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Books: Hard Case Crime

Last year I embarked on an ambitious project to read the finest contemporary fiction, an endeavor I dubbed The 2005 Booklist Project. And it worked, for a while: I read House of Leaves, perhaps my favorite book of the last decade; I read other experimental fictions such as Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler's Wife, as well as more traditional narratives such as Blindness and Oracle Night. And I loaded up my bedside table still more recommendations; Wicked, Gilead, Life Of Pi, etc.

And then, like a drinker who resolves only to drink only the finest Bordeaux and Pinot Noir, I rediscovered the joy off getting buzzed off of a $4 bottle of drugstore merlot. Or, in this case, I discovered Hard Case Crime.

Hard Case Crime is relatively new publishing house, one that specializes in new and vintage "hardboiled" pulp fiction novels. I've always been a fan of the genre (as a teen I read scores of Earl Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane), but, in the last decade, I had found my noir in cyberpunk, steampunk, Frank Miller comics, and films in which the cinematography is best described a "caliginous." Hard Case Crime novels, though, are the real deal, full of deeply-flawed protagonists who reach for a .45 or a fifth of whiskey at the drop of a hat, and make unironic references to molls and mooks.

About half of the books in the series are reprints of classics for the form, and the others are brand new works by contemporary authors (though typically in the classic hardboiled era and tone). As most Hard Case Crime novels are around 200 pages, full of dialog, and compulsively readable, I can usually plow through an entire title in two evenings. Here are the five I have read since discovering the line:

  • 361 by Donald E. Westlake: 361 was my first, and a perfect introduction to the series. It's a reprint of a classic by one of the masters of the hardboiled form, and served as a good primer on the genre. The hero finishes off a bottle of liquor on about every third page, tangles with the mob, and carries around a piece as nonchalantly as you or I might carry around orange Tic-Tacs. 361 isn't especially well written, but I was nonetheless putting holds on every available Hard Case Crime novel at my local library moments after finishing it.
  • Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge: I don't know if it's because I spent a few years in South America, or because I had never read a "treasure hunt" novel before, but I enjoyed Plunder quite a bit. Like an Indiana Jones sequel written by Raymnd Chandler, Plunder has an archeologist hiring a petty criminal to help him locate a lost Incan fortune. Dodge manages to cram a surprising amount of ancient South American history into the book, too -- enough that you feel like you're learning something, but not so much that the story ever becomes academic. Plunder is a reprint, and recommended.
  • The Colorado Kid by Stephen King: Yes, that Stephen King. Apparently the editors at Hard Case Crime sent a few novels to King and asked if he would supply cover blurbs; instead he said he opted to write an book for the series. Colorado Kid is polarizing -- lots of people hated it, many thought it pretty good. I'm in the latter category, though I'll concede that the book is essentially a 70-page (and perhaps 20-page) short story padded out to 180 pages, the first third of which is undisguised throat-clearing.
  • Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block: Block is one of my favorite modern dark mystery writers, but, honest to God, I can hardly remember a thing about this book, even having read it only few months ago. I don't recall disliking it, but I don't recall thinking it was anything special, either (despite its winning an Edgar award). Chalk it up as forgettable -- though that's not exactly a scathing indictment in a genre as light as this one.
  • Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips: The copyright date on Blonde in 2004, but Phillips has the classic noir style down so pat that I had to double-check online to convince myself it wasn't a reprint. He's especially skilled at writing snappy patter, and the characters routinely exchanged banter that made me wish I was even half as clever with my own ad-libs. The story is kind of weak (and falls apart near the end), but the atmosphere, pacing, and dialogue are top-notch.
I get most of my Hard Case Crime novels from the library, but the books are exclusively paperback and typically only cost around $6, so I've purchased a few as well – and then, having read them, immediately give them to friends I thought would appreciate them. Hard Case even has a subscription program, where you get two novels a month for seven bucks. (I would sign up for that in a heartbeat if I hadn’t joined one of those “12 CDs for a penny!!” deals as a youth and found myself hounded by Columbia Records for years thereafter, instilling within me a lifelong fear of commercial “book clubs.” Man, there’s a Hard Case Crime novel idea right there: “CLUBBED TO DEATH: He signed on for the twelve CDs ... and he never knew peace again!”)

Posted on February 20, 2006 to Books


After a hardy meal, I like dessert. You can't go wrong with an Elmore Leonard or a Carl Haissen after something more muscular. They go down easy.

Posted by: See Wilson Go on February 22, 2006 12:20 PM

The Hard Case Crime novels sound good; my attention span isn't what it used to be.
My two cents = Anyone with an acute sense of irony and a taste for extermely challenging novels will enjoy Infinite Jest.

Posted by: Swan on February 22, 2006 12:32 PM

I read The Colorado Kid and was disappointed because I expect King to amaze me with strange ideas, but I think I remember enjoying it after wondering if I hadn't really wasted my time all the while I was reading and for a while afterwards...

this is my first post here, at least the first I remember... you are currently inspiring an entry in my rambles which will likely be tomorrow's post, preempting any others in the queue, which may or may not give you a moment of gratification, but is happening nonetheless...

I enjoyed browsing through your site and intend to link gratuitously as I rip off some of your entries... hopefully you won't mind too much since I'll be crediting you (gratuitously, mind you... perhaps even profusely)...

thanks for the amusement and knowledge... you may blame Zoot (who is rumoured to be very bad, though I wouldn't know as I left what might be my first comment there just moments before coming here, though you could blame Smash, good friend and author of the Soap Rockin! in which I play a starring role, because he's big and can take it and besides, he's from Liverpool) for my sudden appearance in your world... I'd have linked them all so you could rightly punish them, however you apparently do not allow links in your comments, which is probably a good idea even if it takes away a bit of the fun...

