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Underground Reading: A Quartet of Hard Case Crimes

A recent burst of collecting frenzy saw us fill our shelves with books from the incomparable Hard Case Crime series. These books - edited by Charles Ardai - collect new and old works of pulp, noir fiction and wrap them in stunning covers. 

Home is the Sailor Although I've yet to be disappointed by a Hard Case Crime (ok, there's one I really disliked, but I'm keeping schtum), it is certainly worth noting the "pulp, noir fiction" designation is a very broad one.

What follows is a sampling of four, pulled from the shelves at random and (greatly) enjoyed over the past few days.

Home is the Sailor (Day Keene) is an example of the publisher bringing a forgotten book back into print. First published in 1952 (and not in print for over 30 years), Home is the Sailor features Swede Nelson, the brawling, hyper-manly sailor. Swede's been away at sea most of his life, but now, after saving his money for three years, he's keen to buy a farm, find a wife and settle down. That is, after he gets drunk and fights a lot (he is a sailor, Mr. Keene is, er, keen to have us know). Swede never quite makes it to his farm - after waking up with one hell of a hangover, he finds himself in the care of the lovely Corliss Mason. She's pretty, rich, horny and curvy - Swede's landed on his feet. But when Swede kills a man attacking Corliss, she encourages him to hide the body, and things spiral out of control from there. 

The book is written in an increasingly forlorn, increasingly resigned style. Swede frequently retreats to the bottle, and is often (like the reader) left piecing together his own adventures. There's no question that Swede's in a bad situation, but he's completely aware of it - watching him alternate between rising above his surroundings and sinking below them makes for an exceedingly painful read. Keene is an unappreciated writer - another of the Gold Medal geniuses that never really achieved timeless appeal. Home is the Sailor might be his best work - reminiscent of David Goodis' heartbreaking Cassidy's Girl. If the faint mystery elements were shrugged off entirely, it would be even better. (Cover by R.B. Farrell.)

361Donald Westlake, author of 361, doesn't have Day Keene's anonymity problem. The recently-deceased Three-Time Edgar Award Winner and MWA Grandmaster is rightfully included in any debate of great American mystery writers. Hard Case Crime's discovery of Memory, a lost manuscript, was one of the great literary finds of the last decade (and earned them the Black Tentacle). All that said, 361 isn't quite the same caliber; it's certainly more action-packed but also far more contrived.

Ray Kelly, fresh out of the Air Force, witnesses his father's death at the hands of a mob gunman. With his brother in tow, Ray dredges up his family's dirty past and paws through the city's underworld in the hope of vengeance. The actual storyline leaves a lot to be desired, it's periods of pent-up floundering punctuated with bursts of violent revelation. Ray's not an investigator, nor is he a patient man. The stress of his journey turns him into an increasingly cold and violent man, and during his calmer moments, he's frequently forced to re-evaluate his priorities. Mr. Westlake uses 361 to talk about the emptiness of revenge and, more importantly, the fullness of family. Not unlike Home is the Sailor, 361 is about a man returning from a distant place (physically and emotionally), trying to find someone he belongs. A character study disguised as a mob pot-boiler, 361 is very dark and very wearing. It may not be his best, but ordinary Westlake is still very good indeed. (Cover also by R.B. Farrell.)

Zero CoolZero Cool (John Lange, who more famously wrote as Michael Crichton) takes a different tack entirely. First published in 1969, it was slightly revised for this 2008 re-issue. The story follows handsome young radiologist Peter Ross. He's been lucky enough to land himself a conference in Spain, and is determined to spend the trip rolling in lovely continental ladies. One in particular, the foxy Brit, Angela Locke, takes his breath away. Ross does well for himself, but can't fully concentrate - he's somehow gotten stuck in the middle of a war between vicious smugglers seeking a lost emerald.

The premise is undeniably goofy and the book is packed with somewhat ridiculous figures - from a cologne-collecting French dwarf to a statistics-wielding math wiz to a grotesque Texan stereotype. Ross, as an everyman figure, is over his head, but still carries himself with great aplomb, wryly cracking one-liners like the rough draft of an Elmore Leonard mystery.

That's predominantly where the book struggles. Ross is neither everyman nor Bond, but instead something between the two. He's too suave to be empathetic, but not savvy enough to be admirable. Curiously, the 2008 revision also adds in a disappointing framing device - one that saps what little there is of the book's mild tension by painting the entire adventure as a story told by an aging grandfather. Zero Cool is a different sort of pulp from those mentioned above - still clever, but also funny and superficial. (The amazing cover is by Gregory Manchess. The book she's reading is Grave Descend, another Hard Case Crime mystery by John Lange with Manchess cover art.)

Gun WorkFinally, Gun Work, by David Schow. Gun Work is an example of a newly commissioned mystery in the style of the old masters. As such, it is the only one with a contemporary setting - modern Mexico. Barney is an ex-soldier who never fully recovered from Iraq. He lives off the grid, works at a gun range and the only relationships he has are with other near-sociopaths that share his lifestyle. He lives to shoot and Mr. Schow gives the impression that he's done quite a bit of it - even since returning from the war. Barney is called upon to do a little more shooting in Mexico by his old war buddy, Carl. Carl's new wife has fallen prey to the recent rash of kidnappings in that country and he needs some backup when it comes to getting her out of trouble. Barney reluctantly gets involved, only to see the entire deal fall apart. Everyone and everything is corrupt and Barney's often reminded why it is he tries to keep such a low profile.

Gun Work is almost intentionally bleak. The book is divided roughly into thirds. First, Barney digs around in Mexico. Second, horrible horrible things happen to him, and he's forced to reconstruct himself from the ground up. Third, he sets out for revenge. There's not a lot that goes right for any character in this book - it is the archetype of bad things happening to bad people. Barney's no exception. He might start out as a (somewhat tarnished) paladin, but he's a cold, cruel man with very little to add to the world except the ability to take lives. And when that, his sole noteworthy talent, is at risk - he falls apart. If, in all these books, women are largely portrayed as "sneaky vixens" or "noble innocents", Gun Work might be the worst. The female villainness is a cruel piece of work without an once of human sentiment in her. Then again, Barney's not much different. 

What redeems Gun Work from being pure nihilism is a real effort by Mr. Schow to show that there are things that make life worthwhile. Barney takes a few hundred pages to learn this lesson, but it is made much easier for the reader. Mr. Schow's Mexico is the perfect setting for this - a thick surface of corruption and cruelty, but, underneath, real kindness and glimpses of breath-taking generosity and selfless humanity. Gobsmackingly terrible things are visited upon the protagonist of this book, but it is the tiny acts of charity that actually manage to change his life. Like the other three books above, Gun Work is definitely pulp and definitely noir, but approaches both terms from a completely different direction. (Cover by Joe DeVito.)


All these books, and the rest in the Hard Case Crime series, can be found on the publisher's website. There are also sample chapters, author bios, artist profiles and the works.