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Tag Archive: Hard Case Crime


Review by C.J. Bunce

Every creator had to have their first work.  For Michael Crichton, that was Odds On, a heist novel written while he was in medical school, published under the pen name John Lange.  Odds On was re-released after nearly 50 years, before Crichton’s death, along with seven other “lost” novels, by Hard Case Crime (check out links below to my previous reviews in the series).  Odds On is both a classic product of its time and a study in writing, as we the readers get the benefit of hindsight, knowing what Crichton would later become.  In Odds On, we get to see the author begin to establish what would become his own unique storytelling style.

Although this is not Crichton at its best, every newfound Crichton book is a pleasure to read.  Some of his John Lange novels have better storytelling than a few of his later pre-Jurassic Park novels.  For all the commonality you can find among his five decades of works, the subject of each is varied and his characters also intriguing and different.  But Crichton novels often are gripping, unputdownable reads that ultimately fail to deliver a satisfying ending.  Odds On shows that quirk was there from day one.  Yet, if you’re a fan of the 1960s version of “trashy” pulp novels, with oversexed guys, oversexed gals, and a few crime twists, the ride is a good one.  This is the Crichton novel Doubleday rejected for being too “saucy.”

  

A twist on the pulp trashy novel, sex becomes a factor for each of the main characters in the book, and there are plenty of characters to get to.  Odds On follows a mastermind planning a heist of jewelry at a new luxury hotel in Spain.  He has enlisted two other men and this new-fangled contraption, a computer, and its “critical path analysis” program, to plan the heist.  The only thing the computer doesn’t tell him is he and his men would have better odds at success if they laid off the pregame sexcapades, or the actual habits and patterns of individuals who frequent high-end hotels.  Crichton deserves some credit–this is not the misogynistic fare of Ian Fleming and other contemporaries.  Sure, some of his characters are drooling, brainless Neanderthals, but the women all are strong, defiant, and intriguing in their own ways.  Crichton was certainly ahead of his time in this genre.  Unlike his later works, his leads are not as fleshed out as his supporting characters, here that’s four very different women who drive the story forward and keep the reader engaged until the final chapter.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Crime stories are full of dark places and dark characters, characters like Waldo Lydecker in Vera Caspary’s Laura, Rebecca DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Jim Williams in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Barbara Sabich in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Catherine Trammell in Joe Eszterhas’s Basic Instinct, Noah Cross in Robert Towne’s Chinatown.  But what if you were to populate an entire story with only the most vile of these characters, everyone despicable, reprehensible, soulless.  Then you would have Richard Vine’s crime novel Soho Sins.

The New York City in Vine’s novel can’t really exist, and if it does it explains a lot about its perceived debauchery-filled subculture of million dollar art deals and even bigger real estate deals.  Most noir novels take you into places that dip into the dark, but along the way you meet a few “cool” characters, characters that have a trait or two you’d want to emulate, even if they are bad at their very core in a nice, pulp novel way.  That’s not the case in the Soho of Vine’s New York of two decades past (for those not familiar with New York, Soho is the lower Manhattan neighborhood known for its artist lofts and art galleries).  Nobody is personable, likeable, enviable, charming, or authentic.  And this ugliness means that as you forge ahead in a densely crafted 384 pages, the way Vine tells his story and the way he incorporates the shock and awe of the depravity, self-hatred, and apathy, is necessary to keep you engaged.  To Vine’s credit, it all works, complete with a couple of eleventh hour whoppers at the end of the tale.  Not bad at all for a first time novelist.