I hope you are laughing...

Posted by: candoor on February 22, 2006 2:01 PM

Matt -- if you like Hard Case Crime, you might also like Andrew Vachss's Burke novels. Also pretty easy to read, and also with an unlikely protagonist in the character of Burke. Search Amazon for "Andrew Vachss Burke" and you come up with 18 of them. Sounds about right.

Posted by: Eric on February 22, 2006 2:34 PM

PS... after glancing over at your dad's site, I popped back to say Happy Birthday to your little one :)

Posted by: candoor on February 22, 2006 2:56 PM

I *love* hard boiled crime novels. I mean, I'm the guy who dressed up as Raymond Chandler at the Hugo House auction a couple years ago. It's why I wrote
Planetheidi.com (shameless plug) in that style, but modernizing it. My current favorite reading are Lee Child's Jack Reacher adventures. Some are more thriller than mystery, but dayum, they are written tighter than guitar strings. Truly, dessert reading.

Posted by: dunsany on February 22, 2006 3:50 PM

You might like Carole Nelson Douglas' "Midnight Louie" books. They are sort of a pastiche of hard boiled crime mixed with modern mystery novel (with the occasional dash of soap which can be skimmed through by those not into that sort of thing). You have to be ok with cats generating dialogue, though -- the title character is feline, and narrates about half of the chapters, which does provide a quirky alternate point of view. Call it dessert or at best a late-night snack, unless you're really into the history of Las Vegas or something.

I like historical stuff myself, so my big find last year was Barbara Hambly's "Benjamin January" series. That might fall into the "artisan sandwich" category -- not quite a full-course meal, but a bit more upscale than a cheeseburger.


Posted by: edalton on February 22, 2006 7:09 PM

Try Richard Stark's Parker novels - the most kick-ass hardboiled crime novels ever. Looks like Hard Case Crime has at least one of them.

Posted by: mike on February 23, 2006 8:15 AM

I second the motion for Richard Stark's Parker novels. (Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake.) Hands down the best crime novels. Of the ones still in print, Flashfire is my favorite.

Posted by: Eric Berlin on February 23, 2006 5:06 PM

Well, I was going to recommend Richard Stark, but mike and Eric beat me to it. The only thing wrong with the Stark books is that there are only about 4 of them. Hard-bitten crime stories, told from the criminal's side of the law.

Also, check out the Nameless Detective books by Bill Pronzini. Light as a feather and lots of fun.

Posted by: Davey on February 23, 2006 7:05 PM

The Burke books are kind of intense. Lots of stories revolve around incest and pedophiles (and the horrible punishments they so richly deserve)

Posted by: Mike on February 23, 2006 11:05 PM

Dunsany, I read my first Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel, "The Enemy", last year. Damn good stuff. Since I live near Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where the novel is obviously based, it was even better for me.

Posted by: Davey on February 24, 2006 4:06 AM

Only four Stark novels? Pshaw! The number is actually 25 -- Westlake's been churning these out since the 60's. The earliest novels (The Hunter, The Man With The Getaway Face, The Outfit) were reprinted a few years back and should still be available. The most recent six novels started coming out less than ten years ago, and are definitely still around. These are Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, Firebreak, Breakout, and, having grown tired of that titling conceit, Nobody Runs Forever. (That last is not one of the better ones, alas.)

My wife and I have collected most of the others from eBay -- some for as little as $10, others for closer to $100. I have tried the Vacchs novels and several other forays into hard crime, but Parker has spoiled me for all of them. Westlake says on his Web site that the 26th Parker novel is on the way. Can't wait.

Posted by: Eric Berlin on February 24, 2006 4:12 AM

For a different take on the classic Hardboiled Detective story, try Glen Cook's Garrett P.I. novels. The Sci-Fi Book Club has most of them in 2 omnibus books. And you can probably still find several of them in book stores or the library. All of them have titles along the lines of "Adjective Metal Nouns". Like Red Iron Nights and Old Tin Sorrows.

Garrett is a typical hardboiled P.I. in that he drinks too much, likes women too much, hangs around with shady characters, but ultimately gets the job done. Where the series differs from most is that it's set in a fantasy setting with Trolls and Vampires and magic and such.

Anyway, for fans of hard case crime books, or fantasy books, or both, they are definitely a fun read and definitely underrated.

Posted by: Sam on February 24, 2006 6:48 AM

I just recently discovered Charlie Huston, www.pulpnoir.com. Already Dead is a new spin on the hard-boiled crime novel with a vampire as the protag. I highly recommend it. :-) The dialogue can be a little hard to follow sometimes, ping-ponging between multiple characters without the aid of "soandso said", etc., but the repartee is sharp and fun and the plot takes some interesting twists and turns.

If you're into detective novel parodies, you might like The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde. Humpty Dumpty is murdered and Detective Jack Spratt is on the case...enough said.

Posted by: E on February 24, 2006 2:45 PM

Try also the L.A. quartet by James Ellroy. The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. Not exactly light reading, but not difficult reading either. Just heavy.

Your Hard Case Crime novels sound like the Conan stories of noir; exciting, thrilling, colorful...but not all that deep. I love 'em.

Posted by: Mars on February 24, 2006 10:30 PM

Pulp aside, Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi are both phenomenal books.
Cloud Atlas is even a bunch of good books, if you want to look at it that way!

Posted by: D on March 7, 2006 8:16 AM