Tag Archive: Hard Case Crime


Review by C.J. Bunce

As you look at that great Paul Mann cover art for Blood Sugar, would you ever guess the following describes what is inside?  A modern-day look at the struggles of a teenager in a broken home and broken society in the vein of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (or any of her early books, for that matter).  It has the gritty street life from Attack the Block, Do the Right Thing, or Car Wash, the “being different” of Lucas (the film with Corey Haim) and the coming of age confusion and angst of Stephen King’s Stand By Me aka The Body and issues kids worry about like in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  What?

In one way Blood Sugar is the worst written novel you’ll ever read.  And in another way, it’s the kind of story that should already be optioned to become an independent film.  That “bad writing” is tricky, because the story is told in an experimental manner through the voice of a young teenager named Jody, a boy whose life is a mess and whose street sense surpasses any “book learning” he passed up in his life so far.  Author Daniel Kraus, through the voice of Jody, speaks in rambling sentences, stream of conscience thoughts, and with little punctuation and grammar (no apostrophes, etc.).  It’s distracting at first to the point a reader may just walk away, but it doesn’t take too long to realize Kraus’s characters are real if not disturbingly so.  Yes, they are a mess, but this book might be worthwhile in the hands of the right kid.  Kraus is a screenplay writer, known for his script to The Shape of Water and his young adult works.  It no doubt takes some commitment to write an entire story in this strange manner.  His novel reads like a screenplay, and it’s far more a young adult novel than anything you’ve read before in the Hard Case Crime series.  It’s not a fun read–it’s dark, and desperate, and dire–the kids have no good path ahead, and their plight is like that of the doomed kids in Bless the Beasts and Children.  But it’s one heckuva thought-provoking drama.

Jody is a funny, dumb, impressionable kid.  He hasn’t read much but he knows The Lord of the Rings movies backward and forward.  He rarely swears, instead using goofy swapped words for profanity, which drops the serious and sometimes violent nature of the content into something that should pass for a PG-13 rating, something like I would have read in eighth grade.  This is a dark story of drugs and living in a rat-infested, inner-city project, of mental health issues, bad parenting, of youth gone amok, all in that same theme–but in an updated 21st century way–as Rebel Without a Cause, or any of the books referenced above.  And everything in Jody’s life hits a turning point on Halloween.  This is not your typical crime novel.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

We scuffled.  He had a gun.  So did I.  I’m alive.  He’s dead.

Twenty years before Jessica Jones, there was Ms. Tree, writer Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beatty′s 1980s private eye with the clever homonym name.  Her husband a cop, killed by the head of a crime family, she sought her revenge and went to jail for it.  Now she’s back and the killer’s sister is looking to get her own revenge.  A private detective running her own agency, she finds her son has fallen in love with the niece of his father’s killer, the daughter of the woman who is now reaching out to her.  That’s where readers meet Ms. Tree in the first chapter of Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother, a new collection of classic stories that will bring readers unfamiliar with Ms. Tree’s exploits current as she’s embroiled in her never-ending conflict with the Muerta crime family.  The 268 pages play out like a crime TV series, like Magnum, p.i. or Simon & Simon, maybe with some Rockford Files thrown in thanks to Collins’ ever-present noir style.

Ms. Tree is her own character.  She doesn’t have the quirks and antics of progenitors like Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool or the meticulous process of a Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher.  But she does have the edginess we’d later see with Veronica Mars and Jessica Jones.  She’s a bit older, and because of Terry Beatty’s classic artistic style (reminiscent of Crime Does Not Pay and Dick Tracy), you may just wonder if she’s going to duck behind the curtains and emerge with a Miss Fury catsuit at some point.  Drawn by Beatty like a V.I. Warshawski era Kathleen Turner, she’s also not Jackie Brown–this woman plays by the rules, but the aura of her agency has that feel of Max Cherry’s agency in Elmore Leonard’s story.

With a style (in both writing and artwork) like Mike Grell’s Green Arrow, Collins populates his story with a variety of supporting characters like you’d find in the world of his Quarry series.  Characters like her friend on the police force Rafe Valer, and her colleague Dan Green, who has a hook for a hand in a call-out to J.J. Armes, the famous real-life detective in the 1970s (who had two hooks for hands).  The first book in this series, Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother, includes reprints of the stories Gift of Death, Drop Dead Handsome, The Family Way, Maternity Leave, and One Mean Mother, with an appendix featuring Collins discussing why Ms. Tree hasn’t made it to the small or big screen, and a related tie-in short story with a more modern take on the character (and without the pictures), Inconvenience Store.  Ms. Tree was featured in an earlier Hard Case Crime novel by Collins, Deadly Beloved.  In this volume Ms. Tree reads like it must have been the inspiration for Marge Gunderson’s storyline in Fargo, and the final seasons of In Plain Sight’s Mary Shannon.

