The Shadow in the North (BBC, 2007)

Underground Reading: Three More from Hard Case Crime

SlideHere's the thing: Hard Case Crime are switching publishers - from dodgy Dorchester to our home-grown hero, Titan. There's been a bit of hiatus in releasing new books while everything gets sorted out. This publication pause is (fortunately) coming to an end very soon. But we found the break to be an excellent opportunity to catch up on our collection.

As a result, these lovely books have been showing up at the rate of 2-3 a week (we had one wonderful day in which we found 17 in the hallway, each shoved through the mail slot by an exasperated postman).

Fascinating stuff, isn't it? Who doesn't love a good, long anecdote about buying books online? If you think that's boring, wait until Fantasy Football season.

So, all that said, on to the reviews: Ken Bruen & Jason Starr's Slide, Jason Starr's Fake I.D. and Ed McBain's The Gutter and the Grave.

Slide (2007) is the middle volume in a contemporary noir trilogy by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr. The book picks up slightly after the events of Bust introduced us to the conniving businessman Max Fisher and his amoral girlfriend Angela Petrakos. Max begins the book in a bad (drunken, ruined) state, but soon bounces back - reinventing himself as a crack dealer for the upper class. Angela has fled to Ireland (with most of Max's money), but discovers that the Emerald Isle isn't all it is cracked up to be. After a few false starts, she winds up in the company of "The Slide" - an Irish serial killer that's obsessed with American culture.

Slide reads more like parody than mystery. There's not much to "solve" or "detect" - the book is a collection of Max and Angela's (mostly unrelated) misadventures. That said, Slide is a very good parody. It is a collection of flawed and reprehensible individuals straight out of a Coen Brothers movie. The authors have a talent for creating memorable characters in a few short pages. No one in Slide is particularly intelligent (in fact, both Max and Angela are idiots) but the plot moves swiftly on legs of amusing contrivance and karmic revenge. The result still feels too goofy to be noir, but makes for an entertaining story. Also, the R.B. Farrell covers for this trilogy are simply amazing. I'd love the three of them as posters.

Fake IDFake I.D. (2009) is written by Jason Starr, this time flying solo. Although still a contemporary setting, the tone is dramatically different. Tommy Russo is a New York bouncer with a gambling addiction and a failed career as an actor. He's good-looking and ambitious, with a natural talent towards deceit, but things just aren't moving quickly enough for him. When he gets a crack at joining a horse racing syndicate, Tommy sees this as an invitation to make the big time. The problem is, he needs $10,000 to buy in - and he's broke.

The book follows Tommy's descent as he breaks one taboo after another in order to get his golden ticket. Never a paragon of virtue to start with, Tommy takes every piece of bad "luck" (often the well-deserved consequences of his own actions) as an excuse to take one more step down into the dark. Conversely, whenever anything goes well, he sees that as a justification of his bad behaviour. Unsurprisingly, this is a grim book that has the reader peeking between their fingers as the inevitable comeuppance could arrive at any moment. Tommy's hard to cheer for, but Mr. Starr is deep in his protagonist's brain, so it is tricky not to be seduced by our "hero's" talent for rationalization. With that (reluctant) empathy comes the book's main problem - there's no real mystery around Tommy's behaviour as Mr. Starr consistently spells out his thoughts and motives. The tiniest step backwards would've left more for the reader to puzzle out and a bit of doubt may have work in Tommy's benefit. The cover is by Gregg Kreutz who makes a 2009 bedroom scene seem like something out of 1950. Again, brilliant work.

Gutter and the GraveThe Gutter and the Grave (2005) was first published in 1958 with Ed McBain writing under the name "Curt Cannon". The intent was seemingly to write in the style of Mickey Spillane - creating a hard-hitting, self-loathing, dame-packed private eye. And, to some degree, he hits the mark. Matt Cordell is a bum - he was once a detective, but after being betrayed by his wife, he's been spending the past few years drinking himself into ruin. An old friend, Johnny Bridges, manages to entice Cordell back into the business. Matt's engaged to poke around Bridges' tailor shop in search of a petty thief, but as soon as the two enter the premises, they find the dead body of Bridges' partner. Johnny is hauled off to jail and accused of murder - leaving the bewildered Matt to try and exonerate him.

Unlike the two books above, The Gutter and the Grave is a proper mystery-mystery with murders and whodunnits. Matt uncovers a tangled nest of adultery, blackmail and violence. He also uncovers a perpetual stream of beautiful women: a sleek blonde singer, a fulsome brunette "cheesecake" model and a perky redheaded nurse. Despite Matt's disheveled appearance (he has been on Skid Row for years), he's still a hit with the ladies. And, as we quickly learn, he's also dangerous with his fists. Matt thumps the baddies, shags the ladies and saves the day. 

Matt Cordell is a pretty improbable hero, but, despite that, he's a likeable one. He's got a code of honor and a quick wit - two things that make for an endearing protagonist in any vintage paperback. As one of his many ladyfriends points out, his traumatic past only makes him more appealing: he wears his emotional scars like a badge, challenging any new woman to make him forget the old one.

This isn't McBain's best, but even the author's middling efforts still make for great reading. Part of the Hard Case Crime mission is to bring back some of the best in vintage crime, and an almost-lost early McBain certainly qualifies. 


For more information about any of these titles (including sample chapters), mosey on over to the Hard Case Crime website.