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Tag Archive: pulp novels


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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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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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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