Take a look at Beatty’s use of color, 1980s style, in these excerpts from the book:

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Review by C.J. Bunce

With his Vietnam veteran-turned-hitman Quarry, author Max Allan Collins has built a substantial, possibly never-ending crime noir series.  Now at book 14 and adding a 15th this November with Hard Case Crime’s release of Killing Quarry, Collins has surpassed the number of books Collins’ pal Mickey Spillane published about Mike Hammer.  Collins has finished or co-authored nearly as many crime novels with Spillane posthumously, reflecting the prolific nature of Collins’ crime writing and expertise.  And that’s not even addressing Collins’ noteworthy Road to Perdition, five other book series and countless tie-in novels.  Cinemax′s 2016 series Quarry is inspired by Collins’ character, and thanks to writers/show creators Graham Gordy, Michael D. Fuller, with an episode by Collins and another by Jennifer Schuur, you have eight intriguing episodes of television waiting for you.  Its eight episodes are now streaming on Vudu, Amazon Prime, other platforms, as well as home video.

Director Greg Yaitanes created a rarely seen snippet of history as the backdrop for the series, with show lead Logan Marshall-Green (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Prometheus) as Mac Conway, dubbed Quarry as the show progresses, accused with his friend of misdeeds in Vietnam as he returns home to Memphis after his second tour.  Along with the Vietnam War and its aftermath is turmoil with bussing a desegration that envelopes his friend’s family.  Costume designer Patia Prouty, who worked on Almost Famous, Justified, and Pulp Fiction, re-creates the good but mainly the bad designs of the era, with equally good art and production design that will have you feeling like you’re been transported back in time.  Conway is quickly reeled into a local (and somewhat yokel) crime underworld, resulting in his friend’s death and requiring him to kill for the local, quirky kingpin to earn off the amount his buddy owed.

It’s Cinemax, so expect more sex and bloody gore than necessary, but you’ll feel enough sympathy for Marshall-Green’s Conway as a put-upon anti-hero that you’ll keep coming back for more as ugly and as strange as he finds his circumstances.  The supporting cast fills into the layered characters nicely, with Jodi Balfour (True Detective) as his wife, Peter Mullan (Children of Men) as the kingpin called The Broker, Nikki Amuka-Bird (Doctor Who, Jupiter Ascending) as his friend’s widow, and Mustafa Shakir (Marvel’s Luke Cage) as her mysterious new admirer.  Damon Herriman (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is outstanding as an intermediary with The Broker, a layered character who has his own problems beyond his job as killer and killer’s aide.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

A smartly constructed assemblage of events and characters collided in a tightly written crime story in Edgar-winning writer Duane Swierczynski′s mini-series, Breakneck One of the most exciting of Hard Case Crime and Titan Comics′ line of books and comics based in a modern setting, Breakneck is a spy tale, terrorist story, and diehard action thriller about an unassuming Everyman who gets mixed up with a federal agent trying to foil a terrorist bombing in historic downtown Philadelphia.  The four-issue series from this past winter is getting released in a trade paperback this month, and is available for pre-order now here at Amazon (the UK edition is in bookstores now).  Fans of the crime genre and quick action graphic novel reads will find this story worth checking out.

If an incapacitated federal agent needed your help to save the world in the next 93 minutes, could you drop everything and do anything imaginable to help, even if that agent is someone you hated so much you were planning his death?  Swierczynski doesn’t give you any time to answer that question, as he sweeps the protagonist into a seedy motel, with guns pointing in every direction, guys being thrown from windows, and a woman tied up asking for help.  Before you have time to ask how all these characters keep crashing back together, another woman is tapped to join in the race to stop the end of the city from happening.

  

Artists Simone Guglielmini and Raffaele Semeraro, and colorists Lovern Kindzierski and Chris Chuckry nicely choreographed 109 pages of action with the streets of Philadelphia as a backdrop.  Breakneck began as a novel for Swierczynski, which then turned into a screenplay, and finally landed as a comic book story.  An excerpt of the novel is included as an appendix in the new graphic novel format compilation.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Fans of any character or universe love their fandom and often can’t get enough of it.  It’s why writers keep writing new versions of Frankenstein 201 years later and new stories featuring James Bond 66 years later and Sherlock Holmes 132 years later.  Fans of writer Mickey Spillane′s Mike Hammer novels (or the Darren McGavin or Stacy Keach television series) have not just the 13 novels Spillane wrote beginning 72 years ago, but now a full two dozen thanks to Spillane’s co-conspirator of hard-boiled crime and his successor, Max Allan Collins.  In last year’s centenary of Spillane’s birth, that meant the release of the unpublished first Mike Hammer novel Killing Town (reviewed here at borg).  Using the combined talents of Spillane and Collins, it’s a crime story as good as they get.  With the latest team-up of Spillane and Collins, Murder, My Love, Collins proves he has mastered the voice of the famous cop-turned-private eye.  This book is 100% end-to-end Collins, as the writer says he worked from Spillane’s notes but all of the prose is new material.  And that’s fabulous, because this book is all Mike Hammer at his best.

