Three more Hard Case Crime novels reviewed - Richard Powell's Say It with Bullets, Lawrence Block's Killing Castro and John Lange's Grave Descend. By bus, boat or privately-chartered airplane, all three take the reader to strange and exotic locations (also, Salt Lake City).
Lawrence Block's Killing Castro (2009) is a prime example of why Hard Case Crime is such an exceptional publisher. A properly "lost" book, Killing Castro first (and last) saw print in 1961 (as Fidel Castro Assassinated), written under the pseudonym "Lee Duncan".
As well as being of interest to Block completists, Killing Castro is an astounding book - the Grand Master turns his cool, unflinching gaze to both assassins and dictators alike.
Five men are each paid $20,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The money comes from a seedy collection of expatriate revolutionaries; once middle class dissidents under Batista, they're now scheming against Castro from exile. From the start, Mr. Block creates an atmosphere of uncertainty. The revolutionaries are an unspectacular bunch, meeting in dingy back rooms.
Some of the assassins doubt the money even exists, a note of distrust that hangs over the book to its conclusion.
The would-be assassins are all American and from all walks of life. Turner is a itinerant worker; occasional trucker and part-time grifter. In a fit of anger, he killed his girlfriend and her lover. He needs the money to start a new life in Brazil. Jim Hines is a New England college boy with his whole future ahead of him. His brother fought alongside Castro, but was killed when the dictator took power. Hines is out for revenge. Garth is a thug - pure and simple. He wants the money, doesn't care about politics and has no concern beyond his next physical pleasure. Fenton is a older man and an odd fit (down to his wire-rimmed glasses). He's dying of cancer and wants to make his mark before his time comes. He's filled with a burning desire to be remembered, and sees this as his way into history. Finally, Garrison is the professional - the cold-hearted hitman with no ties. Castro is another target to him, albeit one more valuable than most.
Mr. Block splits up the five protagonists and then sends them all creeping carefully towards their bloody goal. As they spend their days in Cuba, preparing for their attempts, they each begin to have second thoughts. Initially, their motivations are clear, but the more they see of Cuba, of Castro and of one another, things begin to get muddied. Turner, the rational man, realizes that Cuba is just as good as Brazil when it comes to escape. Garth's own overpowering needs undermine his dedication. Hines learns a disheartening truth about his brother (and, more broadly, about many revolutionaries). Fenton takes part in brutal atrocities - and witnesses more. He believes he's saving himself for one final act of legend, but as the body count grows, he begins to wonder if he's making the right decision. Finally, Garrison makes the traditional failure of the cinematic killer - he grows attached to someone.
These five different conflicts are all punctuated with stories from Castro's own past - pithy analyses of the dictator's own motivations and his path to power. Mr. Block paints Castro as a man of ambition, who began with laudable motives but eventually succumbed to temptation. His story is revealed to be no different to that of his possible killers. Nor are any of the minor characters any less morally gray. No one is perfect - the more power we're given, the more damage we can do.
Killing Castro ends in a shocking turn of events. The five assassins each make their choices and have their literary judgement meted out accordingly. None of them end the book unscathed and the final pages, echoing the book's theme of uncertainty, introduce even more doubt into the mix. Mr. Block's novel is amazing - a study in how absolute anything (certainty or power) corrupts. Despite the title and the narrow focus, he's created a timeless piece, successfully reducing men and events to their essences and motivations without stripping them of the humanity necessary to tell a brilliant story. Well done to Hard Case Crime for rediscovering a lost masterpiece, easily the best I've read in the series since Memory.
In contrast, John Lange's Grave Descend (2006 / 1970) is a more ephemeral affair, grounded in the overly masculine international intrigue of its era. Set in gorgeous Jamaica, Mr. Lange (Michael Crichton) sets up a complex action thriller that shows all the hallmarks of the chart-topping author that he would day become.
James McGregor is a close-mouthed manly man with a military background and a talent for diving. He's hired by a mysterious businessman with obviously dodgy motives to do some salvage work on the Grave Descend, the book's titular yacht. The problem is, as McGregor quickly discovers, the yacht's not yet sunk.
Smelling a rat, McGregor recruits a few local friends to cover his back. The money's good, even if the job stinks, and there are a host of attractive women involved (one is French, one is a femme fatale and one is a lunatic with a pet ocelot). McGregor figures that as long as he goes in with his eyes open everything will be ok.
