death was actually the title of a “what if” of sorts.  Westlake submitted a story with this title (as well as alternate titles Dragonsteeth, Never Look Back, Nobody Dies, and On Borrowed Time) as a possible script for the movie that would have been the sequel to Goldeneye.

It turns out Eon Productions rejected the story so Westlake rewrote the story, swapping out the name James Bond.  That novel is carrying a cover similar to all the other exceptional Hard Case Crime retro-style poster artwork covers we’ve seen so far (J.K. Rowling has even called the Hard Case Crime series design “stunning”).  The cover for Forever and a Death was painted by artist Paul Mann.  And it looks like it would fit in with the exquisite Richie Fahey and Roseanne Serra cover art that graced the line of 14 paperback Bond novels for Fleming’s centenary celebration back in 2008, like these:

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Cut Me In Ed McBain

Review by C.J. Bunce

Some writers know how to suck you right in from the first page.  Take the late author Evan Hunter aka Ed McBain.  In his 1953 novel The Proposition (published under another pseudonym, Hunt Collins) McBain gave his lead character Josh Blake a timeless voice that conjures a confident, put-upon literary agent melting in the sweltering summer city heat, trying to cut himself in on a big deal that will land him the good life–like a million dollar home and a big swimming pool.  Blake is like a mash-up between Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Chinatown and Nicholson’s Will Randall in the film Wolf–written decades before either character was created.  Think Gittes because of the pulp noir mystery, and Randall because we’re maneuvering the politics of the literary world.

Why single out a 1950s crime mystery by Ed McBain?  Because the folks at Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime found this gem, and have released it this year for the first time in more than 60 years.  Originally published as The Proposition by Hunt Collins, it was later published as Hunt Collins’ Cut Me In–a great title that fits the story much better.  The new edition, labeled as a McBain novel, features a classic style pulp cover by Robert McGinnis with a dead ringer for Suzanne Somers.  She sits by the pool, the pool that is the target of Josh Blake’s affection.  So if you’re like this reader, you’re seeing Nicholson and Somers play out this great movie that never was.

The Proposition paperback

And you can read the first chapter of Cut Me In right now.  First, just the facts.

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Thieves Fall Out

Review by C.J. Bunce

Gore Vidal’s Thieves Fall Out is being re-released by Titan Books after more than 60 years out-of-print, as part of its Hard Case Crimes imprint.  During his lifetime Vidal refused to re-publish Thieves Fall Out, his “lost pulp novel,” thinking it not up to the quality of his later, more serious works.  The both complex and complicated American author of fiction and non-fiction died in 2012.  His estate authorized the release of this novel, which hits bookstores tomorrow, giving readers an opportunity to see a phase in the development of the celebrated writer before he received his fame.

His tenth book and the only novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay (after his great uncle), Vidal wrote the crime novel in 1953 while he was in essence blacklisted by a New York Times critic for the then controversial themes in his novel The City and the Pillar.  To make a living he was also writing crime novels as Edgar Box and this novel was written while those mysteries were moderately successful.  Forget about any controversy surrounding this book’s release–if you like pulp crime novels and you’re someone who shies away from the works mainstream audiences gravitate toward–like Vidal’s numerous celebrated works–then Thieves Fall Out just may be the kind of novel you’re after.

Original cover of Thieves Fall Out Gore Vidal as Cameron Kay

Thieves Fall Out is the post-World War II story of an American who finds himself looking for work in Egypt while young German expatriates were reeling from the wartime acts of their elders and the fall of Nazism.  The American becomes a puppet for local Cairo gangster types and has a few romantic encounters as he stumbles into a group of jewel thieves.  Like Michael Crichton’s crime novels (that were also written under a pseudonym and reviewed previously here at borg.com) and even like Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (especially with the womanizing leading male), Thieves Fall Out is, on the one hand, another spy-genre novel that you can imagine was just one of hundreds of gobbled up by readers in the 1950s–a quick, easy read.  Its plot and style are familiar–a cocky American attempts to make the world his own despite local cultures and politics and in turn finds himself in over his head through his own missteps.

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Joyland cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Tomorrow Stephen King’s newest novel, Joyland, hits the shelves already a pre-release #1 Bestseller.  Come back to borg.com Friday, June 7, 2013, for information on how to win copies of an exclusive edition of Joyland or canvas cover prints of the novel’s artwork from Titan Books, publisher of the Hard Case Crime imprint, as part of the Stephen King-Joyland online book tour.

As a fan of many Stephen King movies and TV series based on his books, strangely enough I never made it through a Stephen King novel before now.  Because King’s adapted visual works have been so consistent, I found the easy-going storytelling in Joyland to be very familiar.  Joyland contains themes found in the innocence of Stand By Me (based on King’s novella The Body) and Silver Bullet (based on King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf), the supernatural of The Green Mile (based on King’s serial novel of the same name), and the Northeast U.S. town-life found in the TV series Haven (based on King’s The Colorado Kid) and The Dead Zone (based on King’s novel).  King’s storytelling is very recognizable–you’d know his style anywhere.  And Joyland is not horror, but a blend of true crime-type drama mixed with King’s signature violent/explicit/graphic accounts of not just the crime that is the focus of the story but the life of the protagonist.  Yet it is also a coming of age story for the 20s set–written in a manner similar to classic middle grade and young adult works, like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Tex, and even some of Judy Blume’s works.

Old Joyland Amusement Park

Old Joyland Amusement Park (King’s is a fictional park)

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