As with Killing Town, Collins’ Murder, My Love is a shorter Hammer novel and a quick read.  Personally at 200 pages I find it the ideal length–all pulp novels, classic paperback mysteries, true crime novels, etc. should be able to be gobbled up in a single trip (like on a Greyhound bus from Detroit to Cincinnati or a train from Omaha to Denver).  I soaked up Murder, My Love in two sittings, and it was an entirely satisfying read, complete with Hammer and his assistant/also cop-turned P.I., Velda, who Collins writes cleverly here first person in a few pages of “off-camera” playback that is some of the best material in the book.

Max Allan Collins signing at San Diego Comic-Con in 2018.

It’s a story set later in Hammer’s career, with Collins establishing a perfect picture of New York City from a few decades ago as he takes a U.S. senator on as a client, a senator with White House ambitions.  Unfortunately he and his wife have a history of extramarital affairs and now someone else knows, resulting in blackmail.  Hammer and Velda embark on the detective work, interviewing the subjects of the senator’s liaisons.  Once they find the schemer behind the blackmail, that’s when the body count begins.  One-by-one the possible suspects end up dead, and Hammer isn’t exempt from getting in the line of fire.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Crime novels tend to include an element of mystery.  Usually the attraction for the reader is going along for the ride with the detective, the cop, the private eye, or the wrongly accused.  Some novels have variations on the theme, but few are purely character studies that begin with the reveal of the murderer and then take readers on the pathway of whydunit.  That’s not 100% what’s going on in Oakley Hall′s So Many Doors, but it’s close.  First published in 1950 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 60 years, So Many Doors centers around Vassilia Baird, a teen girl who, despite her father’s best efforts, ends up in the arms of a bad boy, resulting in a downward spiral that leads to her death.  Hall’s writing has a storytelling quality that may make it a good study for writers, but, despite his quick prose, it is bogged down with ugly characters in the obscure world of Depression era bulldozer operators.

At first Baird is the obvious character whose cause needs championed–an innocent.  But without explanation, she’s transformed overnight into a femme fatale.  Hall does not give the reader enough access to her to understand anything personal, any motivation, any reason other than she’s in the position of the novel that a reader should ordinarily be sympathetic toward, until she isn’t.  Hall never gets into her head, instead choosing to provide access to others who were part of her life, including an odd father, a would-be friend, a creepy much older neighbor, and her murderer.  Readers will not likely find those characters as particularly real either, or follow common sense (or decency toward others in many cases), or participate in the average person’s experience with the human condition.  And the single twist is predictable.  It’s unfortunate, because the set-up is brilliantly introduced upfront: A public defender is assigned to the bad boy, who refuses his services and admits to murdering Baird (known throughout the story as “V”).  But that’s followed by 300 pages of waiting for something exciting to happen and the action never again matches the first chapter.

The fact that So Many Doors saw acclaim in 1950 is unfortunately telling about the era, a story full of shockingly smarmy or cowardly men on the one hand and stock naïve and stock evil women.  It wants to be Vera Caspary’s Laura, but isn’t.  Instead the leads are caricatures of characters with little chemistry out of The Great Gatsby, embedded in a setting from The Giant and East of Eden and unpleasant interactions and relationships like those found in On the Waterfront and Dangerous Liaisons.  That kind of tale may very well still have an audience out there, but the sum of the parts may not add up for modern readers.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Our look at the works of master crime writer Donald E. Westlake continues with his 22nd novel published under his own name and 75th (give or take) novel in all, Brothers Keepers, reprinted this month by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 30 years.  It’s a deeply human, thoughtful, descriptive, and humor-filled look at a monk named Brother Benedict living in a 200-year-old monastery in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. When a 99-year lease on the land on which his monastery was built expires, and no one can find the original lease contract, the monks’ lives are upended.  The problem is the land has become too valuable for the underlying owners–successors to the landowners that granted the lease during the American Revolution–not to cash out.  The crime is real:  Someone has stolen the lease from the monks, and worse for the Brotherhood, they believe one of the monks conspired with the landowners to hide knowledge of their rights until newly issued options to buy the land vest–meaning any rights the monks may have cease–on New Year’s Day, only a few weeks away.