Vine takes you on a journey through New York City that illustrates in fine detail everything that is bad about the city, primarily in its wealthiest, seediest corners.  Vine brings his years of experience in the contemporary art world to provide a peep show peek into a world where artists and dealers live for no purpose other than to impress and outdo each other.  Our tour guide is a member of this vapid class, art dealer and real estate owner Jackson Wyeth, whose lack of true compassion and concern for anyone including himself at first make it difficult to tag along.  Vine partners him with an old friend, an ex-cop private eye named Hogan, who is a welcome relief from all the banality of the modern art trade and its actors, but ultimately, he and Wyeth are just two sides of a tarnished coin.  Hogan is after the murderer who shot Wyeth’s best friend Philip Oliver’s wife Angela, and Hogan uses Wyeth to introduce him to the art scene, a close-knit club, to prove whether or not Philip committed the murder.  And, by the way, Philip has already confessed to the crime.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The life of master magician Harry Houdini intersected with many other celebrities of the day, and a few of them come into play in a new four-issue comic book series by writer and artist Cynthia von Buhler.  A new addition to Titan Comics’ Hard Case Crime works, Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini tracks the magician in the 20 days leading up to his death on October 31, 1926.  Incredibly enough only the strangest elements of von Buhler’s series are real.  Minky Woodcock is the writer’s creation–the daughter of a private investigator who is hired first by Arthur Conan Doyle to help him discredit Houdini, she is then hired by Houdini’s wife as a magician’s assistant to keep tabs on him.  The blend of the true and the fabricated is smoothly drawn together into an impressive tale of 1920s debauchery, fraud, celebrity, and spectacle.

Yes, Houdini and Doyle were once friends, and their relationship fell apart over their views on spiritualism.  Doyle employed a bizarre spiritualist for Houdini (appearing in the comic) who conducted séances in the nude (who knew the 1920s had such characters?).  When Houdini’s mother was summoned, communicating through the medium in the form of a letter, Houdini was quickly able to see the fraud as an image of a cross appeared and the language was written in English.  Houdini’s mother was Jewish and spoke no English.

 

Von Buhler writes and illustrates both her heroine Minky Woodcock and Houdini’s wife Bess as fascinating women of the 1920s.  Von Buhler’s artistic style is perfectly suited for the story–her women look like they emerged from 16mm film from the Golden Age of cinema–she uses pen and ink with a watercolor method that makes the issues of the series look like they’re printed on classic pulp paper.  And her renderings of Harry and Bess Houdini look like their photographs.

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Our borg.com Best of 2017 list continues today with the Best in Print.  If you missed them, check out our review of the Best Movies of 2017 here, the Kick-Ass Heroines of 2017 here, and the Best in Television here.

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

Best New Edition of Previous Published WorkThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, David Petersen (IDW Publishing).  David Petersen’s artwork was the perfect excuse to get Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful classic The Wind in the Willows into the hands of new readers.  The new edition from IDW Publishing was the perfect storybook, and Petersen, known best for his Mouse Guard series, showed his understanding of these characters and their natural world full of wonder through his fantasy images.

Best Read, Best Retro Read – Forever and a Death, Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime).  Not every good idea comes to fruition.  Not every excellent project gets off the ground.  Not every great book gets published.  The Hard Case Crime imprint of Titan Books came through again, seizing the opportunity to take a lost, never before published work of Donald E. Westlake--Forever and a Death--and brought it to life.  And what a great adventure!  Originally the story commissioned to be the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, the projected was shelved, and only now do we get fantastic characters (like environmental activist and diver Kim Baldur) in a very Bondian situation–destroying Hong Kong as payback for China taking it back from Great Britain.  Honorable mention for Best Retro Read: Turn on the Heat, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Dragon Teeth, Michael Crichton.

Best Sci-Fi Read – Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: A Novel of Retropolis, Bradley W. Schenck (Tor Books).  Imaginative, new, and fun, Schenck took us into a timeless world full of nostalgia and classic science fiction.  Great tech, and a sprawling story.  Interesting characters and great world-building, this novel will be a great surprise for sci-fi readers.  Honorable mention: War for the Planet of the Apes: Revelations, Greg Keyes.