The book dissolves into double- and triple-crosses with everyone seemingly on everyone else's side. There's a horde of Nazi gold (the McGuffin du jour of the late 60s and early 70s), a bit of murder and lot of manly-manliness going about. Given the thick fug of testosterone that permeates the novel, it is a surprise that McGregor doesn't require his oxygen tank at all times.
Mr. Crichton, bless his memory and Jurassic Park, has always been a bit of a hack. As his later career showed, he became deft at picking a contemporary "hot topic" issue, packing it with chase scenes and spinning it into a yarn bestseller. In Zero Cool (despite the self-sabotaging framing device and thin lead character), he at least punctuates the set-piece action sequences with with some refreshingly cheeky dialogue and a sense of good ol' fashioned fun. Grave Descend veers to the other extreme - a super-serious, self-consciously meaningful work that's too clumsily ambitious to be an airport-sold action thriller. The closest comparison would be a Travis McGee mystery, except John D. MacDonald created a character to work with, and not a stuffed-scarecrow of hyper-masculinity. As McGregor bounces from one fatal peril to another, his ultimate insignificance becomes all too apparent - the reader just doesn't care what happens to him.
Far from the dark depths of Killing Castro or the ponderous masculinity of Grave Descend, Richard Powell's Say It with Bullets (2006 / 1953) is a cozy on wheels. If the first two books are a vintage noir and a mid-budget action flick, Say It with Bullets feels more like musical theatre.
Back in 1949, Bill Wayne ran a cargo business with some of his buddies. As China falls to the "Reds", he asks his friends to load the plane with refugees. Instead, they find a black marketeer and a shipment of "medical supplies". Bill protests and someone shoots him. He's left for dead as the Communists come through.
Now, Bill's back. He's tracked down his so-called friends and he's determined to get the truth out of them by any means necessary. Happily, they're all distributed in the Southwest, so he can visit them all (and keep a low profile) by the simple strategy of joining a tour group.
Despite the book's constant movement, Say It with Bullets truly is a basic cozy. Bill surprises his first friend, only to witness (and be framed for) their murder. The pattern continues and the bodies pile up at regular intervals with a carefully measured portion of red herring meted out in every chapter. Can Bill and his Pretty Blonde Tour Operator sidekick/foil find the real murderer? Who knows Bill is back? Why are they framing him? And, most importantly, will Bill and P.B.T.O. ever kiss?
Despite being at the heart of a mass of slayings, there's never really any danger - Mr. Powell clearly preferring romantic tension to any other kind. The who of the whodunnit is also broadcast from the very beginning as the story follows the essential form of any mystery: pick the least likely suspect and wait for them to start monologuing. Say It with Bullets is also littered with slapstick moments - a straight out of Off-Broadway gambling spree in Reno topping the list. The book's real plot is plain to see: this isn't about Bill getting his revenge, its about Bill getting to the point where he doesn't care. Stop looking for the truth and smootch the girl in front of you. And eventually, banally, Bill does. Next stop, happy ending!
Say It with Bullets is lighter fare. There's something bizarrely counter-intuitive about wanting the protagonist to quit his quest. Not because he's wrong or because the mission is patently self-destructive, but merely because it is an obvious mess and Bill never seems competent enough to handle the disaster he's unleashed. Why exactly the P.B.T.O. falls for him is unclear (Mr. Powell settles on the "I fancied you when I was a little girl" non-motive that's the last refuge of the desperate entanglement), but Bill's clearly batting out of his league. This is by no means an unreadable or unpleasant book, but is a diversion without either the weight or the significance of many others in the Hard Case Crime series.
As far as covers go, Sharif Tarabay's sultry art for Killing Castro is a knockout, and helps communicate the book's grim intensity while still staying true to the pulp tradition of under-dressed buxom ladies. Gregory Manchess' Grave Descend is also astounding (and incredibly awkward to carry around on the tube). If the scene portrayed is a little misleading, bikini vixens and exploding boats are still right on brief. Michael Koelsch's work for Say It with Bullets isn't my style, but it matches the content perfectly: pearl necklaces, groomed hair and a wildly dated feel. (However, I find her dress of eyeballs a little creepy.)