You’ll hear the Jack Ryan line in The Hunt for Red October, “next time, Jack, write a memo,” as Brother Benedict becomes the monks’ bearer of bad news, only learning of the lease situation by reading the newspaper and seeing it mentioned as part of a story on the skyscraper set to replace the current buildings on the block.  Soon he is the designated instrument of solving the problem, requiring him to travel, a concept that is anathema to the Brotherhood: travel is to be avoided at all cost.  When he accompanies a more authoritative monk to confront one of the owners on his posh estate, a chance encounter with the owner’s attractive daughter prompts Brother Benedict to question his vows.  When another encounter finds the monk and the woman target of a mugging, Brother Benedict has no choice but to confront his curiosity and fears, taking on more and more of the burden to find the original lease, rumored to have an automatic renewal clause that grants his Brotherhood–The Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum–the right to renew the lease for another 99 years in the Brotherhood’s sole discretion.

First edition of Westlake’s Brothers Keepers.

For those familiar with property law, there’s a nearly unimpeachable attention to the law of leases that becomes the through line of the story.  The rights of landowners, the public interest of preserving historical structures, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, all intertwine with an order of monks who simply want to live their repeated, weekly routine without interfering with–or being bothered by–the outside world.  The result is Brothers Keepers, a one-sitting read, a 300-page, laugh-out-loud (at least one laugh every other page) page turner that makes for the perfect follow-up to Hard Case Crime’s most recent Westlake reprint, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, another highly recommended retro-read reviewed here at borg last year.

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Our borg Best of 2018 list continues today with the Best in Print.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2018 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2018 here, and the Best in Television 2018 here.

So let’s get going.  Here are our selections for this year’s Best in Print:

Best Read, Best Sci-fi Read – The Synapse Sequence by Daniel Godfrey (Titan Books).  The Synapse Sequence is one of those standout reads that reflects why we all flock to the latest new book in the first place.  The detective mystery, the future mind travel tech, the twists, and the successful use of multiple perspectives made this one of the most engaging sci-fi reads since Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.  Honorable mention: Solo: A Star Wars Story novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).

Best Retro Read – Killing Town by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Hard Case Crime).  The lost, first Mike Hammer novel released for the 100th anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth was gold for noir crime fans.  This first Hammer story introduced an origin for a character that had never been released, in fact never finished, but Spillane’s late career partner on his work made a seamless read.  This was the event of the year for the genre, and a fun ride for his famous character.  Honorable mention: Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner, by Donald E. Westlake.

Best Tie-In Book – Solo: A Star Wars Story–Expanded Edition novelization by Mur Lafferty (Del Rey).  Not since Donald Glut’s novelization of The Empire Strikes Back had we encountered a Star Wars story as engaging as this one.  Lafferty took the final film version and Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s script to weave together something fuller than the film on-screen.  Surprises and details moviegoers may have overlooked were revealed, and characters were introduced that didn’t make the final film cut.  Better yet, the writing itself was exciting.  We read more franchise tie-ins than ever before this year, and many were great reads, but this book had it all.  Honorable Mention: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove (Titan).

Best Genre Non-fiction – Hitchcock’s Heroines by Caroline Young (Insight Editions).  A compelling look at the director and his relationship with the leading women in his films, this new work on Hitchcock was filled with information diehard fans of Hitchcock will not have seen before.  Young incorporated behind-the-scenes images, costume sketches, and a detailed history of the circumstances behind key films of the master of suspense and his work with some of Hollywood’s finest performers.

There’s much more of our selections for 2018’s Best in Print to go…

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Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s the first time in print since 1968.  Erle Stanley Gardner‘s The Count of 9, sixty years after its first printing, the 18th novel featuring the crime detective agency Cool & Lam is back thanks to the Hard Case Crime imprint.  Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, penned a classic crime mystery of stolen rare artifacts and murder.  Featuring protagonist Donald Lam, the low key sleuth who ends up a punching bag by the bad guys as often as not, is joined by the trademark brief encounters of the brash, hard-boiled Bertha Cool, simply the best female detective in all of noir crime novels.

Cool tries to promote the agency, trying to get its name out there to establish a reputation for serving a higher brand of clientele.  She personally takes on the security for a wealthy world traveler, when her idea goes bust.  So why not bring in Lam and hand off the clean-up to him?  This time Lam is left to dodge two sultry art world dilettantes, both accused of the thefts, but only one will be his client.  When one of their husband’s is murdered, Lam must double back and solve both cases.  But first he must also dodge some hired thugs and worse, the local cops.

 

Will Donald Lam ever get a break?  Favorite noir secretary Elsie Brand is also back, but this time the office picks up a new file clerk, who can’t stop attracting the roaming eyes of the men who stop by the agency.  More Cool losing her Cool, more bruises for Lam.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

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