Best Fantasy Read – An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock (Tor Books).  The plot of this debut novel is labyrinthine and action-packed, full of assassination attempts from all quarters, courtly intrigue galore, grandiose philosophies, and a cast of characters anchored by the strong, smart, resourceful, and eminently likeable heroes.  Supporting everything is Craddock’s strong, confident, often-funny, and sharply observant writing that goes from heart-wrenching to hilarious on a single page without missing a beat.  A dazzling debut.

Best Genre Non-fiction – Middle-Earth: From Script to Screen, Daniel Falconer (Harper Design).  We wish every genre franchise had such a magnificent, thorough, monumental guide.  Falconer’s guide to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies is full of interviews at all levels of the creative process, and supported by concept art, photographs, maps, and so much more.  Worthy of the six films it covers, it’s the ultimate fan book and a model for any franchise attempting to put everything fans could want into a single volume.

There’s much more of our selections for 2017’s Best in Print and more, after the jump…

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The downside to discovering an author that’s new to you but who passed away decades ago is that no more novels will be coming your way from that author.  But that’s not necessarily the case if that author is Erle Stanley Gardner, and you’re reading something newly published from Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint.  Ardai continues to locate lost, never before published novels, and reprints some of the best forgotten works from decades of great pulp crime novels.  Hard Case Crime released the never-before published Gardner novel The Knife Slipped last year.  Back in 1940 The Knife Slipped was rejected by Gardner’s publisher because of his lead character, a brash and brilliant private investigator named Bertha Cool, who Gardner describes as “profane, massive, belligerent, and bulldog,” and in her first case her tendency to “talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people” was enough to reject the story.  Gardner promptly replaced the novel with Turn on the Heat, the second in his Cool and Lam series, a series that would expand to 30 novels.  And if Gardner’s name is familiar it may be because he also created the popular mystery genre icon Perry Mason (Gardner would write 86 cases featuring his famous lawyer).  At his death in 1970, Gardner was the #1 bestselling author of all time, with hundreds of millions of books in print.  Turn on the Heat was published in 1940 under Gardner’s pseudonym, A.A. Fair.  A reader of both Gardner and Fair, master crime novelist Raymond Chandler once accused Fair of stealing a plot point from a Gardner novel.

Turn on the Heat plays out from the viewpoint of Cool’s employee, ex-lawyer and full-time private eye Donald Lam.  Lam tells his story in that sweeping, pull-us-all-along-for-the-ride manner that Archie Goodwin embraced in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series.  It helps that Lam is a fan of Cool, but his tolerance for her domineering style brings him to his limits more than once in the story.  But the feeling is purely mutual.  Lam seems to forget he’s an employee and spends too much from the expense account.  Like Stout’s Prisoner’s Base case where Goodwin lied to Wolfe to keep him out of trouble, Lam must lie to Cool to protect her, and as with Wolfe, Cool doesn’t like it one bit.  Cool has the business acumen and savvy, but Lam also knows the score and is able to stay ahead of all the players almost all the time, as he attempts to solve the case for the client, protect the agency, protect Cool, protect himself from a murder rap, protect a girl from a murder rap, keep the D.A. off his case, and somehow serve a little revenge to the thug who keeps roughing him up.

Cool has taken on a new client and sets Lam about tracking down the client’s estranged wife, missing for twenty years.  Lam is a feet-on-the-street detective, but his leads dry up quickly.  When the wife shows up at a local hotel, Lam finds the case leading in an unpredictable direction, and he soon becomes bent on thwarting efforts of the police, the D.A., and even his client to keep him from the truth.  Not convoluted or contrived as many other crime novels of the day (and today), Gardner’s mystery is well-paced and doesn’t employ any far-flung solution to wrap-up the whodunnit.  Gardner’s prose was far ahead of its day in many ways–three times I turned to the copyright page to verify this book was actually written in 1940 because of sentences and word-usage I would have wagered had not come into the American lexicon until decades later.

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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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